John Locke (1632 - 1704)

Based off the principles and beliefs of John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher, Locke’s Rights Ethics is one of the four major ethical theories that has shaped today’s society. According to Locke, every person has a set of fundamental rights that they are entitled to simply by existing. It is Locke’s thought that these fundamental rights are not to be infringed upon in any way by any other person, action, or choice. Locke was also influential in the development of social contract theory, which states that all legitimate political authority requires the consent of the governed. Human beings live in political societies not due to the divine right of some to rule, but because they have voluntarily agreed to set of laws in order to secure the benefits of political cooperation.

According to Michael Zuckert, Locke's views on natural rights and the social contract can be seen as the inspiration behind the US Declaration of Independence, which states: "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”[1] Locke's philosophy is also credited with forming the ideology behind other important documents, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that provide citizens with essential rights and freedoms.

Although Locke states that there are essential rights for every human being—such as the rights to life, liberty, and property—it is open to interpretation on what exactly "essential" rights consist of. There is somewhat of a grey area in which an essential right and a want/desire overlap. For example, one could argue that are entitled not to work in the rain due to the danger presented. Whether this is an essential right that protects the safety and well-being of that person, or just a desire of that person to not work in an uncomfortable position is up for debate. It is often up to the law to decide which rights are essential or not.


  1. Zuckert, M. (1996). The Natural Rights Republic. Notre Dame University Press. 73–85.
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