An Introduction to Western Philosophy
by Paul Herrick, Founder of Classical eAcademy
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.–The Declaration of Independence. Declaration of Independence.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were members of a school of political thought that is today called classical liberalism. This school of thought gets its name from the fact that it places a high value on liberty. Many of the ideas within liberalism can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. (The word “liberty” actually derives from the Latin word for free, “liber.”) However, the classical liberal school of thought only began to take on a systematic form in the middle of the 17th century when the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588‑1679) wrote his political masterpiece Leviathan.[i] Near the end of that century, John Locke (1632-1704), another British philosopher, made seminal contributions to classical liberal theory in his classic work Two Treatises of Government. Most of the central elements of the theory were brought together for the first time in Locke’s writings. In the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) made very important contributions.[ii]
The intellectual architects of the American Revolution, men such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Thomas Paine, were heavily influenced by the classical liberal philosophical ideas articulated by Hobbes, Locke, and Kant.[iii]
In general terms, the classical liberal political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
¨ opposed the monarchical absolutism of kings and defended the rights of parliaments;
¨ advocated representative government under the rule of law;
¨ championed the freedom of the individual against the power and reach of the state;
¨ advocated freedom of association, religious toleration, and private property;
¨ argued that a society of truly free individuals would be the ideal human society;
¨ argued that a society cannot embrace individual freedom unless the virtues of rationality, individual responsibility, and good citizenship are widespread among the general population.[iv]
When the classical liberals began writing, most European countries were dominated by powerful and authoritarian Kings or Queens. In place of this authoritarian model, the classical liberals proposed a society embodying individual freedom. The first classical liberals also developed a philosophy to go along with their revolutionary proposals. They based their proposals on philosophical grounds. Those grounds are the subject of this and the next several chapters.
Classical and Modern Liberalism Distinguished
In the nineteenth century, the political philosophy associated with Locke, Hobbes, and the American and French Revolutions was called “liberalism” because of its focus on liberty. However, in the later part of the nineteenth century, some theorists within the liberal school of thought began striking out in different theoretical directions. Some advocated forms of socialism, some advocated forms of communism, and some advocated what we now call the “welfare state.” Consequently, the original theory developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, associated with Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and the Founding Fathers, is now called “classical liberalism” in order to distinguish it from liberal theories (i.e., theories also proclaiming the value of liberty) that were developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The form of liberalism associated with the modern captitalist welfare state is known as “modern liberalism,” or “welfare-state liberalism.” And the form of liberalism associated with Karl Marx and his modern-day followers is sometimes called “egalitarian liberalism.” Modern liberalism is the subject of Chapters 39-40, and egalitarian liberalism is the subject of Chapters 36-38.) [v]
A Caveat and Some Preliminaries We will be examining the political ideals espoused by the classical liberal philosophers. As we proceed, it will be important to keep this in mind: in every social system, there is a difference between the ideal and the real–between the way things should be and the way they are. We human beings never seem to reach perfection. (And isn’t there also a difference between an individual’s ideals and the actual life that person leads? Does anyone ever reach perfection in their personal lives?)
If ideals are never lived up to, then what’s the point of having them? The answer is this: Ideals guide us as we try to improve our lives and our world; they give us something to reach for. Therefore they help us improve our lives and they help us make our world a better place.
Now, with this distinction between the ideal and the real in mind, an objection must be considered. When the ideals of classical liberalism are discussed, ideals having to do with universal equality, liberty, human rights, and so on, many immediately object with statements such as, “But wait, the United States practiced slavery.” And, “What about the things this country did to Native Americans?” Those raising such questions are raising legitimate questions. It is important to consider the degree to which our society has lived up to its ideals. However, one cannot adequately consider how closely a society has lived up to its stated ideals until one first understands those ideals. And if we are to understand the ideals of classical liberalism, we must first examine those ideals in their own right, abstracted from questions about how well they have been put into practice. Once the ideals have been examined and are understood, one may then question whether those ideals have been adequately put into practice. In this unit, our goal is simply to understand the classical liberal ideals.
If a set of ideals turns out upon analysis to be attractive and reasonable, and if there is evidence that the ideals are workable as well, then the fact that the ideals haven’t been fully put into practice doesn’t imply that we should switch to another set of ideals. The fact that our society hasn’t lived up to its ideals does not imply that we ought to discard those ideals.
The Ideal of Universal Human Rights
Within a single organized system of thought, it would be impossible to prove every principle or statement on the basis of some prior principle or statement, for such a series of “proofs” would be infinitely long, and nobody has time to think through an infinite number of proofs or arguments. Consequently, all developed systems of philosophical thought have basic principles. These principles serve as fundamentals within the system. Once we reach these principles, we have reached “rock-bottom.”
