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Do We Have Rights? (part 1)

John Locke vs. Thomas Hobbes

by Christian Ledford

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes each had their views on human rights. A comparison of their views bears monumental relevance in our modern political paradigm and also levies a frightening indictment on how human rights are understood today. While frustrated masses desperately yearn for the promises of entitlements to education, healthcare, safety, and security, made by leftism, socialism, and even communism, ideas on what natural rights are become muddled, subjective, and intangible; Leftism, at a base level, posits that the rights of the individual are not only able to be violated but also justified in being violated as long as their violation serves the supposed wellbeing of the collective. Similarly, a frightening rise in rightwing nationalism that targets the rights of individuals and subjugates them to the collective based on race, gender, sexuality, and class creates just as many enemies of natural rights on the opposing side of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, outnumbered defenders of natural rights hardly seem to know what rights even are or where they come from, as they desperately cling to documents such as the U.S. Constitution as their only defense, ignoring the fact that every single individual right specified by the Constitution would still exist even if a centuries-old piece of paper didn’t say they did.

In our modern sociopolitical culture, the rhetoric, dialogue, and philosophy surrounding the idea of “rights” has become, to say the least, muddled. Politicians and activists on both the leftwing and the rightwing have laid claim to discourse on rights, each defining the idea in terms of and respect to their own political ends. While the rightwing largely discusses rights in a positive context in the sense of property rights or the oft-heralded “right to bear arms”, the leftwing contrastingly discusses rights in a negative context in the sense of the “right” to education, the “right” to healthcare, the “right” to a living wage, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. However, the argument can (and should) be made that neither side actually fully understands the idea of natural rights, what they are, where they come from, or what they mean in the context of morality and human dignity.

Despite the idea of rights being such an ubiquitous concept in nearly all areas of modern political philosophy and political theory and debate on natural rights interspersed throughout antiquity, serious discussion surrounding natural rights and their political implications really only came to the forefront of political theory with the Enlightenment. One of the first major works that touched upon the concept was Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 work Leviathan, where natural rights were largely defined as natural abilities that humans inherently possess prior to and beyond any state. Hobbes wrote “The Right of Nature…is the liberty each man [as], to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything, which in his own judgement, and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto” (Hobbes, 189).

However, this understanding of natural rights as put forth by Hobbes is largely relative, vague, and unconducive to any definite understanding of rights or objective system of ethics; a cynical reading of Hobbesian philosophy could dismiss his understanding of rights as largely one concerned with blanket “might makes right” survival of the fittest. To be fair, Hobbes even realized this himself, writing soon after “It [follows], that in such a condition, every man has a right to everything; even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endures, there can be no security to any man…That every man, ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war” (Hobbes, 190). Although the Hobbesian definition gave a firm negative context of natural rights that, in great measure, dispels leftist ideals of positive rights, it left much to be desired, in both political and ethical terms. Even worse, this vagueness led Hobbes to the frightening and misguided conclusion that, if humans had any natural rights worthy of protection, the only force possible to consistently protect said rights was an authoritarian state, the titular “Leviathan”.  Cue John Locke.

Look for part 2 next week. 

 

  • 11 November 2020
  • Author: Guest Blogger
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