Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) included a discussion of natural rights in his moral and political philosophy. Hobbes' conception of natural rights extended from his conception of man in a "state of nature". Thus he argued that the essential natural (human) right was "to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own judgement, and Reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto." (Leviathan. 1,XIV)
According to Hobbes, to deny this right would be absurd, just as it would be absurd to expect that carnivores might reject meat or fish stop swimming. Hobbes sharply distinguished this natural "liberty", from natural "laws" (obligations), described generally as "a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of life, or taketh away the means of preserving life; and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may best be preserved." (ibid.)
In his natural state, according to Hobbes, man's life consisted entirely of liberties and not at all of laws - "It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has the right to every thing; even to one another's body. And therefore, as long as this natural Right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man... of living out the time, which Nature ordinarily allow men to live." (ibid.)
This would lead inevitably to a situation known as the "war of all against all", in which human beings kill, steal and enslave others in order to stay alive, and due to their natural lust for "Gain", "Safety" and "Reputation". Hobbes reasoned that this world of chaos created by unlimited rights was highly undesirable, since it would cause human life to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". As such, if humans wish to live peacefully they must give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations in order to establish political and civil society. This is one of the earliest formulations of the theory of government known as the social contract.
Hobbes objected to the attempt to derive rights from "natural law," arguing that law ("lex") and right ("jus") though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations, while rights refer to the absence of obligations. Since by our (human) nature, we seek to maximize our well being, rights are prior to law, natural or institutional, and people will not follow the laws of nature without first being subjected to a sovereign power, without which all ideas of right and wrong are rendered insignificant - "Therefore before the names of Just and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive Power, to compel men equally to the performance of their Covenants..., to make good that Propriety, which by mutual contract men acquire, in recompense of the universal Right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of the Commonwealth." (Leviathan. 1, XV) This marked an important departure from medieval natural law theories which gave precedence to obligations over rights. However, some thinkers such as Leo Strauss, maintained that Hobbes kept the primacy of natural law or moral obligation over natural rights, and thus did not fully break with medieval thought.
John Locke (1632–1704), was another prominent Western philosopher who conceptualized rights as natural and inalienable. Like Hobbes, Locke was a major social contract thinker. He said that man's natural rights are life, liberty, and property. He greatly influenced the American Revolutionary War with his writings of natural rights.
According to Locke there are three natural rights:
* Life- everyone is entitled to live once they are created.
* Liberty- everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn't conflict with the first right.
* Estate- everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two rights.
The social contract is a contract between a being or beings of power and their people or followers. The King makes the laws to protect the 3 natural rights. The people may not agree on the laws, but they have to follow them. The people can be prosecuted and/or killed if they break these laws. If the King does not follow these rules, he can be overthrown.
Thomas Paine (1731–1809) further elaborated on natural rights in his influential work Rights of Man (1791), emphasizing that rights cannot be granted by any charter because this would legally imply they can also be revoked and under such circumstances they would be reduced to privileges:
It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few. ... They...consequently are instruments of injustice.
The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.