What Are Natural Rights and the Social Contract Theory?


Martha Robinson

What Are Natural Rights and the Social Contract Theory?

Natural rights are inherent human rights that are believed to be granted by nature or a higher power, rather than by any government or society. These rights are considered to be universal and inalienable, meaning they cannot be taken away or given up.

One of the most influential theories that explores the concept of natural rights is the Social Contract Theory. This theory suggests that individuals willingly enter into a social contract with each other and with their government in order to establish a just and orderly society.

The Origins of Natural Rights

The idea of natural rights can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the works of philosophers like Aristotle and Stoics. However, it was during the Enlightenment period in the 17th and 18th centuries that natural rights gained significant prominence.

The prominent Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau explored the concept of natural rights in their writings. According to these philosophers, natural rights are fundamental to human existence and should be protected by governments.

John Locke’s Perspective

John Locke, an English philosopher, argued that individuals have three basic natural rights: life, liberty, and property. He believed that these rights exist prior to any form of government and cannot be taken away without just cause.

Locke also proposed the idea of a limited government that exists solely to protect these natural rights. If a government fails in its duty to protect these rights or becomes tyrannical, Locke argued that individuals have the right to overthrow it.

Thomas Hobbes’ Perspective

In contrast to Locke’s more optimistic view of human nature, Thomas Hobbes believed that humans are inherently self-interested and prone to conflict. According to Hobbes, individuals willingly enter into a social contract to establish a government that can maintain order and prevent chaos.

Hobbes argued that by surrendering some of their individual freedoms to a sovereign authority, individuals gain protection and security. In this view, the government is responsible for enforcing laws and ensuring the safety of its citizens.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Perspective

Rousseau, a French philosopher, proposed a slightly different perspective on the social contract theory. He believed that individuals are naturally good but become corrupted by society. Rousseau argued that true freedom can only be achieved through direct democracy.

According to Rousseau, the general will of the people should guide the decision-making process in society. This means that laws and policies should reflect the collective desires and interests of the entire community.

The Significance of Natural Rights and Social Contract Theory

The concept of natural rights and the social contract theory have had a profound impact on political philosophy and the development of democratic societies.

By recognizing natural rights as inherent and universal, these theories provide a moral foundation for human rights. They assert that governments should respect and protect these rights in order to maintain a just society.

The social contract theory also emphasizes the importance of consent and cooperation between individuals and their government. It suggests that legitimate political authority is derived from the consent of the governed, ensuring that power is not abused or imposed without justification.


Natural rights are fundamental human rights that are believed to be granted by nature or a higher power. The social contract theory explores how individuals willingly enter into agreements with each other and with their government in order to establish a just society.

These concepts have shaped modern political thought and continue to influence discussions on individual rights, government legitimacy, and the balance between personal freedoms and social order.