Fundamentals have two important features: they are not proven on the basis of deeper or prior principles within the system (or else they wouldn’t be fundamentals); and they are the basis upon which other ideas and principles rest. They are the basis upon which other principles are justified. In short, fundamental or “rock-bottom” principles are not proven on the basis of other principles, but they are used to prove other principles.
Classical liberalism has a set of rock-bottom principles. These principles are contained within the classical doctrine of universal human rights. Classical liberalism was the first political movement in history to base itself on the following claim:
All human beings, regardless of nationality, culture, religion, color, gender, or ethnicity, possess the same set of universal human rights.
According to classical liberalism, human rights are universal because people possess rights in virtue of a common human nature rather than in virtue of membership in a particular society, religion, nation, or ethnic or racial group. Furthermore, the classical liberals argued, the fundamental purpose of government, government’s “reason for existing,” is primarily to protect those rights. Today, we have a tendency to take these ideas for granted, but these were powerful revolutionary ideas when they were first introduced.
What specific rights did the classical liberals have in mind? Let us approach their claims by first consulting some very basic ethical intuitions. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Suppose person A is walking along a road and comes across a perfect stranger, someone he has never seen before, person B. Person B is just minding his own business, not bothering anyone. Do you think it would be morally wrong for person A to kill person B just for fun? Just for sport? What do you think?
2. Suppose person A is walking along a road and comes across a perfect stranger, someone he has never seen before, person B. Person B is just minding his own business, not bothering anyone. Do you think it would be morally wrong for person A to take some of person B’s possessions, just for fun? What do you think?
3. Suppose person A is walking along a road and comes across a perfect stranger, someone he has never seen before, person B. Person B is just minding his own business, not bothering anyone. Would it be morally wrong for person A to point a weapon at B and force person B to become A’s slave for the day, just for fun? Just so that A can force B to do whatever A tells him to do? Just so that A can impose his will on B?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you probably agree with the following general statement:
Although there may be exceptions, in general it is wrong to kill others, to steal from others, and to force others, under threat of severe harm or violence, to do your bidding.
Notice that the three questions above made no mention of person B’s nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. So, if you answered yes to those questions, you believe it is wrong to do those things to another human being regardless of the other person’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, and so on. This means you believe in the following three general principles:
1. In general, it is wrong to kill another person when that person is just minding his or her own business.
2. In general, it is wrong to rob another person when that person is just minding his or her own business.
3. In general, it is wrong to force another person to do your bidding, under threat of violence or severe harm, when that person is just minding his or her own business.
The classical liberals believed in these three principles. They believed that these principles are simple common sense.
Next, consider these questions:
1. If you were walking along, minding your own business, and a stranger came up to you and tried to kill you, for no apparent reason, would it be wrong for you to defend yourself? Would it be wrong for you to fight back?
2. If you were walking along, minding your own business, and a stranger came up to you and tried to rob you, for no apparent reason, would it be wrong for you to defend yourself? Would it be wrong for you to fight back?
3. If you were walking along, minding your own business, and a stranger came up to you and tried to force you to be his slave, for no apparent reason, would it be wrong for you to defend yourself? Would it be wrong for you to fight back?
If you answered no to the above three questions, then you believe in the following principle of self-defense:
Although there may be exceptions, in general it is not wrong for you to defend yourself if someone tries to kill you, or tries to rob you, or tries to force you, under threat of severe harm or violence, to do his or her bidding.
Again, notice that no mention is made here of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on. This principle of self-defense is a general principle that does not depend on the race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc., of the individual.
Now, the classical liberals argued that these fundamental principles of commonsense logically imply the following three universal human rights.
· The right to life. This is the right that others not kill you or threaten to kill you as you are peacefully going about the business of living, i.e., as long as you are not aggressively bringing deadly force upon another or threatening to do so. To say that people have this right is simply to say that it would be morally wrong to initiate or to threaten to initiate deadly force against someone who is peacefully going about the business of life.
· The right to liberty. This is the right that others not initiate force against you, or threaten to initiate force, in order to imprison you, kidnap you, or otherwise force you to do their will, as you are peacefully going about the business of life, i.e., while you are not violating the rights of others. To say that one has a right to liberty is to say that it would be morally wrong to initiate force or threaten to initiate force in order to interfere with a person’s peaceful actions.
