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The philosophical origins and history of individual rights

The Forward Party is committed to individual liberty, social equality, and human dignity


Details from still life by Edward Collier


By Joshua Peters

Political rights have occupied a significant place throughout the rich tapestry of Western philosophy, evolving over time and leaving an indelible mark on human societies. While natural law grounded belief in inherent rights, the historical quest to establish legitimate government authority drove thinkers to formulate and justify the specific rights that would limit state power in accordance with moral law. It is from this intellectual quest we get the emergence of the concept of individual rights. In this essay, I embark on a journey through history, tracing the evolution of the concept of individual rights from its ancient Greek origins to its contemporary manifestations in modern political theory. By delving into this fascinating chronicle, I aim to shed light on the complex development of this pivotal concept.

The ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (c. 610—546 BCE) contributed to the development of concepts of justice, necessity, and equilibrium that would later influence philosophical ideas of natural law. It is from Anaximander’s meditation on the cosmological order of the universe our journey will begin.

Very little of Anaximander’s personal writings has survive to the present, but the one complete passage that does survive is the source from which Anaximander offers a glimpse into theories of cosmic justice and equilibrium that would inspire and influence the development of natural law:

The Unlimited is the first principle of things that are. It is that from which the coming-to-be takes place, and it is that into which they return when they perish, by moral necessity, giving satisfaction to one another and making reparation for their injustice, according to the order of time.

When Anaximander claims, “Unlimited is the first principle of things,” he is referring to the ancient Greek concept of the apeiron (ἀπείρων), which can be translated as “infinite,” “unlimited,” or “indeterminate”—terms often associated with being the origin of all things in his cosmological formulation. Anaximander may have believed that everything in the universe was composed of opposing “poles,” e.g., hot and cold, wet and dry, light and dark, etc., and that it is because of these opposing forces there is continuous change and evolution.

Furthermore, the phrase “moral necessity” is what we would call laws. What Anaximander is doing is taking the idea of law that we find in political society and extend it analogically to the cosmos. This is where we get the idea of natural law. This is the first articulation of the notion that there is a natural law-like necessity to the universe.

Finally, Anaximander’s fragment suggests that over the course of time events make “reparation for their injustice.” That is, Anaximander’s fragment suggests the universe, by virtue of it being composed of the unlimited, which is continuously changing, has a kind of organic self-regulation to restore justice naturally. Thus, the fragment suggests Anaximander saw natural justice as a governing force in the constant changes of the universe.

Reading other ancient texts that cite Anaximander, one can infer that he believed a profound underlying natural order prevails, exerting its influence on both the cosmos and societal affairs. Central to his philosophy seem to be the constant laws that dictate nature’s behavior, including the equilibrium of opposites, unity among diversity, and proportionality. Anaximander posited that these universal laws are constant across all things, whether matter in physics or individuals in society.

From what texts survive, Anaximander’s theories apparently encompassed a comprehensive understanding of the world. He proposed the existence of an infinite primordial source that serves as the origin of all things. This source, through differentiation, brings forth the multitude of entities while maintaining a delicate balance and harmony. Critical to this idea is the notion that all things contain their opposite, and through the tension sustained by natural law, equilibrium is achieved. This concept underlies his belief in a harmonious natural order of things, governed by principles of opposition, equilibrium, harmony, and justice.

Through his contemplation and rationality around the animating principles of what later thinkers will call natural law, Anaximander presents humanity with a pioneering glimpse into gravitational force and evolutionary biology. He puts forth a compelling argument that gravitational attraction lacks any inherent direction. In other words, objects do not simply fall downward because it is their predetermined course. Instead, he enlightens us with the notion that gravitational forces arise from the proximity of masses. Consequently, if a mass were placed at the center of an equally distributed amount of matter surrounding it, it would maintain its position. It is important to note that this understanding is not Newtonian gravitation, yet Anaximander astutely captures the fundamental essence of gravity through his examination into natural laws—an attractive force between matter or masses without a designated natural direction.

Furthermore, Anaximander ventures into the origins of life. He speculates that organisms best suited for survival would adapt to terrestrial environments, thus hinting at an early conception of natural selection. He continues with the delineation of the origins of humankind, suggesting a remarkable evolutionary progression from fish-like creatures born in the sea to animals adapted to live on land. This view would not be picked up again until the emergence of the Darwinian theory of evolution, at which point it becomes an established theory in biology some 2,500 years after Anaximander.

