Natural rights and legal rights

Natural rights and legal rights are the two basic types of rights.[1]

  • Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular culture or government, and so are universal, fundamental and inalienable (they cannot be repealed by human laws, though one can forfeit their enjoyment through one's actions, such as by violating someone else's rights). Natural law is the law of natural rights.
  • Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system (they can be modified, repealed, and restrained by human laws). The concept of positive law is related to the concept of legal rights.

Natural law first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy,[2] and was referred to by Roman philosopher Cicero. It was subsequently alluded to in the Bible,[3] and then developed in the Middle Ages by Catholic philosophers such as Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. During the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of natural laws was used to challenge the divine right of kings, and became an alternative justification for the establishment of a social contract, positive law, and government – and thus legal rights – in the form of classical republicanism. Conversely, the concept of natural rights is used by others to challenge the legitimacy of all such establishments.

The idea of human rights derives from theories of natural rights.[4] Those rejecting a distinction between human rights and natural rights view human rights as the successor that is not dependent on natural law, natural theology, or Christian theological doctrine.[5] Natural rights, in particular, are considered beyond the authority of any government or international body to dismiss. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important legal instrument enshrining one conception of natural rights into international soft law. Natural rights were traditionally viewed as exclusively negative rights,[6] whereas human rights also comprise positive rights.[7] Even on a natural rights conception of human rights, the two terms may not be synonymous.