top of page

Fundamental Theory of Modern Human Rights

Human rights have been a heated topic for centuries. Nowadays, controversial topics about human rights revolve around government intervention into people’s lives, ranging from the right to participate in political affairs, to freedom of expression and to technology-enabled tracking and tracing. Many of the arguments have centred on the balance between the power of the individual and the government. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, five influential philosophers' theories greatly contributed to the modern concept of government and human rights.

Thomas Hobbes

Four hundred years ago, an embryonic-based form of political philosophy was proposed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679, English), which states that all human beings are born free and equal. In his work ‘Leviathan', first published in April 1651, he introduces the way of achieving an ideal society where human beings, born free and equal, can live peacefully. To understand this purpose, it is important to know the underlying thinking at the time, which is the state of nature. In 'Leviathan', Hobbes (2018) defines that when human beings are in a natural state, they have potentially unlimited rights to do whatever they want, including taking other people’s lives. Under this hypothetical theory, a state of war is inevitable, as humans have a restless desire for power.

Therefore, according to Hobbes (2018), although the state of nature guarantees everyone absolute rights, there is no security or justice. To remedy the situation, Hobbes proposed a social contract between every individual to have the transference of all rights, except the right for self-protection, to a central authority. This contract bestows this authority, or sovereign, with unlimited absolute rights. The negative side of Hobbes' theories is the neglect of individual freedom over arbitrary government power. However, these theories hold great significance to the evolution of human rights because they introduce the idea that human beings are born free and equal.

Thomas Hobbes, Figure one.

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704, English) is one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, known as the founding father of liberalism. In 'Two Treatises of Government' first published in 1689, he proposes a state of nature different from Hobbes’ theory, as well as a different concept of government. He thinks that the state of nature is not a state of war as described by Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’, but a state of perfect freedom. However, the state of nature has some inconveniences, such as the infringement of one’s liberty by others and the insecure ownership of property. As a result, according to Locke (1988), there should be the common consent of right and wrong, and regulations deriving from this common consent should be executed. Therefore, a government is needed for the purpose of the preservation of individuals. The government has legislative power (the right to make laws), judicial power (the right to judge according to laws), executive power (the right to execute laws), and punishing power (the right to punish violators).

Meanwhile, individuals delegate the rights mentioned above to the government, but they still have the rights of life, liberty and estate without harming others. They also have the right to revolt, which is the right to remove, alter or establish a new legislative power if they find the authority given fails to achieve the purpose of protecting them. They also have the right to make a final judgement when there is disagreement between the government and the people on the act of the former. However, John Locke’s theory is not suitable in the civil state because his ideal state of nature is hard to achieve.

John Locke, Figure two.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778, French), writes a political philosophy that lays the foundation for the democratic idea of popular sovereignty. In 'The Social Contract' first published in 1762, he proposes the theory with the purpose of ensuring freedom and equality in a civil state and Rousseau defines freedom as non-domination. He believes that people as a whole are the sovereign and have absolute power because they give their rights to a community to form a collective body where every member is the ruler. In terms of the government, it is just an agent of the general will. Rousseau distinguishes civil freedom from natural freedom. The boundary of natural freedom is an individual’s force whereas civil freedom is limited by the general will. In the civil state, individuals become the master of themselves in the sense that they only obey the laws of the State, which are logically their commands.

The government has executive power, but the absolute power belongs to the people. The absolute power includes legislative power, the right to risk the lives of its members, the right to impose the death penalty, and the right to pardon. Although sovereign power is absolute, it is also limited by a common interest. The current state of the world raises many questions on his theories concerning common interest, such as the idea of capital punishment. Rousseau (1968) addresses the idea of capital punishment in 'The Social Contract': As enemies of the social contract, they are enemies of the state, and must either be exiled or put to death; the death penalty helps defend the rigid body politic. However, it is no longer executed by many progressive countries because it is regarded as a detriment to civil liberties. Overall, Rousseau's theories are valuable as he proposes that the sovereignty is the people, which still has influence on the political state of republic countries today.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Figure three.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873, English) is one of the most influential English-speaking philosophers of the nineteenth century. His theories are similar to those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's, as he believed the people are sovereign. His most famous work is 'On Liberty' first published in 1859, where the purpose of his theories is to protect an individual’s liberty against illegitimate social control, as well as to avoid the tyranny of the majority since the people, as rulers, have no need to limit their power over themselves. Mill (1985) states his idea from 'On Liberty', that the tyranny of the majority should be limited by comprehending which action affects oneself only and which affects others.

According to Mill (1985) in 'On Liberty', the discussion of freedom is divided into the private sphere and the public sphere. The government has social control over the public sphere in terms of protecting the security of others and preventing harm to others, including action and inaction. In the private sphere, where only individuals are concerned, they have absolute liberty such as the liberty of thought and feeling, absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. Individuals also have the liberty to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others. Compared to Rousseau, Mill explained the most important issue in a democracy, which is the concern over the tyranny of the majority and he discusses how to protect individuality against social tyranny.

John Stuart Mill, Figure four.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804, German) is one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. In 'Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals' first published in 1785, he discusses the universal law of nature, which means a man’s action is a necessary result of preceding causes. In this work, Kant (2018) also describes universal law as "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." He believes that human actions are caused by nature, instinct and inner desire. Similar to Hobbes, Kant believes the state of nature as the state of war. To avoid this, Kant suggests that people should make an original contract by giving up their brutal and lawless freedom. People’s consent on giving up this brutal and lawless freedom forms universal law, which can help ensure people’s freedom in return. The government has the power within the boundaries of universal law.

According to Kant (2018), individuals have three types of rights, namely: the rights as a human being, the rights as a citizen of a commonwealth, and the rights as a world citizen. The rights as a human being include the innate right of freedom, the right to live in accordance with moral law, and the right to be treated as an end rather than a means. The right as a citizen includes the right to be equal before the law. The rights as a world citizen includes the right to have universal hospitality. Kant's theories provide a basis for the right of refugees, a step forward to guarantee human rights against the international background.

Immanuel Kant, Figure five.

As these theories developed, the most striking difference was the understanding of government by the various philosophers. Hobbes and Locke gave a theoretical basis for the formation of the government. Different from Hobbes’ theories and Locke’s theories, instead of the transmission of people’s power, Rousseau thinks the ruler is the people. Mill and Kant built their theories based on this thought of democracy. In Rousseau’s theories, he thinks the sovereign has absolute power over its members while Mill discusses how to limit the power of the tyranny of the majority. Kant defines the universal law and entitles the rights for world citizens, which still has a profound impact on the world situation today.


  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, Minneapolis, MN : First Avenue Editions, 2018

  • Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. A History of Political Philosophy: From Thucydides to Locke. New York: Global Scholarly Publications, 2010

  • Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, Laslett, Peter, 1988

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, Penguin, 1968

  • Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty; Himmelfarb, Gertrude, Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1985

  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals : With an Updated Translation, Introduction, and Notes; Wood, Allen W., editor.; 2018; New Haven, CT : Yale University Press

Figure References:

  • Figure one, Portrait of Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright, c. 1669-1670

  • Figure two, Portrait of Locke by Godfrey Kneller, 1697

  • Figure three, Portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753

  • Figure four, John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870

  • Figure five, Portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768


Author Photo

Zhuotong Hou

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page