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Human Rights

The Reformation And Its Aftermath

At nearly the same time that Las Casas was grappling with Spanish imperialism, the idea of human rights also received refinement and application in the context of the religious Reformation. On the Protestant side, rights theory became a major element of late-sixteenth-century Huguenot efforts to ground their justification of resistance to governments that imposed doctrinal conformity on religious dissenters. While the earliest generations of Reformers had looked toward duty to God in order to justify acts of political disobedience, a noticeable change in language and concepts occurred in the wake of the St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre of 1572. In this vein, Théodore de Bèze (1519–1605) and Philippe de Mornay (1549–1623), as well as a large body of anonymous texts, argued for a condition of human liberty—a privilege of nature whose rightful withdrawal is impossible—that precedes the creation of political society. Therefore, any subsequent government must result from, and must be consonant with, the basic natural state of humanity. Those who would use political power to deny to human beings the exercise of their liberty—including the freedom of conscience to dissent from the established Roman Church—may properly and licitly be challenged with forms of resistance to their tyranny. The Huguenots stopped short, however, of advocating popular rebellion. Instead, they looked to "intermediary magistrates" as the appropriate instigators of resistance to tyrannical conduct. Hence, for sixteenth-century Reformers, the idea of human rights became a stimulus for a religio-political movement that directly opposed forms of religious intolerance and suppression of dissent.

The Counter-Reformation produced its own version of human rights theory that developed out of the language and concepts pioneered by the Parisian theologians Mair and Almain. This is especially evident in the work of the "Second Scholastic" thinkers associated with the School of Salamanca, such as Francisco Vitoria (1486?–1546), Domingo de Soto (1494–1560), and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). Vitoria had been trained in Paris and returned to Spain to spread the ideas to which he had been exposed there. Although Vitoria himself wrote nothing, leaving only lecture summaries, his students and their intellectual progeny produced some of the fullest and most enthusiastic elaborations of human rights (Las Casas, for example, was influenced by him). In particular, Vitoria and de Soto explored the complexities of rights theories, moving away from the traditional Thomistic conception of rights as objective duties required by reason. Vitoria's work seems to have contained two differing conceptions of subjective human rights—one connected with individual dominium, the other defined in relation to communal law. Each position involved notable limitations and flaws, which led de Soto to attempt to resolve them into a coherent formulation of rights that incorporated both public and private dimensions. Suárez added further to the theory by identifying ius with self-preservation and drawing from this some, albeit limited, political implications. He held that a human right existed to resist extreme forms of tyranny, construed as those circumstances in which the survival of the community as a whole was endangered. Otherwise, the misbehavior of government was to be tolerated, lest communal destruction result from acts of disobedience and resistance.

While the School of Salamanca remained steeped in the neo-Aristotelian doctrines of the later Middle Ages, other thinkers attempted to replace this framework with a paradigm for human rights rooted purely in legal principles. Especially celebrated in this regard were Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and John Selden (1584–1654). Grotius proposed that rights should be grounded solely on the universality of the propriety of human self-preservation, thereby placing self-interest at the center of a human system. He reasoned that human beings enjoy dominium over those goods that are immediately necessary in order to preserve themselves: rightful private ownership is directly licensed as a human right. Moreover, he attacked the Aristotelian doctrine of the naturalism of political society. Instead, for Grotius social order must be voluntary, and the only reason that people would join civil society would be for self-protection. As a consequence, the individual does not surrender human rights by entering into a communal arrangement and, indeed, may resist a direct attack on those rights by a magistrate. While Selden enunciated a sustained critique of Grotius, he ultimately embraced an account of human rights derived from his adversary. Selden devalued reason in sense of a moral force with the power to bind and compel the actions of individuals. Rather, he stressed that human rights are directly correlated to natural liberty, such that the only basis for individual obligation is free assent to contracts and compacts, which, once agreed to, must be maintained without exception. For Selden, in contrast to Grotius, natural liberty itself could be renounced by a valid act of human will.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acidHuman Rights - Stoicism And Roman Jurisprudence, Christianity And Medieval Contributions, Modern Natural Rights, The Reformation And Its Aftermath