Acton Institute Powerblog

Natural rights versus American individualism

Today, it’s common to hear many people declaring their desires or conveniences to be rights. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, or even having one’s college tuition bills footed, for example, are routinely touted as “basic human rights.” As the stipulations of what exactly defines a right seem to grow increasingly pliable in public discourse, some are left wondering; is the present confusion over the definition of a right the product of philosophies that came out of the founding era?

Philosophies of natural rights greatly influenced America’s founding. The founding fathers’ ideas regarding natural rights sprang from 18th century thinkers before them. “According to some conservative critics of the American experiment, therein lies the problem,” writes Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg. “Integralists and some communitarians generally see a straight line between Lockean natural rights thought and the absolutization of subjectivity and autonomy that marks much of America today.”

The marrow of founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights consists of an understanding that inherent, natural rights sprang from natural law — but not without constraint.

Gregg writes:

The more you look at founding-era natural rights philosophy, the less convincing become those theories that posit such discourse as a major source of self-centered individualism in today’s America. We can safely say that late-eighteenth-century Americans would have viewed the notion that rights could be exercised contrary to natural law as ridiculous.

It is true that many American legislators, judges, philosophers, and activists have sought to uproot the language of rights from its natural-law setting to get their way in a culture that is very responsive to rights claims. But this would have made no sense to figures like  [John] Witherspoon and [James] Wilson. They would have viewed such actions as emptying natural rights of all their moral grounding and legal force. Certainly, as Thomas West states, many Founders described themselves as “liberal” in the sense of reverencing people’s natural rights. They did not, however, think these rights existed outside natural law or could be exercised contrary to it. Nor were natural rights considered beyond regulation by the civil law that sought to give effect to these rights in the conditions of political society.

Read Gregg’s full article, “The founders’ natural rights philosophy does not entail radical autonomy.”

(Featured image: John Trumbull [Public domain])

Caroline Roberts

Caroline Roberts is a managing editor at the Acton Institute and produces Acton's weekly podcast, Acton Line.