Anaximander’s theories offer an early conception of what will become natural law and humanity’s place within a balanced cosmic system. By contemplating the principles that govern the physical, biological, and societal domains, he pointed to the interrelatedness of all things, albeit within the constraints of his historical context. Nevertheless, his theories represent a turning point as he transitioned from poetic or mystical explanations of the world to more rational and naturalistic accounts. Though speculative, his insights into gravity and evolution offer a glimpse of theories that would not gain widespread acceptance for centuries. By positing that all things arise from a common source and are subject to the same eternal laws, Anaximander helped lay the groundwork for scientific inquiry into physics, understood through the lens of certain law-like necessities. His vision endures in the ongoing quest to understand the natural world.

Building upon Anaximander’s ideas, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (c. 384—322 BCE) made significant contributions to understanding natural law and its connection to human virtue, political order, and the common good. Aristotle gave natural law a more descriptive interpretation, articulating how it relates to individual excellence, personal happiness, and societal flourishing.

Though building on Anaximander, Aristotle gave natural law more of a concrete context through rigorous explanation and deductive examination. He explored what natural law means for ethics, politics, and law in a systematic way. He is pivotal for connecting how individual virtue and excellence translate into justice and flourishing communities. His vision made natural law central to moral, political, and legal philosophy.

According to Aristotle, natural law is “just by nature,” rooted in fulfilling one’s innate potential. For individuals, this means achieving excellence through habituated virtue. He believed individuals possess natural capacities for justice and society. Aristotle famously proclaimed, “Man is by nature a political animal.”

He makes the distinction between “just by nature,” which is a fact of the world, and “just by law,” which is normative. What is just by nature is what is universally just, applying to all things at all times. What is just by law, Aristotle contends, is what is established as just within a particular political community or legal system. This normative interpretation is more contextual and subject to change based on time and place. While he thinks ‘just by law’ should aim at being ‘just by nature’, Aristotle recognized that there would likely never be a perfect congruence between the two because the former is established by humans and the latter is established by the cosmos.

While natural law aims at universal justice, human law is more contextual with the aim of maximizing the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which translates into “happiness” for the individual and society as a whole. And it is this happiness in society that leads to justice.

Aristotle connected the relationship between individual virtue, natural law, and the health of society. By the individual fulfilling their innate potential for excellence, individuals contribute to collective flourishing. Justice results when society provides conditions for happiness. Therefore, Aristotle establishes the foundation for understanding politics as preserving the human pursuit to happiness.

Though Aristotle concentrated on natural law and did not articulate a theory of natural rights, his argument that the best political system will enable human flourishing suggests individuals have an innate aim of fulfillment that contains the seeds of natural rights theory. By emphasizing the pursuit of happiness, Aristotle moves the political discourse from a cosmic necessity to a social contingency. In doing so, his political analysis moves to formulating what political system is best for achieving individual happiness.

He who would duly inquire about the best form of a state ought first to determine which is the most eligible life; while this remains uncertain the best form of the state must also be uncertain; for, in the natural order of things, those may be expected to lead the best life who are governed in the best manner of which their circumstances admit. We ought therefore to ascertain, first of all, which is the most generally eligible life, and then whether the same life is or is not best for the state and for individuals.

While Anaximander argued that the cosmos consisted of law-like necessities, Aristotle developed a more concrete conception of natural law and applied it to political theory. By illuminating nature’s universal ends, Aristotle charted a course for philosophy and bolstered politics aiming at individual virtue and the common good. Through reason and habit, natural law manifests in just action, showing humanity its ultimate telos (τέλος), which means “end,” “fulfilment,” “complete,” or “ideal station.”

Continuing Aristotelian political philosophy, Roman philosopher Cicero (c. 106—43 BCE) emerged as an eminent political theorist by developing natural rights as innate and inalienable rights. While Cicero takes the political discourse towards the orientation that we have duty to adhere to natural law, he emphasized the fundamental rights to life and private property as essential aspects of human felicity. Here, Cicero starts to put into practice the idea of natural law within the political structure of the Roman republic. He takes the theory of natural law and applies it to the judicial and administrative projects of the Roman republic.

