Is the concept of natural law necessary for a concept of universal human rights?

The relationship between natural law and universal human rights is a subject of enduring philosophical inquiry, touching on the foundational aspects of legal and moral theory. The concept of natural law, with its roots in ancient Greek philosophy and further developed through the works of Thomas Aquinas and Enlightenment thinkers, posits that certain moral principles are inherent in the nature of humans and can be discerned through reason. These principles are thought to be universal, applicable to all human beings regardless of cultural, legal, or governmental context. This essay explores whether the concept of natural law is necessary for a concept of universal human rights, considering various perspectives and arguments.

Natural law theory has historically played a significant role in the development of human rights concepts. The theory suggests that because these moral principles are inherent and universal, they provide a foundation for certain inalienable rights that belong to all human beings. This line of reasoning is evident in several key historical documents, such as the US Declaration of Independence, which speaks of unalienable rights endowed by the Creator. Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not explicitly grounded in natural law, articulates a set of rights considered inherent and universal, reflecting natural law's emphasis on universality and inalienability.

Proponents of natural law argue that it offers a stable and objective moral foundation for human rights. According to this view, natural law grounds human rights in the very nature of humanity, making these rights inalienable and immune to the whims of culture, legal systems, or political powers. This universality, proponents contend, is essential for the concept of rights that are truly universal, applying to all human beings regardless of their particular circumstances.

However, the necessity of natural law for universal human rights has been contested. Critics point to cultural relativism, suggesting that the diversity of moral and cultural values across societies challenges the universality claimed by natural law. They argue that human rights can and should be grounded in social contracts, international agreements, or consensus that respects cultural diversity, without needing to appeal to a universal moral order posited by natural law.

Furthermore, secular foundations for human rights offer alternative pathways that do not rely on natural law. Ethical theories such as utilitarianism or Kantian ethics propose frameworks for understanding and justifying human rights based on principles of human welfare, dignity, and autonomy. These secular approaches can support the idea of universal human rights by advocating for the equal and inherent worth of all individuals, without appealing to natural law.

In conclusion, while natural law has significantly influenced the development of universal human rights, its necessity remains a subject of debate. The concept of natural law provides one possible foundation for human rights, emphasising their universality and inalienability. However, the pluralistic reality of human societies and the existence of secular ethical theories that also support the universality of human rights suggest that natural law is not the only possible basis for these rights. Ultimately, the discourse on universal human rights benefits from engaging with a variety of philosophical foundations, reflecting the complex and multifaceted nature of human moral and legal understanding.
Back to blog

UOL Case Bank

Upon joining, you become a valuable UOL student and gain instant access to over 2,100 case summaries. UOL Case Bank is constantly expanding. Speed up your revision with us now.

Subscribe Now

Where are our students from?

Yale University
Council of Europe
Baker Mckenzie 
University of Chicago
Columbia University
New York University
University of Michigan 
University College London (UCL)
London School of Economics (LSE)
King’s College London (KCL)
University of London
University of Manchester
University of Zurich
University of York
Brandeis University
University of Exeter
University of Sheffield
Boston University
University of Washington
University of Leeds
University of Law
Royal Holloway, University of London 
Birkbeck, University of London
SOAS, University of London
University of Kent
University of Hull
Queen’s University Belfast
Toronto Metropolitan University
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
University of Buckingham
ESSEC Business School

  • Criminal Practice

    Diagrams and Charts

    Our carefully designed diagrams and charts will guide you through complex legal issues.

  • Criminal Law

    Clear and Succinct Definitions

    Key concepts are concisely defined to help you understand legal topics quickly.

  • Property Law

    Statutory Provisions

    Statutory provisions are provided side by side with legal concepts to help you swiftly locate the relevant legislation.

  • Public Law

    Case Summaries

    We have summarised important cases for you so that you don't need to read long and boring cases.

  • Evidence

    Rules and Exceptions

    Rules and exceptions are clearly listed so that you know when a rule applies and when it doesn't.

  • Company Law


    Legal terms and key concepts are explained at the beginning of each chapter to help you learn efficiently.

  • Case Law

    Case law is provided side by side with legal concepts so that you know how legal principles and precedents were established.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Law Essay Guide

    You will learn essential law exam skills and essay writing techniques that are not taught in class.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Problem Question Guide

    We will show you how to answer problem questions step by step to achieve first-class results.

  • Conflict of Laws

    Structured Explanations

    Complex legal concepts are broken down into concise and digestible bullet point explanations.

  • Legal System and Method

    Legal Research

    You will learn legal research techniques with our study guide and become a proficient legal researcher.

  • Jurisprudence and Legal Theory


    All essential concepts, principles, and case law are included so that you can answer exam questions quickly.