· The right to property. This is the right that others not forcefully take your possessions (i.e., take them without your voluntary consent) if you produced them, earned them, were given them, or acquired them without violating the rights of others. More specifically, you hold a possession justly if you either (a) received it from another in a mutually agreed upon, voluntary exchange; or (b) received it as a voluntarily given gift; or (c) legitimately appropriated it from raw nature, which means that (i) the item was not previously owned by another person; (ii) you had to work to withdraw the item from its natural state; (iii) you left “enough and as good” for others; (iv) you did not take more than you needed; (v) you made use of what you appropriated. To say that one has this right to property is to say that it would be morally wrong to initiate force in order to take away a person’s possessions when those possessions were acquired without violating the rights of others.[vi]
These three rights constitute the moral demand that others not initiate force against you as you peacefully pursue your own idea of the good life. This demand is addressed, according to classical liberals, to all people.
In other words, to say that you have these rights to life, liberty, and property is to say that you are justified in proclaiming to the world: “You may not initiate force to deprive me of my life, my justly acquired property, or my liberty–so long as I am not violating the rights of others.”
Of course, these definitions of the classic rights presuppose an understanding of what it means to be “peacefully going about the business of life.” Perhaps there is no simple abstract account of this concept, but in most cases in everyday life, it is a matter of commonsense whether or not someone is “peacefully” going about the business of life. For instance, an armed robbery is not a peaceful action, a violent rape is not a peaceful interaction, assault and battery is not peaceful, purse snatching is not peaceful, a drive-by shooting isn’t peaceful, and so on. On the other hand, asking someone out on a date, saying a prayer in a church, painting a picture, trading someone an apple for an orange, applying for a job–these are peaceful actions. In usual situations, commonsense can distinguish the peaceful from the nonpeaceful.
However, if an account of “peaceful” is wanted, consider that there is one important feature possessed in common by all the non-peaceful actions mentioned above: the action involves a relationship that is not consensual or voluntary on both sides. Thus, one very plausible account of peaceful human interaction is simply this: A peaceful human interaction is one that is mutually voluntary or consensual. According to classical liberalism, all human relationships should ideally be consensual, that is, mutually voluntary.
The three classical liberal rights have sometimes been summarized in what is called The Nonaggression Axiom: No one has the right to initiate force against others. That is, all actions that involve the initiation of force–the aggressive use of force against someone who has not used force–are prohibited.
The Nonaggression Axiom:
No one has the right to initiate force against others
Classical liberalism was the first political theory in modern history to formulate and proclaim a principled ban on violence, backed by a philosophical defense. If all violence is banned, as the classical liberals hoped, then all human relationships will be peaceful, i.e., voluntary.
The people who bought and sold slaves during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries (when classical liberalism was in its ascendancy) obviously did not take the classical liberal doctrine of human rights seriously, since the institution of slavery is a blatant violation of human rights. If everyone had accepted the classical liberal doctrine of human rights when it was first promulgated in the seventeenth century, slavery would have ended then and there. It is worth noting that the individuals who started the world’s first antislavery societies during the eighteenth century were classical liberal thinkers; and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opponents of slavery based their case on classical liberal grounds, namely, on the grounds that slavery violates universal human rights.
The Right to Property
The classical liberal right to property is a matter of much dispute today. According to classical liberalism, a person holds a possession justly if the person either (a) received it from another in a mutually agreed upon, voluntary exchange; or (b) received it as a voluntarily given gift; or (c) legitimately appropriated it from raw nature, which means that (i) the item was not previously owned by another person; (ii) the person had to work to withdraw the item from its natural state; (iii) the person left “enough and as good” for others; (iv) the person did not take more than he or she needed; (v) the person made use of what he or she appropriated. Let us clarify these conditions.
Here is an example of (a): Pat offers to pay Jan $100 to chop some wood. Jan voluntarily accepts the offer, chops the wood, and takes home $100. The $100 is Jan’s justly acquired property.
Here is an example of (b): Pat buys a book and voluntarily gives it to Jan as a birthday present. Jan takes the book home. The book is Jan’s justly acquired property.
Here is a simple example of (c): An explorer in a strange land discovers an uninhabited valley. Nobody lives there. Nobody owns it. Nobody is using it. The valley is in its “natural condition.” The explorer works hard to clear a patch of land and plant a crop. There are other regions of unused, unowned land nearby. The explorer clears only as much land as he can use. The land becomes his justly acquired property.
This last point provides a classical liberal answer to the following great question concerning the “initial acquisition” of property: How does a person come to own a piece of land or a part of nature that was previously not owned by anyone? In other words, how is property appropriated from “raw” nature? Locke argued that a person has a natural right to appropriate–by his own labor–a previously unowned part of nature if (a) after his appropriation “there is enough, and as good left in common for others,” as when someone takes a drink from a river, (b) he appropriates only as much as he can reasonably use, letting nothing go to spoil, and (c) his appropriation injures nobody and leaves nobody worse off.