In many ways, Cicero continues the Greek tradition of natural law. 

[T]he universal law of nature … is unchanging … nature is reality … law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. When that reason is fully formed and completed in the human mind, it, too, is law. … the origin of justice must be derived from law.

However, he breaks from his Greek predecessors markedly by suggesting there could be deviations from natural law, which has some inherent moral implication to enable the state to make authoritative judgments about right and wrong behavior—and to punish accordingly. "[S]o a consistent mode of life (which is right) and like-wise inconsistency (which is wrong) will be tested by their own nature," Cicero contends.

This distinction between being convergent on natural law and divergence from it allows him to make judgments about behavior as being either right or wrong. Hence, we see under Cicero natural law descending from its realm in the cosmos and being put to use in Roman political life. Under Cicero, natural law has made the transition to natural rights.

From his meditation on law and political structure, Cicero gives natural law something to do in the form of natural rights: to enforce the natural order of things (from the perspective of Roman political culture). While his Greek predecessors were in many ways content with luxuriating over the ideal form for which natural law corresponds to the world, Cicero wanted to put the idea to work. This is because Roman’s were very practical people—and Cicero was no different. Duty, honor, and practicality were the actuating virtues of Romans. By marrying Roman virtues to natural law, Cicero stands Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427—347 BCE) on his head. In Plato’s Republic, he is implicitly concerned about the soul of the man. In Cicero’s Republic, he is explicitly concerned about the soul of the city.

According to Cicero, individuals (mostly the patricians, which consisted of the Roman aristocracy) possess certain rights by virtue of their nature and existence, and they cannot be legitimately taken away or violated by any governing authority insofar as said individuals are committed to their “social duties.” He argued that natural rights establish just claims and obligations on governments for which compels her institutions to protect and uphold inherent rights of individuals around valid claims to wealth, status, and due process in the courts.

When Cicero talks about “individuals” in the context of political life, he is not appealing to the same animating principle found in Greek philosophy. The Greeks appealed to virtues like excellence and happiness when talking about the individual and their relationship to society. However, Cicero, as in the case of most Romans, appealed to duty, particularly one’s duty to society. Thus, the individual has an obligation to the state. Cicero affirms “[his] whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities” and not to give licentia (Latin.; trans. “license to particular freedoms”) to individuals to behave however they please. Freedom for Cicero is freedom from unjust government imposing itself on individuals and not freedom to say and do whatever one does according to their particular taste and desire for happiness. Accordingly, Cicero is not trying to maximize individual happiness. He wants an individual to perform their duty to society by preserving social stability.

By no means is Cicero against personal happiness. He is prioritizing for the individual what he believes ought to be their natural order of affairs: honoring tradition and performing one’s duty to the state. Natural rights for Cicero are those rights which are align with the natural order of things. In Roman society, this is often associated with respect for tradition, the social hierarchy, and political institutions. It is under Cicero we see the emergence of a conservative political disposition.

By advancing the idea of natural rights, Cicero contributes to the Aristotelian development of political systems consisting of innate laws for the preservation of natural order from its origins of natural law under Anaximander. Cicero laid the groundwork for subsequent thinkers and philosophers who would further develop and refine the concept of natural rights. From the analysis of future thinkers, we will see the emergence of individual rights. However, we will not see the political discourse examine rights and its relationship to individuals until the Age of Enlightenment some 1,600 years after Cicero.

During the Age of Enlightenment, a revival of discourse around political rights began to take hold of Europe. English philosopher John Locke (1632—1704) emerged as a prominent figure, articulating comprehensive theories of natural rights in ways that broke off from the political tradition of conservatism. Locke posited that individuals in a state of nature possess perfect freedom, which consisted of inherent rights to life, liberty, and property. According to Locke, which in similar respects is a continuation of Cicero’s view of natural rights, people voluntarily form governments through a social contract for the sole purpose of preserving natural rights. However, Locke pivots and turns Cicero on his head by arguing that if a government fails in its duty to protect these rights, it can be justifiably overthrown by the people. In doing so, Locke puts the political power into the hands of the people (meaning mostly land-owning aristocrats and property owners) and not the state. Government for Locke is a means to an end, whereby said ends are preserving the natural rights of individuals. Thus, turning any particular form of government into a contingency.

