Putting Natural Law Principles into Practice
IT IS POSSIBLE TO CITE ANCIENT ROOTS FOR THE PRINCIPLES OF human rights. Hammurabi’s Code, the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle must be considered among the sources for our concept of justice. Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Seneca helped to develop our commitment to freedom of expression. The roots of thinking about rights can also be traced to nonWestern sources, such as Mencius and Asoka. In the Christian era, Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas are among those whose writings about justice were influential and, by the thirteenth century, we may add to this list the English barons at Runnymede who forced King John to accept the Magna Carta limiting the power of kings to infringe on rights. In the late medieval period (early fifteenth century), Christine de Pisan, who wrote about the law of chivalry and the customary laws of war, also called attention to the rights of women.
Yet as the historian Lynn Hunt has argued, “Human rights only become meaningful when they gain political content.” Hunt contends that this did not take place until a much more recent period because, as she points out, “They are not the rights of humans in a state of nature; they are the rights of humans in society. They are not just human rights as opposed to divine rights, or human rights as opposed to animal rights; they are the rights of humans vis-à-vis each other. They are therefore rights guaranteed in the secular political world (even if they are called “sacred”), and they are rights that require active participation from those who hold them.”1 To this, it