What are Natural Rights
The object of civil government, is to secure to the members of a community the free enjoyment of their rights. A right is the just claim or lawful title which we have to anything. Hence we say, a person has a right to what he has earned by his labor, or bought with his money. Having thus acquired it, it is lawfully and justly his own, and no other person has a right to it. We have also a right to do as we please, and to go where we please, if in so doing we do not trespass upon the rights of others: for all men in society have the same rights; and no one has a right to disturb others in the enjoyment of their rights.
Being free to enjoy what belongs to us, or to do as we please, is called liberty. The words right and liberty, however, do not have the same meaning. We may have a right to a thing when we have not the liberty of enjoying or using it. John has a pencil which is justly his own; but James takes it from him by force. John’s liberty to enjoy the use of his pencil is lost, but his right to it remains. James has no right to the pencil, though he enjoys the use of it.
All laws ought to be so made as to secure to men the liberty to enjoy and exercise their natural rights. Natural rights are those to which we are entitled by nature; rights which we are born. Every individual is born with a right to live, and freely to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and whatsoever is justly his own. Hence liberty itself is a natural right; that is, it is ours by nature, or by birth, and can not be rightfully taken from us.
Some rights are called inalienable. The term is often applied to natural rights in general. But in its strict and proper sense, it means only rights which a person can not lawfully or justly alienate and transfer to another; that is, rights which can not be parted with and passed over to another, by one’s own act. But natural and inalienable rights may be forfeited by crime. By stealing, a man loses his right to liberty, and is justly imprisoned. If he commits murder, he forfeits his right to life, and lawfully suffers death.
Rights and liberty are sometimes called civil rights and civil liberty. It may be asked, Wherein do these differ from natural rights and liberty? Rights and liberty may, at the same time, be both natural and civil. Speaking of them as being ours by nature, or by birth, we call them natural; when they are spoken of as being secured to us by civil government and laws, they are called civil. John’s right to his pencil, being secured to him by the laws of civil society, is a civil right. It is at the same time a natural right, because, by the law of nature, he is born with a right to the free use of his property.
Some consider natural liberty to consist in the freedom to do in all things as we please, without regard to the interests of our fellow-men; and that, on entering into civil society, we agree to give up a portion of our natural rights to secure the remainder, and for the good of other members of the society. But if mankind are by nature fitted and designed for the social state, and are all entitled to equal rights, then natural liberty does not consist in being free to say or to do whatever our evil passions may prompt us to do. To rob and to plunder may be the natural right of a tiger; but it is not the natural right of men. Natural rights and natural liberty are such only as are conferred by the law of nature, which forbids our doing whatever is inconsistent with the rights of others.
The law of nature is the will of the Creator. It is called the law of nature, because it is a perfect rule of conduct for all moral and social beings; a rule which is right in itself, right in the nature of things, and which would be right and ought to be obeyed, if no other law or positive command had ever been given. It is right in itself that all men should have the liberty of enjoying the use of what is their own; and it would be right that we should give to every one his due, if we had never been commanded to do so.
The law of nature is the rule of conduct which we are bound to observe toward our Maker and our fellow-men, by reason of our natural relations to them. Mankind being dependent upon their Creator, they own him duties which they ought to perform, though he had never positively enjoined these duties. To serve our Creator is a duty which arises out of the relation we sustain to him. So the relation between parent and child renders it fit and proper that children obey their parents, on whom they are dependent for protection and support. And from our relations to our fellow-men, on whom also we are in a measure dependent, and who have the same rights as ourselves, it is our duty to promote their happiness as well as our own, by doing to them as we would that they should do to us. This is required by the law of nature.
But if the law of nature is the rule by which mankind ought to regulate their conduct, it may be asked, Of what use are written laws? Mankind are not capable of discovering, in all cases, what the law of nature requires. It has therefore pleased Divine Providence to reveal his will to mankind, to instruct them in their duties to himself and to each other. This will is revealed personally to us and in the Holy Scriptures, and is called the law of revelation, and the Divine law.
But although men have the Divine law for their guide, human laws are also necessary. The Divine law is broad, and comprehends rules to teach men their whole duty; but it does not specify every particular act of duty; much of it consists of general principles to which particular acts must be made to conform. God has commanded men to do right, and to deal justly with each other; but men do not always agree as to what is right: human laws are therefore necessary to regulate the conduct of men. And these laws are written that it may always be known what they are.
Again, it may be asked, What must be done when a human law does not agree with divine law? Must the human law be obeyed? A law clearly contrary to the law of God, we are not bound to obey. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether human laws and the Divine law agree. Hence the importance of having the laws made by wise and good men.
The posterity of a people depends as much upon a good form of government as upon its being administered by good men; and experience has proved, that the objects of civil government may be best secured by a written constitution, founded upon the will or consent of the people.