A Modern View of Natural Rights Philosophy

As did the seventeenth and eighteenth-century enlightenment thinkers (such as John Locke), I view natural rights as universal and objective principles, which can be deduced through man’s reason. This rational deduction is not incompatible with religious faith, but it is also not dependent on any spiritual belief or divine revelation. One may believe in natural rights and "natural law" with or without a belief in God.

Human will is unalienable, meaning that I am always responsible for my own decisions and actions. Outside things (force or persuasion) may influence me, but I am always in the driver's seat and I could not give that up, even if I wanted to do so; hence, the unalienability. Another person can use exogenous force to make me do something, but no one can command my will in the same manner as I. In essence, it is impossible for me to truly surrender possession of my thoughts and my will. That fundamental part of myself (my will) cannot be given away, sold, or stolen. I must ultimately be the one who maintains possession and control of it. This is called "self-ownership."

All other natural rights spring forth from self-ownership. If I own myself, then nobody has a right to enslave me. Just as nobody may borrow my car without my consent, nobody may force me to labor (or confiscate the fruits of my labor) without my express consent.  It stands to reason that, if I have a right to exist at all, I must have a right of ownership of property. I must eat in order to survive and the food must become my property at some point. I certainly can’t give it back in its original state when I’m finished with it. Natural rights boil down to life, liberty, and property- the same basic rights espoused by the major thinkers of the enlightenment era.

People often refer to "the will of the people" or "what society wants," but "society" cannot have a will. Society does not exist apart from the many individuals which comprise it. Each individual retains his or her will. Terms like "the people" and "society" are expedient descriptors to reference the aggregate thoughts and actions of individuals, but referring to the individuals in collective terms does not make them suddenly disappear or merge into a single entity. Society does not "decide" or "act". Individuals within society "decide and "act". There is no "will of the people," there is only the will of some people versus that of others. Since society does not exist separately from its members, any authority that "society" possesses must come from its individual members.

Ask yourself this, “Is it wrong for a man to rape a woman?” Now, what about ten men? How about ten-thousand? Can you think of any quorum which would suddenly make it acceptable to commit this act? I would suggest that if the whole country were to vote on the matter, only the intended victim’s vote would be valid. She owns herself and, thus, has full sovereignty over herself. Consider that every gang rape is an act of democracy, with a single dissenting vote. Nonetheless, it remains an act of evil; it does not matter that it represents "the will of the people." 

The Founding Fathers used the term “tyranny of the majority,” to describe the situation in which 51% of the people unjustly force their wills on the other 49%. There are certain basic rights which can never rightfully be subject to a majority vote. James Madison commented on the dangers posed, by democracy, to individual rights.

"From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy...can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions." --James Madison, Federalist 10, 1787

All acts of government are ultimately enforced through violence or threat of violence (this is not meant as a normative value judgment, but a simple statement of fact). If you resist a certain edict, the State will incrementally increase its force against you, until it finally sends armed men to your door, intent on subduing you and placing you in a cage. If you defend yourself against this force, you will be physically beaten and possibly killed. Violence is implicit in all government laws.

As an individual, the only circumstance under which I may morally use violence is to defend my natural rights from aggression. The extent of my rights, however, is limited by the point at which your rights begin. In defending my right to life from starvation, for instance, I may not infringe your right to property by forcefully stealing your food or money. I may offer you money or goods in exchange for food, or I may even beg for food, but I have no right to take it from you.

“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819

 Just because hunger is a powerful motivator and may drive me to do evil, does not change the fact that it is still evil. A victim may choose to forgive me, in light of extenuating circumstances (for example, for looting for food during a natural disaster), but ultimately, it cannot be denied that I have stolen someone else's property.

Even if I unite with a group of my friends and take a vote, we still may not take your goods by force. Our rightful authority is limited to the collective defense of our rights. No matter how many of my friends may agree, there is no number which suddenly gives us the authority to forcibly command others. We are always limited to defending our lives, liberty, and property. Since all legitimate powers of government must be delegated by the people, the authority of government cannot extend beyond any single individual’s authority (a government is nothing more than an arbitrary number of individuals gathered together on an arbitrary plot of land). The people cannot delegate an authority which they, themselves, do not have.

"What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789

Consider drug prohibition. Imagine that you are one of two people stranded on a desert island. Now, suppose the other person chooses to eat, drink, or smoke some sort of herbal intoxicant. Unless he acts to infringe your life, liberty, or property, there is no justification for you to use force against him. You have no jurisdiction over his body. He owns himself. As I pointed out above, the people cannot delegate a power to government which they do not possess themselves. Since nobody has the authority to tell another what he or she may ingest, there is no way that such an authority can be legitimately granted to government.

In recognizing what is or what is not a natural right, you must ask yourself if the exercise of such a supposed right could logically lead to theft, enslavement, or non-defensive violence. Consider the common idea of a right to health care. On the surface, this would seem to be a logical extension of one’s right to life, but someone must provide health care. You certainly have a right to purchase it from a willing seller, or to ask someone to give it to you for free, but to say that you have a right to it is to claim a right to enslave another or to confiscate the property of another. You must either enslave the health care merchant, or steal from another person in order to pay the health care merchant. Your "right to life" is ultimately just a property right in your own person and property rights cannot extend to the property of others.

To forcibly infringe upon the person or property of another is always a violation of natural law. Whether you commit these acts yourself, or commit them through the government, the evil is the same. As I have demonstrated above, a concurrence of a majority does not override the basic rights of the individual. To argue otherwise is to defend the legitimacy of every gang rape and every lynch mob.


I would like to acknowledge the writings of the late Murray N. Rothbard (particularly “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” and “The Ethics of Liberty”) in influencing my understanding of natural rights philosophy. I would encourage anyone who wants to learn more to read his works.

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