This shift from political power resting with the state to the people will have a profound influence on both the American and French revolutions, as they provided compelling arguments that the primary role of the state is to preserve individuals’ natural and inalienable rights.

Following in Locke’s liberalism, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778), another influential Enlightenment thinker, presented a new perspective on natural rights. He proposed that individuals possess natural rights to liberty and equality in the state of nature. This inclusion of equality into the natural rights formula is noteworthy.

Under Locke, equality was a more abstract notion in the state of nature, whereby individuals by virtue of their nature as human beings were equal. For Locke, equality was part of a natural condition and not necessarily a social reality. Rousseau, however, takes it a step further by arguing that equality is a concrete social reality in the state of nature, which allows him to take a radical egalitarian and communitarian approach to natural rights as being the general will of the people. Nevertheless, Rousseau recognized the need for civilization and order and did not quite abandon Lockean liberalism. Like Locke, Rousseau believed individuals voluntarily established governments, but in doing so submitted to the general will of the people to protect the common good. While Rousseau acknowledged that governments may impose certain restrictions on natural rights, the legitimacy of doing so hinged on the government’s ability to uphold and preserve rights that promoted the public good. Like Locke, Rousseau viewed the protection of rights as both the purpose and constraint on political power, emphasizing the importance of governance that respects and protects individual liberties. In contrast to Locke, however, Rousseau put supreme authority into everyday people and not just land and property owners. Rousseau ultimately wanted to abolish private property.

Another towering figure in the Enlightenment, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) ruthlessly pushed Enlightenment principles around human freedom to its logical conclusion. He articulated ideals of human autonomy, rationality, and inherent worth. Kant asserted that individuals should never be treated merely as means to an end but always as ends in themselves, due to the nature of human beings as rational agents. His arguments emphasized the importance of human freedom, voluntarism, and dignity.

While Kant developed a duty-based moral theory centered on universal maxims, his work contributed to a gradual evolution of political thinking that eventually enabled the theory of individual rights. Kant argued for the inherent dignity of all individuals as rational beings and believed that any legitimate state must respect individuals as ends in themselves. However, Kant did not directly advance a theory of natural or individual rights. His political theory focused on the social contract, emphasizing the sovereignty of individuals, but without specifying the practical implications of this sovereignty.

Kant’s philosophy around individual freedom contributed to a long historical process that led to a paradigm shift in thinking about rights. In time, arguments for natural rights gave way to a new focus on rights that belong to individuals. The inherent worth and freedom of each person were ideals, Kant powerfully articulated, if not yet tied directly to the individual rights that would come to embody those ideals in political form.

These Enlightenment thinkers—Locke, Rousseau, and Kant—played pivotal roles in shaping the discourse on natural rights and the relationship between individuals and governments. Their profound insights and philosophical contributions set the stage for the emergence of the concept of individual rights, emphasizing the protection of individual freedoms, equality among members of society, the role of consent and legitimacy, and the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. While they established the modern political philosophy of liberalism, the solidification and preservation of individual rights as being the aim of liberalism will not take root until the next generation of political theorists. The examination into the political landscape by English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806—1873) will become the catalyst for the next great leap forward in political discourse and the emergence of individual rights.

Mill’s groundbreaking work, On Liberty, made a significant and enduring contribution to the understanding and advocacy of individual rights. In this influential treatise, Mill put forth a compelling argument that individual liberty should be maximized, except in cases where specific constraints are necessary to prevent harm to others. Mill passionately championed a range of rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom to dissent, recognizing them as vital components for societal progress and human felicity.

First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. … I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. ... freedom of opinion ... freedom of thinking ... freedom of conscience ... the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle.

Mill is an amalgamation of his English and continental predecessors. He continues the tradition of liberalism laid out by Locke with the emphasis on individual freedom, political liberty, and tolerance. He adds from Rousseau the inherent tension between individual freedom and social utility, which makes critical and concrete the desire for equality. From Kant’s philosophy, he integrates the universality and imperative to maintain human freedom and dignity.

