Meaning of Natural Rights According to John Locke

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John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher, a medical researcher and an Oxford academic. In most of his work, Locke was opposed to authoritarianism. He rejected authoritarianism both as an individual and a participant in different institutions such as church and government. He was very interested in finding out the truth using reason.


In the Second Treatise of Government John Locke defined natural rights as the rights that we should have as human beings before a government has come into place. They include the right to life, property, and liberty. Locke argues that all human beings have a right to all means of survival. Locke defines natural rights in his social contract theory, where he explains how governments come into being. During the political philosophy of Locke’s time, many versions of natural rights theory existed. Locke was a staunch supporter of the radical version of the theory.

Natural rights says Locke, are those rights that all human beings make use of in order to survive in a state of nature.  He adds that a state of nature has a law that governs it all the time. The law commands what is best for all human beings through reason. For this reason, they supposedly have a universal scope and are binding on human behavior, just in the same manner as all physical laws of nature.

Before human beings organized themselves into complex governments, natural rights were being enjoyed to the fullest within a state of nature. There was an idyllic world of equality, freedom and ultimate consideration for the rights of others. In the state of nature, all human beings are absolutely free, equal and completely independent. For this reason, everyone is obliged by natural law not to harm another person’s life, his health, his liberty or possessions.

Although people were living happily in the state of nature, a rather unpleasant situation arose whereby some people started presenting threats to others’ liberties. For this reason, a man saw the need to enter into a social contract involving the formation of a state and government. Locke believed that the only reason why a government should exist is to safeguard and preserve natural rights, and ultimately, man’s security and happiness. A government that does not safeguard these rights loses the purpose for its existence and therefore, should be dissolved.

Locke seems to be talking about a normative approach to the theory of government, as opposed to one that is descriptive. In other words, his concept of natural law does not explain how people tend to behave; rather it stipulates the manner in which people should behave. The implication is that human rights may be in conflict with natural law because the two exist in a state of logical independence. In this regard, Tierney, (2001) expresses the worry among historians relating to difficulties in deriving moral statements from factual ones, that is, those relating to laws of nature. The trick lies in ensuring that human rights are consistent with the main tenets of natural law, something modern philosophers say is difficult to achieve.

            The law of nature applies to all people wherever they are and at all times. However, this element of universality leaves open the real possibility that various cultures tend to express and conform to natural law in different ways. For instance, there is no reason why one should expect a situation to exist whereby everyone in the world is governed by the same social customs and laws. This account leaves unclear what is meant by the law of nature; therefore, man has to use reason in order to discover it. For Locke, any law, which ensures that human life, as much as possible, is preserved, qualifies to be termed as a law of nature.

            Locke talks about natural rights as an end that should be achieved, but he says nothing about the means through which this end should be achieved. In other words, he takes a teleological view, which is goal-directed. For this reason, Locke provides us with a rule that can guide us to determine other derivative or secondary laws of nature. These derivative laws should explain how human beings should behave in order to preserve human life, liberty, and property, and thus, to live in harmony with God’s reason and will. If Locke had decided to use a different approach to explain natural rights, this approach could have been the deontological approach, whereby facts are examined and judged without recourse to third-party consequences. In deontology, the intentions of the person do not matter; what matters is whether or not he is performing the specific ethical duties and obligations as assigned within a certain moral system.

All laws that follow from Locke’s fundamental laws of nature are rightly regarded as derivative laws of nature. All human beings, according to Locke, have access to the fruits of their sustenance that the earth provides. This comment on the property constitutes a derivative of nature since it explains the conditions under which human life can be preserved. It follows that all people must never be denied the right to access resources that they need for sustenance.

Natural rights, in Locke’s view, are in essence, rights of self-ownership. They are rights that are aimed at protecting man’s freedom to control his individual life and they are consistent with the rights of other people to do the same thing. In this case, natural rights seem to be conceptualized as something that every individual owns. This is contrary to Locke’s claim that all men are created by God; and that they are, by extension, the property of God.

Lloyd (1995) infers fromLocke’s views that the concept of the right to property is not meant for use by the rich against the poor; rather, it is meant for use against any possibility of unconstrained encroachment by a state. Tierney (2001) says that today, many philosophers would obviously deny the existence of such a thing as universal human nature. In other words, philosophers are unwilling to accept a situation that antedates and precedes history (Strauss, 1965).

Historians, too, according to Tierney (2001) often express reservations about the existence of natural rights. They argue that if natural rights are really inherent in all human beings, they must have always existed. However, this is contradicted by the lack of these natural rights in very many societies throughout history.


A major problem with Locke’s natural rights is that they are derived from a moralistic form of thinking (Jenkins, 1967). These natural rights are not really identical to the human rights that all societies can exercise; rather they are rights that all societies ought to recognize in order for certain fundamental human needs and purposes to be achieved.


Jenkins, J. 1967. Locke and Natural Rights, Philosophy, 42 (5) 149-154.

Lloyd, D. 1995. Locke on Government, London: Routledge.

Strauss, L. 1965. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tierney, B. 2001. The Idea of Natural Rights. Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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