History[ edit ] The idea that certain rights are natural or inalienable also has a history dating back at least to the Stoics of late Antiquity and Catholic law of the early Middle Agesand descending through the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment to today. For example, Immanuel Kant claimed to derive natural rights through reason alone. The United States Declaration of Independence, meanwhile, is based upon the " self-evident " truth that "all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". Hart argued that if there are any rights at all, there must be the right to liberty, for all the others would depend upon this.
The natural law concept existed long before Locke as a way of expressing the idea that there were certain moral truths that applied to all people, regardless of the particular place where they lived or the agreements they had made.
The most important early contrast was between laws that were by nature, and thus generally applicable, and those that were conventional and operated only in those places where the particular convention had been established.
This distinction is sometimes formulated as the difference between natural law and positive law. Natural law is also distinct from divine law in that the latter, in the Christian tradition, normally referred to those laws that God had directly revealed through prophets and other inspired writers.
Thus some seventeenth-century commentators, Locke included, held that not all of the 10 commandments, much less the rest of the Old Testament law, were binding on all people.
Thus there is no problem for Locke if the Bible commands a moral code that is stricter than the one that can be derived from natural law, but there is a real problem if the Bible teaches what is contrary to natural law.
In practice, Locke avoided this problem because consistency with natural law was one of the criteria he used when deciding the proper interpretation of Biblical passages. In the century before Locke, the language of natural rights also gained prominence through the writings of such thinkers as Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf.
Whereas natural law emphasized duties, natural rights normally emphasized privileges or claims to which an individual was entitled.
They point out that Locke defended a hedonist theory of human motivation Essay 2. Locke, they claim, recognizes natural law obligations only in those situations where our own preservation is not in conflict, further emphasizing that our right to preserve ourselves trumps any duties we may have.
On the other end of the spectrum, more scholars have adopted the view of Dunn, Tully, and Ashcraft that it is natural law, not natural rights, that is primary.
They hold that when Locke emphasized the right to life, liberty, and property he was primarily making a point about the duties we have toward other people: Most scholars also argue that Locke recognized a general duty to assist with the preservation of mankind, including a duty of charity to those who have no other way to procure their subsistence Two Treatises 1.
These scholars regard duties as primary in Locke because rights exist to ensure that we are able to fulfill our duties. Simmons takes a position similar to the latter group, but claims that rights are not just the flip side of duties in Locke, nor merely a means to performing our duties.
While these choices cannot violate natural law, they are not a mere means to fulfilling natural law either. Brian Tienrey questions whether one needs to prioritize natural law or natural right since both typically function as corollaries. He argues that modern natural rights theories are a development from medieval conceptions of natural law that included permissions to act or not act in certain ways.
There have been some attempts to find a compromise between these positions. Adam Seagrave has gone a step further. God created human beings who are capable of having property rights with respect to one another on the basis of owning their labor.
Another point of contestation has to do with the extent to which Locke thought natural law could, in fact, be known by reason. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke defends a theory of moral knowledge that negates the possibility of innate ideas Essay Book 1 and claims that morality is capable of demonstration in the same way that Mathematics is Essay 3.
Yet nowhere in any of his works does Locke make a full deduction of natural law from first premises. More than that, Locke at times seems to appeal to innate ideas in the Second Treatise 2. Strauss infers from this that the contradictions exist to show the attentive reader that Locke does not really believe in natural law at all.
Laslett, more conservatively, simply says that Locke the philosopher and Locke the political writer should be kept very separate.Less convincingly, he argues that we are all “the property” and “the servants” of his god who are duty bound not “to quit (our) station wilfully” as this would be an act of disobedience to our “sovereign master”.
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