Are We Endowed With Natural Rights?

By Yoav J. Tenembaum

Published on October 29, 2013

Are we endowed with Natural Rights from the day we are born? Are these rights conferred to us by God or Nature notwithstanding and beyond any legal rights prevailing at any given time?

Theists may argue that Natural Rights are conferred by Divine power. Theists may sincerely hold that belief. However, both agnostics and atheists may argue otherwise. Theists may be able to argue their case rationally. But so long as Natural Rights bestowed by Divine power cannot be proven empirically, this stance can only constitute a belief in Natural Rights and not an objectively verifiable existence of Natural Rights.

Others may argue that Nature confers on all newly-born individuals Rights that are independent of human-made legally-derived rights. Again, those espousing such a view may sincerely hold that belief. But, as in the case of Devine power-derived- rights, this stance cannot be proven empirically and thus can only represent a belief in Natural Rights rather than an objectively verifiable existence of Natural Rights.

This is not to belittle the enormous power of belief in human affairs; far from it. belief may be a powerfully motivating force. Thus, a belief in Natural Rights can cause social, political and legal changes; some of these changes may be seen by contemporary protagonists and/or by future generations as historical landmarks.

However, a belief in Natural Rights, notwithstanding their causal effect, cannot by itself be a proof to the effect that these rights actually exist.

Unilaterally one could advance a claim to a right, not a right as such.

claim to a right is a result of a process initiated by an assumption of a right, followed by a belief in a right. These three phenomena are subjective in nature and can emerge unilaterally. They are not dependent on an external factor. A right, on the other hand, is dependent on an external factor conferring it, be it Devine, Natural or Legal.

There are two, distinct claims to a right. The claim advanced for the granting of a hitherto non-existing right; and the claim put forward not to ignore and implement an already-existing right. The first could be defined as a pre-right claim and the latter as a post-right claim.

An obvious example of the pre-right claim would be the French Revolution; a clear example of the post right claim would be the civil rights campaign conducted by Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States in the 1960s.

Although we question the existence of Natural Rights, we do not cast doubt on the deep-rooted belief in them. Indeed, we stress that a belief in Natural Rights may be a potent causal force.

The problem, beyond what we have already outlined, is that a certain person’s belief in Natural Rights may be different from his or her fellow citizen’s belief. Such a scenario leads to different interpretations of what these rights should be all about. We thus end up with interpretations of Natural Rights, not with Natural Rights.

It could be argued, of course, that Natural Rights can be discovered by reason, without having to resort to empirical proof. However, what can be discovered by reason is not the objective existence of Natural Rights, but the subjective belief in their necessity.

Natural Rights are not self-evident, as their proponents have claimed. If Natural Rights were self-evident, there would be no debates as to what these are, let alone as to their existence.

The Author

Yoav Tenembaum

Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the Diplomacy Studies Program, Tel Aviv University. He obtained his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and his Master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University. He read for his B.A. in History at Tel Aviv University.

His articles have been published in journals, magazines and newspapers in various countries. He has taught courses and seminars on International Conflicts, International Crises, International Organizations and Institutions and The Shaping of Foreign Policy and Decision-Making.

Article picture: Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. Source: Wikipedia


Law & Philosophy