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  • Are Human Rights the Same as Natural Rights?

    In recognition of the 63rd anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, President Obama proclaimed this week Human Rights Week. Americans know a thing or two about rights, considering that the country was founded on the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But, when the President invokes human rights, is he talking about the same concepts from the Declaration of Independence? That is to say, are human rights the same as natural rights?

    At the time of the Founding, people spoke of rights as being natural (or God-given). Beginning in the 20th century, these were replaced by the thoroughly modern idea of “human rights.” Although both natural rights and human rights are universal, there are fundamental differences between the two.

    First of all, natural inalienable rights do not come from government. Governments only secure these rights—that is, they create the political conditions that allow one to exercise them. Human rights, on the other hand, are bestowed by the state and have become a catch-all term for anything we desire and deem important. As a result, whereas natural rights (such as life, liberty, and property) are rights that government protects from infringement by others, human rights (such as “housing” and “leisure”) are often things that government is obligated to provide.

    Secondly, natural rights, being natural, do not change over time. All men, at all times, have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human rights, on the other hand, constantly change. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to advance an array of new “economic and social rights” conceived of, defined by, and promoted by government and international bureaucrats.

    This question was reprinted from the new First Principles page at Heritage.org. For more answers to frequently asked questions, visit http://www.heritage.org/Initiatives/First-Principles/basics.

    Photo used under Creative Commons from Linh H. Nguyen.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    3 Responses to Are Human Rights the Same as Natural Rights?

    1. Erik says:

      Nice piece, but I felt there was one aspect that was lacking some clarity. Perhaps it's clearer to say that natural rights are those that government does not grant and can only attempt to restrict, while human rights do not exist as rights naturally, and can only be granted and enforced by government. One could even argue that granting certain human rights necessitates restricting our natural rights.

    2. Stan Walters says:

      Rights and duties are both moral categories, and morality is essentially social and not natural, not original at creation. Morality is a legal concept, as opposed to lawful, and is always of human origin, not given from Above. The equitable nature of morality, being of man and not of God, is inevitably noxious to the Creator, and this explains why we creatures always get into trouble when we start making our own rules. Love (God is love) has no part in any legal/equitable universe, and only love and its results are enduring.

    3. Bobbie says:

      the more rights defined by government, the less we'll have the right to do!

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