In such a case, Locke argued, nobody has grounds for complaint, nobody’s prior consent is required, and the person who appropriates the unowned bit of nature violates nobody’s prior rights. Thus, by “mixing one’s labor” with a previously unowned bit of nature, under the above conditions, one legitimately acquires a property right in that bit of nature–one makes it one’s own. Such initial appropriation is actually good, argued Locke, for God put us here to make effective use of the Earth and its resources, and we can only make effective use of our world if we appropriate unowned bits of it in this manner.
In the next chapter, we will examine additional classical liberal ideas, ideas concerning liberty, individualism, equality, peace, the rule of law, and more. It will be important to keep this in mind: The doctrine of human rights, according to classical liberalism, forms the foundation of political theory. This means that human rights condition and circumscribe the various political concepts such as the concepts of liberty, individualism, equality, and peace. That is, the doctrine of universal human rights, since it is fundamental, sets the limits, determines the contours, fixes the applications, and helps define the other political concepts. [vii]
On December 10, 1998, the world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Political thinkers in all parts of the world affirmed the existence of basic universal human rights, among these the rights to life, liberty, and property. All over the world, virtually all political theorists now accept the premise that human beings possess universal rights.
Historical Interlude: The Enlightenment
Classical Liberalism developed during the period of European history known as the Age of Enlightenment, and the classical liberals were quintessential Enlightenment thinkers. Prior to this period, scholars at the great European universities had relied heavily on (1) sacred scripture, and (2) theories derived from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. During the Enlightenment, leading European thinkers began to rely less heavily on these foundations and more heavily on reason alone. The Enlightenment goal was to employ human reason, more fully than ever before, in order to advance knowledge and improve the human condition.[viii]
Thus the Enlightenment shifted the emphasis from ancient thought and sacred scripture to a freer, less constrained use of human reason. The Enlightenment ideal was the thinker striking out on his own, in search of deeper truth; with his religious faith as a foundation, but with reason and his own personal experience as additional guides.
European Enlightenment thinkers attempted to push the frontiers of human knowledge to new depths. One result was revolutionary advances in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, astronomy, agriculture, business organization, and economic theory. Another result was the development of a revolutionary new political ideal, the ideal introduced by the classical liberal philosophers: universal human rights.
Classical Liberal Internationalism Classical liberal arguments were addressed to rational thinkers everywhere, no matter what their nationality, culture, race, ethnicity, or religion. In other words, classical liberal arguments were intended for the world, not just for Europe. By addressing their reasoning to all humanity, the classical liberal thinkers presupposed that there exists a common reasoning ability shared by all human beings. Today, in every society on Earth, within the halls of every government on Earth, people are talking about rights, constitutions, liberty, and the value of the individual–ideas first introduced into modern political discourse by the classical liberals.
Classical liberalism has influenced the entire world, and it has enjoyed an international appeal. This international appeal was characteristic of Enlightenment thought in general. The new discoveries in mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, agriculture, commerce, astronomy, technology, business methods, and so on, were not intended to be for Europe only–they were thought to be discoveries that could benefit all peoples, across all cultures; they were thought to be discoveries that could benefit all humanity. Accordingly, Enlightenment thinkers offered their new knowledge, their new discoveries, their new theories, to the rest of the world. As a result, the new ideas did not remain bottled up in Europe, where they originated; they were transmitted around the world, they were accepted around the world, and they transformed the world. During this period, as European ideas began circling the globe, people from all over the world were attracted to the new European scientific, technological, cultural, and intellectual discoveries.
The Basis of Human Rights
Since they were Enlightenment thinkers who valued the use of reason, it was only natural that the classical liberals would attempt to articulate a rational, philosophical foundation or basis for their political ideals–the Enlightenment was all about finding rational foundations. There is a rational basis for rights, the classical liberals argued, a basis that can be supported with rational argumentation. Thus, the classical liberals gave philosophical arguments in support of their doctrine of human rights.
Nature. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, human rights were called “natural rights.” The classical liberal arguments for rights will not make sense without an explanation of the idea of a natural right. Consequently, we begin with the question: What is a natural right?
Since ancient times, philosophers have sought to distinguish that which is “of nature” from that which is due to human choice. The classical liberals argued that human beings would possess their rights even in a “state of nature,” i.e., even in a state of affairs in which government and organized society do not exist. If rights would exist even in a state of nature, then rights are not invented by government, they are not conferred upon people by government, they are not a human creation. If rights are not a human creation, then they are “of nature,” they are natural. Hence the term “natural rights.”
Natural rights, if they exist, are moral characteristics that people possess naturally, solely in virtue of being human, i.e., in virtue of a common humanity, and not in virtue of being this color or that color or from this country or from that country or from this culture or that culture. Natural rights are now called simply “human rights,” since they are possessed in virtue of a common humanity rather than in virtue of membership in a race, ethnic group, religion, culture or nation.
