The Imperative of Natural Rights in Today's World

6 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2003

Date Written: August 21, 2003


If there is any group that really needs to understand the concept of natural rights, it is professors of constitutional law. The document they teach was written by a generation who uniformly believed in natural rights, used the concept to justify a violent revolution from their mother country, and professed their continued commitment to natural rights long after the separation - a commitment that only intensified in the years that culminated in the Civil War and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Yet few constitutional law professors know much, if anything, about this fundamental concept even as a historical matter, much less as a concept worthy of continued application in today's world. The prime evidence of their lack of knowledge is the fact that they use the terms "natural rights" and "natural law" interchangeably despite the historical and theoretical distinctness of these terms.

In this paper prepared for a panel sponsored by the Political Economy of the Good Society held at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, I provide what I hope will be viewed as a readily accessible explication of these concepts that has as much practical application today as it did in the days of John Locke or James Madison. Although this is decidedly my take on natural law and natural rights, I think it is true to the heart of the concept and can be used to make sense of historical materials that are otherwise inexplicable to modern constitutional scholars. And this vision of natural rights is as important today as it was in 1776 or 1868.

Keywords: constitution, constitutional law, natural law, natural rights, justice

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., The Imperative of Natural Rights in Today's World (August 21, 2003). Available at SSRN: or

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)


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