Since John Locke spent so much time talking about the law of nature, which is based on reason, and the corresponding natural law and rights, I thought this week we would take a look at a text that is critical of natural rights: Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights by Jeremy Bentham (from From Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies, vol. 2 of Bowring (ed.), Works, 1843.).Bentham begins by referring to the Declaration of Rights published by the French assembly in 1791 (not sure if this is the Declaration of the Rights of Man that was written in 1789). He says that the topic of that text is both "unbound" and important.(My comments on Bentham’s text end here. That was fast! I’d like to reflect on Locke’s idea of natural law before proceeding.) Many (some?) are willing to concede that the idea of a state of nature, whether real or hypothetical, is a logical place to begin a discussion about the origins of government or civil society. Government is created by man; therefore, it did not always exist. So discussing what life was like before man created government is logical, if not highly speculative. Less agreement has existed over issues of consent, which Locke considered a key component of a just government. How is consent given, especially by those who were not around when the government was created?In addition, and the focus of Bentham's efforts, questions arise over the idea of natural law and natural rights. In a state of nature, one might argue, if government does not exist then laws do not exist, including natural laws, whatever that means.Locke contends that natural laws are real. They are based on the nature of man. In a previous post, I questioned whether any philosopher who relies on the concept of natural law can do so without depending on an appeal to God and God's will (I am sure some have. Just haven’t read about them yet).It seems that if the expression the “nature of man” is meant to be anything more than just a passing reference to the myriad ways that man acts, then the motives and intentions of man's creator, if there is one, seem relevant. Locke argues that man's nature is to act rational (is it?). What does he mean by rational? He says to be rational is to behave according to the laws of nature. What are the laws of nature? The laws of nature (natural laws) are guided by reason. What is reason? Who created natural laws? In a previous post I said, influenced by reading Locke, that the laws of nature are embedded in the nature of man. What did I mean by this? I think I meant that how man acts reveal something about his nature. And if you accept the idea of a creator, you may think that man's behavior also reveals something about the being that created him. Where does Locke's knowledge of God come from? Is it more from religious teaching and texts than from how man acts? Locke's political philosophy asserts that the government that man creates will possess certain characteristics if it is to be deemed legitimate (just and reasonable). What are these characteristics? The two biggest, I think, are the following:Based on the consent of each member of societyFocused on protecting each member's life, liberty, and propertyWhy does Locke focus on these ideas?By now, it should be clear that Locke believes that since man is rational, he would only consent to become a member of a society that he deems superior to a state of nature. By giving consent, he is agreeing to hand over his natural right to enforce the laws of nature, a right that Locke argues every man possesses. When each member of society relinquishes the right to use force, every man benefits because society becomes considerably more stable, peaceful.What man does not hand over are his inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. The key point here is that if this government, or any other government, tries to violate any member of society of their natural rights (life, liberty, property), then he or she can use force to resist this threat. The right to defend one's inalienable rights can never be given away. What rational man would give them away?Inalienable rights, it seems, are the starting point for understanding natural rights. Let's look closer at the idea of inalienable rights. Why does Locke think that inalienable rights, if they exist at all, are life, liberty, and property? Couldn't others argue that they are comprised of other rights? For example, life, food, and 9 children? Or maybe the creator has picked 50 people and their offspring to inherit all of the gifts of the earth, and all other people are to work to improve the existence of God's chosen 50. Aren't these ideas just as possible, and arbitrary, as Locke's life, liberty, and property? (I have more to say on this and will try to tomorrow.)
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