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Bentham critiques the Declaration of Rights, given its difficult topic, the natural rights of man, for being produced by committee, a work of many hands that was subsequently sanctioned by government. Not just any government, but a government composed of many disparate parts, suggesting, I think, the impact that the composition of such a varied group will have on notions of “rights”. In addition, he appears to be saying that these facts, who wrote it and what they were writing about, will undermine the overall accuracy and truth of the document.

Further, since the “penners” of this text acquired their power through “insurrection”, they can be seen as creating ideas that justify the revolution. Ironically, though, when a group justifies revolution, they invite it, he observes. These founding fathers are like assassins seeking a title, seeking legitimacy through words. By saying to the masses, here are your rights: if government violates them, even a tiny bit, you have the right ( no, a duty!) to overthrow it, a shaky foundation for government is being laid.

Bentham thinks that the ideas contained in this text are appealing to the selfish passions of the populace. Curtailing these passions is the “great” aim of government, and here a government is arousing these destructive sentiments. Yet this text is honored? (refers to the incendiary of the Ephesian temple..look that up). What is the morality of this document?

The text is “nonsense”, he writes. It uses vague words to distort. He criticizes the document for not acknowledging its limitations, for not including the many caveats and distinctions which a text on this topic demands. “Trite” and “unmeaning” are used in this paragraph by Bentham to convey his disdain.

Quoting from the Declaration:
Article II
The end in view of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
Bentham now attack the above passage, attempting to illustrate how flimsy and vague, as well as dangerous, its conceits are.
He starts by stating his premises:

1. When one speaks of natural rights, he is contrasting them with legal rights, which “owe their existence” to government. Natural rights, on the other hand, supposedly exist prior to government. Bentham does NOT think that rights can exist *before* the establishment of government. Natural rights are a fiction, a use of figurative language that as soon as you take it literal loses all substance and meaning.

2. He challenges the idea that these natural rights are “imprescriptible”, meaning they cannot be limited by government.

3. He also disputes the idea that governments derive their power from “formal associations”, or conventions, that involve contractual agreements. What about government that have not formed this way? Are they “illegal”, and do the authors of this text suggest they ought to be overthrown?

When there is no government there is no law. No law equals no rights, no security, no property. “Perfect liberty” is no liberty, he explains. He points to various savages that illustrate these truths (savages of New South Wales???)

Although he doesn’t use the term, this is a reference to the idea of a state of nature. He says it is to live like the beasts. “A want of happiness” results from “a want of rights”. Due to the insecurity of the state of nature, human beings wish rights into existence. Rights , then, are an idea, a construct.

And since rights are not real, they cannot be destroyed. We cannot preserve what we do not possess. This is all “nonsense upon stilts”, quoting Bentham’s famous phrase.

After a group asserts its (“pretended”) natural rights, it then proceeds to list them and treat them as legal rights, which, the group claims, cannot be violated in any way. Bentham refers to this language as “terrorist language”.

Mid-way through the text Bentham states what he thinks reason says about this subject, presenting his view of the topic. What does Bentham say?

Bentham states that a group ought to discuss whether a particular right is worth establishing and maintaining based on its advantages and disadvantages to the group. But to do this, the right must be clearly described and explained, not presented as a “jumbled” confusion. For example, arguing that people possess the rights of “property” and “liberty” is to say so much than one actually says very little.

When such general language is used nobody knows what they are talking about. Despite this lack of clarity, they proceed to demand that these (pretended) rights are imprescriptible and worth fighting for.
This lack of precision, he proclaims, is done on purpose. It is done to incite violence, to undermine the government. Perpetual revolution is unleashed by the forces articulated in this text.

These natural (imprescriptible and unrepealable) rights do not come from above. They originate in the minds of those who seek power…. (more to come)

Anyone reading this?
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