The Acceptance of Natural Rights

In the late fifteenth century the Spaniards invaded the New World, particularly South America, and commenced to cruelly treat the natives. This behavior led Spanish philosophers to raise this question: “Is this wrong? The natives are humans as well….”

Spanish thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) and Domingo de Soto (1494-1560) continued along these lines. According to de Vitoria, there should be a single standard of justice that would apply to all people, anywhere, because people have natural rights. Natural rights are rights that you were born with, such as the right of self-defense, right to life, etc….

De Soto continued this by saying that these natural rights are possessed by all people, not only Christians. “Therefore, the natives in the New World do have natural rights and we cannot use violence against them.”

This is the time in which the idea of natural rights really takes hold.

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5 thoughts on “The Acceptance of Natural Rights

  1. I think your are right in your answer to a comment above.
    There isn´t any intelectual excuse for atrocities, for the no acceptance of others as they are. This is well seen in the Spanish Conquest of South America. We have a lot to learn as humans.

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  2. There is a better classification of rights: rhetorical rights and practical rights. A rhetorical right is one that someone claims through rhetoric, playing upon the emotions as much as upon reasons (or perhaps in place of reason). A practical right is one that we have agreed by consensus to respect and protect for each other.

    For example, when Jefferson said that all persons “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” he was speaking rhetorically, to sway opinion by emotional appeal. But when Jefferson continued with “to secure these rights, government are instituted among women” (UU edit) he was speaking practically, of a means by which we come to agreement upon the laws that protect rights and install the mechanisms of a system of justice by which rights are enforced.

    Claims that a given right is “natural”, or “God-given”, or “inherent from birth” are merely rhetorical claims for a person’s own preferred set of rights. If one person claims a right that no one else respects or protects, the right remains mere rhetoric. But if people agree to respect and protect a right for each other, then that right becomes actual and effective.

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    1. As far as my knowledge goes, a natural right is a right that one has from birth–a right that you are born with. Such a right would be the right to life or liberty. It is the same as a negative right, because they do not require another person to do something in order for you to exercise your right. (The only difference perhaps, between a negative right and a natural right would be that a negative right is “the right not to be killed” rather than “the right to life.”) Please see my post on negative and positive rights. –Myriam

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