The next question is: Why did the classical liberals suppose that individuals would have these rights even in a state of nature, independent of any particular society or government? The answer may be found in the following line of argument:
1. Human rights are justified by reasons that are independent of–without reference to–any particular government, race, gender, culture, or society.
2. Since the justifying reasons that underly rights are independent of particular societies, races, cultures, and governments, they are reasons that would be valid even in the absence of government, i.e., even in a state of nature.
3. Hence, the rights in question are natural.
(Incidentally, this is now the commonly accepted view on human rights in virtually all parts of the modern world.)
In addition, the classical liberals also argued:
Since the reasons underlying rights are independent of particular societies and governments, they are reasons that are of concern to all human beings, from every corner of the world.
This helps to explain the international character of classical liberalism, and it also helps to explain the international character of the capitalist system that classical liberalism gave birth to.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, under the influence of these classical liberal ideas, governments all over the world wrote constitutions, in imitation of the classical liberal passion for constitutional government, and those constitutions invariably proclaimed such classical liberal themes as liberty, natural rights, and the value of the individual. Classical liberal ideas had a world-wide appeal, a worldwide resonance, and a world-wide impact.
The next question is: What are these reasons that supposedly justify rights independent of state, society, ethnicity, race, religion, or culture? One line of reasoning focuses on the concept of self-ownership.
The Self-Ownership Argument
According to many classical liberals, the three traditional classical liberal rights spring from a deeper, more fundamental right: a general human right of self-ownership. On this view, each human being is the rightful owner of himself or herself, including his or her mind, body, talents and abilities. This means, according to the classical liberals, that each has the right to decide how his or her talents and abilities will be exercised; and each has the right to what is produced by the exercise of those talents and abilities (less the amount justly due in taxes, which we discuss in the next chapter). Let us call this claim the Classical Liberal Principle of Self-Ownership. Because a human being owns himself or herself, body and soul, talents and abilities, it is wrong to forcefully and aggressively take or use, without the person’s voluntary consent, his or her life, liberty, or property, which implies that the person has the classical liberal rights to life, liberty, and property. The three classical rights are therefore sometimes called “rights of self-ownership.”
If the Classical Liberal Principle of Self-Ownership is true, then the three great classical liberal rights logically follow, for those classical liberal rights are necessary moral aspects of individuals who own themselves, assuming self ownership includes owning one’s talents, abilities, capacities and the products produced by them. That is, self-owning individuals must necessarily have the three classic rights or else they lack genuine self-ownership.
Many nineteenth century opponents of slavery, including Frederic Douglas, advocated the self-ownership argument and used it to attack the institution of slavery. They argued that since each human being is the rightful owner of himself or herself, slavery is morally wrong. In other words, they argued, slavery violates the fundamental nature of the person because it treats a person as if he is the property of another when he is really the rightful owner of himself. Thus some abolitionists called slavery “man stealing” and spoke of the fundamental moral right to be the owner of oneself. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson had the ideal of self-ownership in mind when he wrote:
The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. [ix]
Classical liberals held that self-ownership is morally fundamental–it is a rock-bottom moral principle.
Interlude. Rights: A Modern idea
Prior to the rise of classical liberalism, a right protected a special power someone could exercise in virtue of holding a special position in society. For instance the King, in virtue of his special office, had the right to order someone to report to his court. This special right was possessed by no one else but the King. A feudal lord, in virtue of his special position, had the right to a portion of the serf’s crops. This special right was not possessed by the serf. Feudal governments acknowledged no general rights possessed by all persons equally, for there was no social position held by all equally. In short, rights were attached to social and class positions, not to persons as sovereign individuals.
The modern idea–that there are rights each and every person has in common–rights a person has just because he is human and not in virtue of a special social position he occupies–was truly revolutionary when it was first introduced by the classical liberals. Kenneth Minogue, introducing a volume on human rights, writes:
The idea of human rights is as modern as the internal combustion engine, and from one point of view, it is no less a technological device for achieving a common purpose. The internal combustion engine moves us around swiftly, while human rights are protective devices designed to shield us from random violence and neglect. If the idea is widespread that men have a right to life, it may help discourage careless aggression.[x]
Let us now form some of the earlier thoughts on nature into an argument for the existence of the classical liberal natural rights.
1. There are certain things it would be morally wrong to do, completely independent of the existence of government. That is, it would be morally wrong to do these things–whether or not any particular government existed. For instance, if a group of us were hiking in a wilderness in a remote part of Australia, and if we discovered a small band of indigenous people who lived outside the pale of our government, it would be morally wrong to simply kill them for fun, and it would be wrong to enslave them, and it would be wrong to take all of their possessions to sell to museums in New York. It would be wrong to do these things even though nobody would know and even though no government laws prohibit the actions (since no governmental laws apply in this portion of wilderness). It would be wrong to do these things to these people just because they are human beings.