The emphasis on individual freedom Mill brings to the political discourse, particularly freedom of speech, marked a departure from the prevailing views in Europe. He fervently believed that allowing a diversity of ideas and opinions to flourish would lead to a richer and more enlightened society. By encouraging open and unrestricted dialogue, Mill contended that society would benefit from the contest and exchange of ideas, ultimately leading to the discovery of truth and the development of knowledge.

It is important to note that Mill’s arguments regarding individual rights were nuanced and sought to strike a delicate balance between liberty and social utility. While he championed individual freedoms, he also recognized the need for society to consider the potential harm caused by unchecked individual actions. Here, Mill is attempting to balance prudence with progress. He argued that rights should be subject to limitations when they encroach upon the well-being or rights of others. This idea of the harm principle became a critical aspect of Mill’s philosophy, suggesting that the restriction of individual liberties can be justified only to prevent direct harm or interference with the rights of others.

The harm principle essentially advocates that society has an obligation to protect citizens from “barbarous” and “mischievous” behavior that cause physical damage to a person or property, as the moral “evil” of these actions undermine “any just regard for the independence of the individual” for which contributes to social utility and individual happiness. Here, Mill is recycling the Aristotelian view of happiness and its contribution to justice.

While Mill’s liberalism puts a premium on individual rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of opinion, he recognizes they operate within the boundaries of the harm principle.

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.

In presenting his case, Mill did not perceive rights as inherent and absolute in the same manner as some of his predecessors. Similar to Aristotle’s normative “just by law” account, he acknowledged that rights should be understood in relation to their social utility and consequence. Mill believed that the enjoyment of individual rights should be balanced with the broader welfare and interests of society as a whole. This perspective underscored the importance of considering the consequences and weighing the costs and benefits associated with the exercise of individual freedoms.

By Mill’s time, much of the political discourse moved away from cosmological explanations for the justification of a political system. Politics was now a social science that required examination and experimentation. His advocacy for individual rights completely divorced politics from the idea of natural law as a legitimate source for political authority.

[Natural law] teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. … The evil here pointed out is not one which exists only in theory…the public of this age and country improperly invests its own preferences with the character of moral law. … that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities.

Mill’s approach to structuring a political system around individual rights had a profound influence on subsequent philosophical and political thought. His work laid the foundation for the development of modern concepts such as the harm principle, the value of dissent, and the importance of individual autonomy. His ideas continue to shape contemporary discussions on the boundaries of individual rights and the delicate balance between personal freedom and the common good with the aim of human progress and felicity.

During the 19th century and up until the conclusion of World War II, Western civilization witnessed significant progress in the form of liberal democracy and the recognition of individual rights as a universal pursuit for political and social life. At that time, many regarded Mill’s ideas as the ultimate authority in political philosophy, promoting individual rights as an indisputable political maxim. Nevertheless, a burgeoning discourse within liberalism began to emerge, questioning the extent of individual freedom and its implications on one’s relationship with society at large.

In the 20th century, a vibrant philosophical debate unfolded, exploring the complex relationship between individual rights, social justice, and the power of the state. One may even suggest that it was an attempt by political theorists and philosophers to understand the relationship between liberty and equality. American philosopher John Rawls (1921—2002) was a towering figure leading the way. His influential work, A Theory of Justice, put forth a thought experiment where individuals, placed behind a hypothetical “veil of ignorance,” would rationally agree upon principles that ensure political liberty but at the same time strive for economic equality. Rawls argued that such principles would emerge because of individuals seeking to protect themselves against potential disadvantages in society. In many ways, Rawls can be seen as a direct successor to Mill, as he ventures to address innate flaws within utilitarianism around intentionality by attempting to reconcile Mill’s normative account on justice to a deontological imperative for justice that we find in Kantian moral theory.

However, American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938—2002) presented a contrasting perspective in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick is the libertarian rebel within the liberal family. He emphasized aggressively the existence of natural rights to life, liberty, and property, contending that these rights impose constraints on the power of the state. Nozick wants to move liberalism away from this legal positivist tendency to view rights as a social construct and back into the domain of rights being an inalienable feature of the human condition for which the state has a moral obligation to protect. He was willing to do away with equality if necessary. According to Nozick, individual rights hold paramount importance, and the role of the government should be limited to protecting those rights as a “night watchmen” state and no attempts should be made to try and redistribute property, i.e., taxation, to attempt economic equality. He argued that excessive state intervention encroaches upon individual liberties and hinders personal autonomy.

