What are Inalienable Rights?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
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Inalienable rights are rights that a person is considered to have, which he or she cannot surrender or give away and which cannot legally be taken from him or her. These rights are often considered the same as natural rights that a person is born with, and these terms have often been associated in modern usage. Various rights are often seen as inalienable, and many different countries have constitutions or other legal documents that indicate the nature of such rights for the people of that country. Inalienable rights in modern usage often stem from European and American political philosophies dealing with human rights and the American Revolution.

Also called unalienable rights, inalienable rights are often indicated through a tripartite motto or a phrase that consists of three terms that are interrelated and describe a unifying concept. Perhaps the most famous example, certainly within the US, of this concept is the description of such rights in the US Declaration of Independence as the rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Other countries have adopted similar mottos that consist of similar concepts such as the French Republic motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” or “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The American view of inalienable rights stems from the Declaration of Independence, which was written by Thomas Jefferson.


Jefferson’s usage of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was likely influenced by the work of John Locke and his view of the natural rights, similar to inalienable rights, of life, liberty and property. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson chose to avoid the importance that Locke placed on property, and instead was influenced by other political commentators who viewed the “pursuit of happiness” as a more worthy goal. Many early American political philosophers viewed the ownership of property as a right afforded by the state, and not granted on birth. The importance of these inalienable rights in the US and many other countries lies in the fact that such rights cannot be taken away without due process of law.

Inalienable rights are typically established by the laws of a country, though on a purely philosophical level they are considered the rights of all people. This often leads to conflicts between countries with different political systems, as the citizens of one nation may view certain rights as inalienable while the legal system of another country does not. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes inalienable rights for all mankind as “life, liberty and security of person.” Of course, it is up to individual nations to agree upon which rights are inalienable and protect them accordingly.


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Post 4

I just want to say, what an excellent dialogue we are having here. Anyway, I just want to say two things: turquoise said that the US agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am wondering, is it possible for countries like US to turn its back on this thing? And instead, let's say US picks and chooses the parts and bits and pieces of this universal declaration that it wants to uphold, and ignore all the rest that it doesn't wish to uphold?

Another question. If these supposedly "inalienable" rights can be taken away with the due process of law, wouldn't this actually make them alienable? After all, we just deprived an individual of said “inalienable" right/s, with law.

Post 3

I've always felt that the rights mentioned in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights are (or should be) inalienable rights as well. These are freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. I can't imagine a free society which doesn't give these rights to its citizens.

But the most complete document of inalienable rights is most definitely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It lists rights like freedom from slavery, cruel treatment and discrimination. The freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to education, medical care and social services are included as well. And more than forty countries around the world have accepted this declaration, including the U.S.

The issue that many

societies face with inalienable rights is their recognition and application. In some countries, it is not recognized at all, and in some countries, it is not applied despite being recognized. So maybe we need to ask ourselves the question, who grants inalienable rights?

If it's the government under which we live, then that means that the government can take them back when it wants to. But if it's God, then no government has the right to take them away. I think inalienable rights are granted by God, not government.

Post 2

@ysmina-- Inalienable rights is a very controversial subject.

I'm not sure what exactly Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers meant when they told us that these are our inalienable rights. But I think that they were thinking about humanity at large, not only America and American society. So whether these rights appear to be infringed upon or not by a government now, these are rights that have been granted to us by the Founders and which cannot be taken away.

I don't think that liberty means "to do as we please". I think what the Founders meant by liberty is self-government. We have the right to self-govern, which means we elect who governs us. And

the right to happiness doesn't meant that everyone will be happy. It means that as long as we don't violate law and ethical norms, we may live the kind of life that we please.

So based on this definition, we do have these legal rights, they are protected by US law and they are inalienable.

Post 1

I'm not so sure that Jefferson's "inalienable rights" of the Declaration of Independence are really inalienable. Maybe the first one- life: the right to live- is the only inalienable one. But some people might argue that this right is also taken away under certain circumstances.

Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are definitely alienable. Liberty is the freedom to do as we please. That is not entirely possible in any society which is governed by law. And the pursuit of happiness, I'm not even sure what that means. Happiness can be defined differently by different people and I'm sure many people would argue that they are not able to pursue their "happiness" because of social, cultural, religious or economic limitations.

So what are inalienable rights then? Is there even such a thing? Or is this just an ideal? A philosophic theory that Jefferson just put out there? What do you think?

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