2. This implies the existence of natural rights–rights people would have even in state of nature, rights justified without reference to social convention, legal institutions, or any particular government. Such rights logically cannot have been conferred by any government. The classical liberal natural rights simply articulate and give expression to this powerful and perhaps undeniable intuition.
Robert Nozick’s Kantian Argument for Rights
The most widely discussed defense of classical liberalism in recent times is Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick (b.1938). Many consider this to be classical liberalism’s greatest single defense. Nozick writes: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” (ix)
All human beings, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, and sexual orientation possess the same natural human rights, on Nozick’s view. A natural right, according to Nozick, is the strongest moral claim a person can make–a claim no other consideration can normally override.[xi]
On Nozick’s theory, a natural human right is “natural” in virtue of the fact that it is a claim that is justifiable independently of particular social conditions and human laws, and it is a “human” right because it is a right possessed in virtue of universal human characteristics (of which more below). What natural rights do all human beings possess in common, according to Nozick? The negative rights to be free from “force, fraud, and the infliction of harm in the peaceful pursuit of life.” This is essentially the set of negative rights proclaimed by classical liberalism.
As I interpret him, Nozick argues that the classical liberal human rights rest on the Kantian principle that each of us should always treat others as ends in themselves and not as mere means to our ends; in other words, others ought to be treated as intrinsically valuable beings who are not mere resources to be used for our own purposes. We met this idea in Chapter 23. This principle, of course, is the form of the Categorical Imperative known as the Formula of the End in Itself:
Always treat humanity, whether in yourself or in others, as an end in itself and never only as a means to an end.
According to this principle, it is wrong to use another human being as if he were a tool, i.e., as if he were a means to your end. To use another is to violate his nature as an end in himself (or herself).
As we saw in Chapter 23, Kant drew a distinction between treating someone as an end and treating someone as a means to an end. To treat someone as a means to your end is to use them as you would use an inanimate tool. To treat another person as an end is to not use the person as a tool but to instead treat the person as a being who has his or her own ends to pursue. If an individual human being is an end, then he or she is not a mere means or tool to be used for someone else’s purposes.
It is a moral fact, Kant and Nozick argue, that an individual human being is not a resource or tool to be forcefully used for some purpose he or she hasn’t chosen or agreed to. Nozick argues that if we are going to treat others in accord with their status as ends, then we must respect the traditional negative rights of classical liberalism. To sacrifice one person’s right to life, liberty, or property in order to benefit or increase the good of another individual is merely to forcefully use that person in order to benefit another. Such an action merely sacrifices one person for another, it treats the sacrificed person as a tool to be used for our purposes, and it therefore fails to respect the sacrificed person as an end. This is true even if our purpose in violating the right seems noble or good.
Laws protecting the individual from force, fraud, and the infliction of harm in the peaceful pursuit of life, according to Nozick, thus reflect a deep respect for the individual as an end rather than a means.
When one person kills, steals from, or coerces another person, the first person uses the other person merely as a means to an end the person hasn’t chosen. This is to treat him the way we treat a tool; it is to treat him as if he were not an autonomous agent with ends (purposes) of his own. Such treatment constitutes a denial of the person’s nature as an “end in himself.” However, when you refuse to kill another person even though you are angry at them, when you refuse to steal from someone even though you want their stuff, you are refusing to use other people merely as means to your ends, as resources at your disposal. In short, you are respecting the other person as an end in himself. In particular, when we respect the rights of others, we are treating others as beings who have their own lives to live, as beings who are capable of directing their lives on their own.
So, when we refuse to use or force another person, we are by implication treating the other person as an intrinsically valuable being–as a being who is valuable apart from his or her use to us. Thus, we truly respect the autonomy and intrinsic value of each other when we respect each other’s negative rights to life, property, and liberty.[xii]
Negative vs Positive Rights
During the twentieth century, some thinkers within the liberal school of thought began talking about additional rights. Each person, it was suggested, has a right to be provided with food, housing, clothing, a job, and medical care if the person is in need. Furthermore, this was held to be a right against the state, which means that the government is obligated to provide such assistance to all who might need it.
These rights, to food, housing, shelter, and so on, are sometimes called “welfare rights.” Welfare rights differ in many ways from the three original classical liberal rights. The difference is captured in the distinction between positive and negative rights. Modern political theorists distinguish between ” positive rights” and ” negative rights” as follows:
· Negative rights are rights against the aggressive, forceful interference of others in one’s own life, which is to say that they are rights to the non‑interference of others in one’s life. For instance, the right to life–negatively construed–is the right that others not kill you or try to kill you as you peacefully go about the business of living.
