Adler On

Rights, Natural and Civil

The word "rights" is a basic word in the vocabulary of political science and political philosophy.

Civil or political rights are those included in constitutions or in the bills of rights. They are the rights stated in the Constitution of the United States, its amendments, and particularly in the first ten amendments that are called our American Bill of Rights.

These rights are either granted or not granted by the state, and since they are within the power of the state to grant, they can be countermanded by the state when in the course of history fundamental changes in policy are contemplated.

The Ninth Amendment contains an implicit reference to natural rights by declaring that "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Jurists who deny the existence of natural rights think that this Ninth Amendment is an unfortunate blemish in our Constitution because it appears to be an affirmation of natural rights.

Why? Because in 1793, when this amendment was adopted, the other rights retained by the people were probably the natural rights mentioned in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, such as the inalienable right to life and liberty.

Natural rights are inherent in human nature. They are, therefore, inalienable and belong to every human being with no exceptions. They are specifically human rights. Now that they have become part of our government's declared foreign policy, it becomes self-contradictory for legal positivists to deny the existence of natural law and natural rights, and yet to subscribe to our government's foreign policy with regard to human rights.

The exponents and defender of natural and human rights can argue that the existence of natural rights derives from the distinction between needs and wants -- or, what is the same, between natural and acquired desires. Since human needs are the needs inherent in human nature, identified by the potentialities that define them, natural rights are rights to the real goods that everyone needs in order to live a morally good human life.

The statement in the Declaration of Independence that all human beings have certain inalienable rights can be expanded to say that these include the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to whatever any human being needs in order to live humanely well.

Natural rights can be violated or secured by government, but a perfectly just government is one that secures and safeguards all natural and human rights.

Transcultural Ethics
Desires, Right & Wrong (1991), Epilogue
Real Goods Make Natural Rights
The Time of Our Lives (1970, 1996), Chapter 14

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000