Natural Rights: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 An Original Idea
  • 2:15 John Locke And Natural Rights
  • 3:50 Unalienable Rights In…
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Conceived by John Locke, natural rights are privileges and basic freedoms people are entitled to simply because they exist. Learn more about the inspiration for natural rights in this lesson, identify key examples of these rights, and assess what you learned in a quiz.

An Original Idea

It's easy to take for granted many of the rights and freedoms we hold as American citizens. In our daily lives, we have the freedom to live more or less as we please, without interference from the government. For example, most of us wake up in the morning in our own home, lying in our own beds, wearing pajamas we picked out from a variety of options. We can eat what we choose for breakfast and may even opt to read a newspaper filled with stories printed without government intrusion or interference. We can even form our own opinions and thoughts about these stories.

But did you know there was a time in world history when such freedoms were unthinkable? Rather, it was expected that the people would do as they were told by the government without resistance, regardless of the scale of the order.

This was life in Europe between about 500 CE and 1650 CE. People were ruled by monarchs who dictated basically everything that was allowed, and these leaders did so without anyone questioning them. Over time, monarchs became more and more powerful and almost tyrannical, utilizing their power over others in a cruel way.

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, many Europeans were tired of this way of life and began questioning monarchs and their way of ruling. As the 1600s came to a close, many thinkers began to develop ideas that would formally oppose the treatment they were receiving. This time period became known as the Enlightenment, and it lasted from the later part of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century (ca. 1670-1799).

Thinkers who led the questioning were known as philosophes which is a French term for philosophers. Such great minds included Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu, and John Locke. Their groundbreaking ideas would change the way people viewed leaders and the manner in which people should be treated. Examples of these ideas include rights of the accused, freedom of speech, and natural rights. While such rights are commonplace entitlements to modern Americans, at the time these ideas were groundbreaking. They went against pretty much a thousand years-plus of accepted ways of life!

Philosophes gathered in meetings to share ideas with each other
Salon Enlightenment

John Locke and Natural Rights

One of the many new ideas formulated during this time was the concept of natural rights, or privileges and basic freedoms people were entitled to simply because of their existence. By and large, John Locke (1632-1704), an Englishman, is credited for the introduction of this idea to his fellow philosophes.

John Locke (middle) and other Enlightenment thinkers (clockwise from top: Hobbes, de Montesquieu, Becarria, Voltaire
Enlightenment Thinkers

Locke felt that people were born with certain rights and freedoms that could not be taken away without that person saying so, or giving consent. And if Locke had his way, no one would ever give up their natural rights, also known as unalienable rights. They were guaranteed both by nature and by God. Everyone had these rights, regardless of their nationality, background, gender, or any other factor. Quite a radical concept, indeed.

Locke used the poor treatment of citizens by monarchs as evidence that naming and protecting natural rights was absolutely necessary. He insisted that, going forward, common people needed to have these rights ensured so that they would be treated fairly and the quality of their lives could improve, regardless of the whims of royalty.

Many around the world would call on Locke's idea of natural rights as they demanded more from their governments. What's more, aside from the development of radical social ideas by philosophes, education was on the rise during the Enlightenment. The increase in literacy allowed larger populations to express themselves through the written word and in more public forums.

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