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What is the Difference Between Natural Rights and Legal Rights?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 16, 2024
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Natural rights and legal rights differ because one is coded in law and the other is considered universal and morally afforded to all people at birth. Legal rights are also called civil rights and imposed by government bodies to regulate criminal and civil matters. Natural rights and legal rights are commonly integrated when statutes are created; natural rights are protected by law, such as the right to due process so the natural right of liberty is not taken away frivolously.

Moral rights are based on principles of religion, history, and secularism. Divine natural rights are defined by religious beliefs that emanate from God or another supreme being. They are codified in the Bible, Torah, and other religious texts. The Ten Commandments are examples of how some natural rights have been made into law to protect life and liberty. These rights are believed inalienable.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes natural rights based on divine principles. The Declaration of Independence gives citizens the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Laws exist that mirror divine law, such as laws against bigamy and incest. These laws of nature basically define right and wrong, and are used internationally to codify legal rights according to custom and culture.

Historical natural rights also become legal rights written into law. These laws are consistent with traditions and customs of the region where they are enforced. For example, the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of reasonable doubt as a standard for declaring a person guilty of a crime. The expectation likely evolved from the expectation of a high standard of proof before someone is deprived of the natural right to liberty and freedom.

Secular rights consider moral norms, but apply human intelligence over religious authority. Legal rights protect natural rights through laws enacted to punish those who interfere with a human being’s right of self-preservation. If greed causes one person to deprive another of his or her right to property without due process, secular law might apply.

Judges routinely rely on legal rights to determine the outcome of criminal and civil matters. A judge might use civil law that protects the right of citizens from abuse by government. Private citizens enjoy other legal rights, such as writing a will or signing contracts, according to custom and culture.

Legal rights expanded over time to remove legal distinctions between men and women, giving women the ability to vote and other rights. Homosexuals have also been given limited legal rights through legislation in some areas. In modern times, the natural rights of animals and children have been recognized in some places through the enactment of new laws.

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Discussion Comments

By anon995952 — On Jun 15, 2016

This article says, "Secular rights consider moral norms, but apply human intelligence over religious authority." Can you give me one example of "intelligence" leading to a contradiction of the morals of the Bible?

By anon993529 — On Nov 22, 2015

Who wrote this crap about rights given to us by the Declaration of Independence? No man or man-made document grants or gives rights. Our rights precede governments and in fact defines and births proper government. We the people come first because of our inherent relation to our Maker. Our rights may be denied but can never be taken away.

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