· Positive rights are rights to be given certain things under certain conditions. For instance, a positive right to life would be a right to be given, if you are in need, what you need to live.
Thus, negative rights are called “negative” because they require the absence of something, while positive rights are called “positive” because they require the presence of something.
In sum, negative rights are rights not to be (aggressively) forced while positive rights are rights to be given something or to be assisted in some way. If you will examine the three classic rights that were given in the previous section, you will notice that all three are negative rights.
The Correlativity of Rights and Duties The natural rights proclaimed by the classical liberals are called “claim rights” since each represents a claim made against others. Claim rights logically correlate with duties. (Note that a duty is something due someone.) This is the famous doctrine of the correlativity of rights and duties.
A claim right always implies a corresponding duty on the part of someone else and a duty to someone or to do something always implies a corresponding claim right on the part of someone else.
Thus, claim rights and duties imply each other, they are correlative.
Negative rights may be distinguished from positive rights in terms of the types of duties they imply. Positive rights imply positive duties–duties to do something or to provide something. These are duties of assistance. Negative rights imply negative duties–duties to refrain from interfering. These are duties of non-interference.
So if you have a positive claim right to something, this implies that someone else has a duty to provide you with that something or to help you acquire that something. And if you have a negative claim right to something, this implies only that others have a duty to refrain from forcefully interfering with you in certain ways as you peacefully pursue that something.
Since duties impose responsibilities on individuals, the correlativity doctrine explains why rights go with responsibility and why negative liberty and responsibility cannot be separated.
It was noted that claim rights correlate with duties. The three classic negative rights, since they are claim rights, impose corresponding duties on the part of others. Specifically, the three classic rights impose a duty on each of us to refrain from using force to deprive others of their life, liberty, or property (so long as those persons are not violating the rights of others).
Moral fences In a sense, negative rights are moral fences–fences that block people from violating our nature as a free and rational being. The philosopher John Hospers had negative rights in mind when he wrote:
When I claim a right, I carve out a niche, as it were, in my life, saying in effect, “This activity I must be able to perform without interference from others. For you and everyone else, this is off limits. And so I put up a “no trespassing” sign, which marks off the area of my right. Each individual’s right is his “no trespassing” sign in relation to me and others.[xiii]
According to classical liberalism, a society in which the state protects the three classic negative rights is a free society.
Locke’s Positive Right to Charity
Some people think that the classical liberals stood opposed to the provision of any kind of “welfare” for those in need. In a classical liberal society, it is often thought, the rich would live well, the poor would starve, and nobody would feel any obligation to help those in need. Thus, some think classical liberalism callously says, “Let the poor starve.”
However, commentators on classical liberalism rarely note that John Locke, the philosopher who was one of the original architects of classical liberalism and who was also a key influence on the authors of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, held that those with a surplus have a natural duty to help those in extreme need. Locke also held that a person who is in a state of extreme need has a corresponding natural right to be helped by those who have a surplus.
Since the existence of this positive “welfare right” is contested these days by some contemporary classical liberals, it will be valuable to briefly investigate Locke’s position.[xiv] According to Locke, a right to assistance in times of genuine and serious need, like the three classic negative rights, is based on a command from God. In the First Treatise, Locke wrote:
God has given no one of His children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it…Charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.[xv]
Locke is clearly speaking here of a positive natural right to charity. As I interpret him, this positive right to charity functions as a rider or limit on the negative right to property. Once one has surplus property, one has a (God-given) duty to share some with those–if they happen to exist–who (a) are in a state of extreme want and (b) have no other way to survive.
Locke’s reasoning is hard to deny if one is a traditional theist. For according to traditional Christian, Muslim, and Jewish belief, we have a duty (from God) to help those who may be in extreme need if we have a surplus. But duties logically and necessarily correlate with rights: if we have a duty to help those in need, then those in need have a right to be helped.[xvi]
In a number of places, Locke affirms the natural duty to give “alms” to the poor, to “feed the hungry,” and to give “relief” to “one who is in trouble.” He also speaks of the corresponding natural right of those in extreme need to receive charity from those who have a surplus. Thus, John Locke, one of the founders of classical liberalism, argued for at least one positive natural right–the right to be assisted in times of serious need.[xvii]
Should the Positive Right to Assistance be Enforced by Government?
The main philosophical question, concerning this positive right to aid, is not whether it exists. Rather, it is this: Should government enforce it by forcefully taxing those who have a surplus and giving this to those in extreme need? Or, should the matter be left in the private sector where it would be a matter of individual conscience and individual initiative? If charity is left in the private sector, it is then up to churches, private organizations, neighbors, family members, and individuals to voluntarily help those in need.
