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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Politics and Human Rights)

Because we’re American citizens we all have certain basic rights. But where do these rights come from in the first place? This is an important question. One line of thinking goes like this. Our civil rights are outlined in the United States Constitution and further clarified in court cases. Under this theory civil rights have been granted to us by government. A second theory goes like this. Our rights come from directly God, not from any human government. Which theory is right?

John Locke says that men being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions… This sentence makes Locke sound like he believes rights are granted by the state. And that makes sense to many Americans. We do feel that Americans are all equal, at least under the law. No American citizen can kill another citizen; or injure them; or confine them against their consent; or steal from them. These are written into American law and enforced by local, state and federal governments. But then Locke goes on to say for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure. These sentences place Locke squarely on the side of those who believe that basic human rights are God-given, not government-granted. So Locke appears to be straddling the middle of two theories. He seems to be saying that basic human rights do, in fact, come straight from God. But certain civil rights are, indeed, granted to us by our government. Locke helps us understand this better by breaking down our rights into two categories.

The first category is ruled by natural reason, which tells us that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink and such other things as Nature affords for their subsistence… Nature has given us reason and we use it as a reliable guide in conducting our daily affairs. Governments provide legal guidelines for its citizens. But these guidelines change according to the circumstances of the times. Once upon a time Americans didn’t have a legal right to buy liquor; now we do. Times change, laws change.

But Locke thinks there’s another category of rights which can’t be changed. This second category is "revelation," which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah and his sons… These God-granted rights are permanent. They can’t be handed out by government; they can’t be taken away by government. It’s true that some nations take away the civil rights of its citizens every day. But Locke would reply that these aren’t legitimate powers. Locke says that the great and chief end of men’s… putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. One of the most primary functions of legitimate government is to protect the property of its citizens. A government which takes away private property is not acting for the common good of all its citizens. And Locke goes to great pains to stress that these permanent rights apply primarily to things which we all have in common. This is the real basis for community. Because as Locke understands political theory it is very clear that God, as King David says (Psalm 115. 16), "has given the earth to the children of men," given it to mankind in common. For Locke this declaration is the foundation of all basic human rights. All human beings are born with God-given rights. Governments are free to add more rights but they can’t take these away.


Blogger SMJ said...

I do not disagree that the idea of natural rights may be derived from a concept of government (Montesquieu) or from a belief in God (Aquinas), but you have neglected to mention a third option: that natural rights has its origin in another idea-- the concept of natural law, which is prior to the institution of government, nor is it dependent on any religious principles enforceable by God. The idea of natural law can be traced all the way back to Plato, who conceived of certain eternal ideas (or forms) such as beauty, truth, justice and the good. Immanuel Kant based his moral theory on the principle of reason, which can be loosely stated as "act as though your action can be derived from a universal law applicable to everyone." Hobbes believed that in a state of nature, every man has unlimited rights or liberty to do as he pleases. Unfortunately, this unrestricted freedom includes the taking of someone elses property or life. To prevent this, men agreed to give up some of their natural rights to ensure their greater safety from harm.
Hegel also believed that the notion of natural right is inseparable from the idea of individuality, irrespective of any divine power or secular authority. Here, I think the rights of an individual evolve over time and are related to the age in which a person lives, as well as the consciousness of the individual which comes into full awareness of itself, not simply as a by-product of reason, but of reason itself as a spirit (idea). Here, Hegel's thought again resonates with Plato's own notion of eternal ideas. So the question of where the concept of "natural rights" has its origin is not limited to just positive law or divine law, but also predates the very idea of law itself into a deeper exploration of human consciousness.

2/07/2013 7:53 AM  

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