Natural Rights: From John Locke to Isaiah Berlin

In what way does each life matter, and does everyone’s lives matter universally? This weighted question was explored by Dr. Eric Mack, emeritus professor of philosophy at Tulane University, at our 2020 Summer Seminar series. In his lecture on natural rights, Dr. Mack focused on the concept that each life matters and answers questions about liberty and equality.

To better explain natural rights, Dr. Mack examines the views of Isaiah Berlin and John Locke, and ties these ideas back to the argument that each life matters.

Dr. Eric Mack

Dr. Mack distinguishes natural rights from acquired rights like property rights and contractual rights that differ from person to person depending on their situation and agreements with others. In contrast, natural rights are not acquired; they exist regardless of your consent or agreement from others. If these rights exist, they are natural and are possessed equally by all people, Dr. Mack argues.


Natural rights are, of course, a type of moral right. They’re moral claims that people can invoke against being mistreated in certain ways.

-Dr. Eric Mack

What makes slavery a great wrong? While the consequences of slavery are reprehensible, the wrongness of slavery does not depend on consequences alone, Dr. Mack states. Enslaving someone is wrong in its own character, regardless of the consequences. There is no need to prove negative consequences in this violation of individual rights, then.

Dr. Mack turns to Isaiah Berlin’s essay Two Concepts of Liberty to elaborate on the worth of individuals. In Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin writes about the worth of individuals as ends rather than means. Each person possesses a natural right to liberty. To use individuals as a means to an end is to dehumanize them, Dr. Mack says. By compelling others to serve another’s purpose, the imposing party is communicating that their own goal is more important than others.


It’s the value of each individual living his or her own life as she chooses that in some way underwrites the right that people have. If it wasn’t for this deep underlying value, the right to live one’s life in one’s own way would be unanchored.

-Dr. Eric Mack

Dr. Mack then adds Locke’s understanding of natural rights to the conversation. In contrast to other philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke argued that there are rights inherent to each person that cannot be instituted or denied by a political sovereign’s institution of rights.

Here are Locke’s three arguments about universal individual rights, according to Dr. Mack:

  1. Generalization argument: if you claim a right, you must also extend that right to everyone else, since all individuals are equal.
  2. Not made for one another’s purposes argument: being equal and independent, individuals ought not harm one another.
  3. By like reason argument: by like reason, we have a duty to preserve the rest of mankind rather than competing against others.

The fact that other people have ends can’t mean or suggest or imply that what I ought to do is to surrender my ends for the sake of their ends or that they should surrender their ends for the sake of my ends.

-Dr. Eric Mack

Our ends should not compete with the ends of others, Dr. Mack says. We ought not use others as means to our own ends, but rather respect their ends and promote their happiness.


The claim that each person can validly make against all others on the basis of the slogan that ‘each life matters’ is the claim to a natural right to liberty, i.e., a natural right to pursue one’s own ends in one’s own chosen way.

-Dr. Eric Mack

There are reasons for us to limit how we interact with others, Dr. Mack argues. People are not mere objects that we can use for our own ends. They have needs of their own and lives of their own to fulfill. Dr. Mack affirms that we ought not interfere with others pursuing their own non-interfering goals.

You can watch Dr. Mack’s full lecture and the rest of the IHS Summer Seminar on our YouTube channel. For more information on Summer Seminars, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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