While Nozick championed the supremacy of innate individual rights, other philosophers focused on striking a balance between the animating principles of liberty and equality within individual rights. American philosopher Ronald Dworkin (1931—2013) contributed to this discussion under the guise that individual rights only make sense as a consequence of egalitarianism in his book Taking Rights Seriously. He advanced that once individual rights had a firm footing in egalitarianism, then society could maintain a theory of rights as “trumps” over ordinary interests. Dworkin posited that rights protect the fundamental interest of individuals to have in leading lives of self-determination, dignity, and value. When rights act as trumps, Dworkins contends, they take precedence over ordinary calculations of cost and benefit. In other words, the importance of protecting rights is so significant that it overrides simpler considerations of utility or societal interests. He maintains that governments have a moral obligation to protect these rights except in truly exceptional circumstances.

Dworkins changes the debate by suggesting an individual’s right is those rights necessary to protect equality. For Dworkins, who is closer to Rawls’ view on the matter of equality, the argument should not be about how much equality we are willing to give up for individual rights, but rather if those rights promote egalitarian ideas. In doing so, Dworkin believes he can accommodate the need for both liberty and equality in societies that value individual rights.  

The contributions of Rawls, Nozick, and Dworkin reflect the diversity of perspectives within 20th-century liberalism regarding individual rights and the role of the state. Their ideas not only enriched the discourse on the nature and scope of individual rights but also prompted deeper reflections on the complex intersectionality between individual liberty and social equality.

Debates surrounding individual rights persist in contemporary political philosophy, with varying perspectives and arguments. Libertarians advocate for robust natural rights and limited government intervention, progressives view rights as socially constructed and seek to strike a balance with considerations for social welfare, while conservatives emphasize individual rights through the lens of tradition and prudence. These discussions revolve around crucial issues such as the limits on speech, personal privacy, property rights, public security, and social justice, reflecting the ongoing examination of individual rights in contemporary society.

When considering the historical trajectory of the concept of individual rights, the framework of natural law and rights can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, but it was during the Enlightenment that these ideas gained significant prominence within the framework of liberal thought—and ultimately led to the emergence of individual rights as we know it today.

Anaximander laid down the foundation for natural law and Aristotle argued for a normative interpretation for law in political society, which led to Cicero formulating and applying the theory of natural rights. Thinkers like Locke and Rousseau proposed the concept of natural rights to liberty and equality, positing that these rights precede the existence of the state itself. Kant, on the other hand, argued for the innate human freedom and dignity that underpin individual rights. Mill further championed the cause of individual liberty and integrated the ideas of his predecessors into much of his political philosophy, which produced the concept of individual rights. Rawls introduced a more egalitarian approach for how one can think about and support principles that balance both liberty and equality. Nozick, in contrast, countered that natural rights impose strict limits on state power. Dworkin, inspired by Rawls, emphasized that rights are connected to human dignity and equality.

This historical journey highlights the philosophical underpinnings of the revolutionary idea that individuals possess moral claims against the state itself. From the time of Aristotle and his meditations on politics within Greek democracy, and Cicero and his contemplation of rights under the Roman republic to the present day, the concept of individual rights has empowered individuals in their resistance against unjust powers and societal disregard for individual liberty, equality, and dignity.

While modern natural rights theorists perceive rights as inherent in human nature and grounded in a conception of natural law, legal positivists argue that individual rights are ultimately socially constructed and context dependent. The debate contends that individual rights can be absolute, while others view them as prima facie a maxim but require consideration and balance with respect to social welfare. Conflicts between different types of rights, i.e., individual versus identity, further fuel the debate about priorities and necessary restrictions.

The concept of individual rights possesses a rich and complicated intellectual history. While its source and the extent remain an ongoing debate, a general consensus among philosophers and political theorists is that rights aim to protect and empower individuals, ensuring their dignity and freedom from unjust social coercion. By protecting the liberties and general welfare of all members, individual rights serve to bind communities together and establish just societies where government, institutions, and organizations are obliged to respect the rights of individuals. The protection of individual rights has become both a hallmark and a moral benchmark for liberalized societies, marking their progression towards greater liberty, equality, and dignity for all.

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