It is not clear whether Locke held that the positive right to aid is an enforceable right or a nonenforceable right. Political theorists distinguish these two types of right as follows:
· An enforceable right is a right which the state ought to enforce using laws, the police, the court system, and the prison system. Enforceable rights are rights backed by the threat of deadly force, for ultimately, if someone does not obey the state, he will be arrested and jailed, and if he resists arrest, he will ultimately be killed.
The classical liberals generally thought that the rights to life, liberty, and property were enforceable rights.
· A nonenforceable right is one whose violation the state should not enforce. That is, if someone fails to respect such a right, that is a private matter between individuals, to be settled privately between individuals, and the state has no business arresting someone over it, or throwing the violator in prison, or passing laws to force them to comply, and so on. In short, in the case of a nonenforceable right, the state has no business bringing force to bear on anyone, it has no business criminalizing the action.
For instance, many political theorists hold that there is a fundamental duty to be civil to others, and a corresponding right to be treated civily. A snotty, disrespectful, or offensive clerk at the local video store violates this right of the store’s customers. However, nobody wants the state to intervene and enforce this right, i.e., to arrest and imprison the uncivil clerk. Rather than criminalize such uncivil behavior, most agree this should be left a private, personal matter to be dealt with in the private sector of society. (For instance, the uncivil clerk will probably find himself out of a job if he doesn’t wise-up, and in the process he will learn a valuable lesson in life regarding how to treat others.)
Today, there is disagreement over whether Locke thought the positive right to aid should be enforceable, and there is also disagreement over whether it ought to be enforceable. Some advocates of classical liberalism hold that the government has no business providing any welfare to those in need. On this view, the Lockean positive right to aid should not be implemented by the state. Instead, it should be left a matter of individual conscience and voluntary action. Ideally, in a state of real freedom, people who have a surplus would voluntarily help those in need, and they would do so out of the goodness of their hearts, out of love, through private action, or through a church or a charitable institution. These classical liberals argue: Compared to the present system of governmental, bureacratized, forced charity, this voluntary type of charity would reflect a higher state of freedom.
However, other classical liberals hold that the state ought to provide limited assistance to those who are genuinely in serious need of help. Those classical liberals who do favor state-assistance to the poor also argue that the ultimate purpose of such “welfare” ought to be to help the individual become self-sufficient and thus responsible for his own life. Being responsible for one’s own life includes being able to provide for one’s own needs. According to these classical liberals, this ought to be the goal of government assistance. We will explore this issue in Chapter 33.
The Priority of Right over Good
As we have seen in previous chapters, the concepts of the Right and the Good are two of the main concepts of ethics. It is common to divide ethical theories into two general categories: teleological theories and deontological theories. In a teleological ethical theory, the good is defined first, independently from the right, with no reference to the right, and the right is then defined as that which maximizes the good. That is, according to a teleological theory, the right action is the action which produces the most good (of all the alternative actions). On this type of theory, something can be judged “good” with no reference to right, and the right action is then simply whatever action promotes the most good.
In a deontological theory, (from the Greek word “deontos” which means “duty”) the right is defined independently of the good, and principles of right put limits on what counts as good, i.e., on what has value. The principles of right restrict what can count as a reasonable conception of good. The right action is right due to some feature it has independent of whether or not it promotes a quantity of good, and the right thing is to be done out of a sense of duty or rightness rather than out of a motivation to maximize the quantity of good in the world.
As the philosopher John Rawls observes, our commonsense goes against the general teleological approach in ethics, for we naturally distinguish, in principle, between (a) a claim of liberty and right and (b) a claim of increasing the total quantity of good in society; and we also naturally give a certain priority to a claim of right over the value of an increase in total social welfare. For example, suppose we define goodness as “happiness.” Even if it would increase the total overall quantity of happiness in society if mentally ill homeless people were killed, common sense finds that the right to life of such individuals takes priority and blocks such a sacrifice. As Rawls put it, each person is naturally presumed to have “an inviolability founded on justice or, as some say, on natural right, which even the welfare of every one else cannot override” [xviii]
Classical liberalism is a deontological theory. Ideally, persons agree on principles of right, without necessarily agreeing on the nature of the good life. People thus agree to conform their particular pursuit of the good to what the principles of right allow. The person whose own particular idea of the good involves violating the right of another person agrees that he has no claim on doing what he wants-the good that he may be pursuing in such a case is not right and he agrees not to press his claim to be allowed to do it. Instead he will conform his pursuit of the good to principles of right. In drawing up plans for the good life, one takes into account the constraints of right.
The principles of right which classical liberalism puts forward place limits upon which satisfactions have value and upon what is to count as a reason