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Human Rights

The Classic Theories: Hobbes And Locke

Selden's best-known adherent was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who developed the insights of the former into a powerful individualist theory of human rights. In his major works, culminating in Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ascribed to all human beings natural liberty as well as equality, on the basis of which they are licensed to undertake whatever actions might be necessary to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Such self-preservation constituted the indispensable core of human rights. Adopting an extreme position against the Aristotelian teaching of political naturalism, Hobbes maintained that the exercise of one's natural liberty leads directly to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear, inasmuch as nature confers on each individual the right to possess everything and imposes no limitation on one's freedom to enjoy this right. Unalloyed nature yields a state of chaos and warfare and, as a result, a "nasty, brutish, and short" life, the avoidance of which leads human beings to authorize a single sovereign ruler in order to maintain peace. The exchange of natural freedom for government-imposed order, constructed through a social compact, requires renunciation of all claims on rights that humans possess by nature (except, of course, for the right of self-preservation itself) and voluntary submission to any dictate imposed by the sovereign. In this way, Hobbes seconds Selden's defense of absolute government, yet upholds the basic right to self-preservation. Moreover, under the terms of Hobbes's absolute sovereignty, subjects are still deemed to retain the right to choose for themselves concerning any and all matters about which the ruler has not explicitly legislated.

John Locke (1632–1704) crystallized the preceding conceptions of human rights into the quintessential statement of the modern idea. He began his major work on political theory, the Two Treatises of Government (written c. 1680; published 1689), by postulating the divinely granted human rights of individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one's life and to lay claim to the goods one requires for survival. Arguing against the patriarchal doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653), Locke insists that no natural basis—neither paternity nor descent—justifies the submission of one person to another. Rather, all people are deemed sufficiently rational, as well as free and equal, in their natural condition that they can govern themselves according to a basic cognizance of moral (natural) law, and, thus, will generally respect the rights of others. In contrast to Hobbes, Locke maintains that the condition of perfect natural liberty does not represent a state of war. In the state of nature, human beings can enjoy unimpeded rights to acquire private property, the ownership of which is asserted on the basis of the admixture of their labor (the natural talents and industry of their bodies) with the physical world. Indeed, Locke's state of nature resembles nothing so much as a fully functioning commercial society, which has introduced a system of exchange relations and money, all perfectly consonant with the recognition of the human rights of individuals.

On Locke's account, then, there is no pressing necessity for people living in the state of nature to eschew this condition for formalized communal life. Hence, should they choose to enter into bonds of civil society by means of a contract, the sole reason that they do so is to avoid the "inconveniences" and inefficiency of the pre-civil world. This does not require parties to the contract to surrender any of their human rights. Indeed, the only government worthy of authorization is that which strictly upholds and protects the rights that persons possess by nature. According to Locke, any magistrate that systematically denies to his subjects the exercise of their natural rights to their life, liberty, and estate is tyrannical and unworthy of obedience. Locke closes the Second Treatise with a discussion of the dissolution of government. In his view, a regime that systematically violates human rights places itself in a state of war with the members of civil society, who severally and individually may renounce allegiance to it and may vote to establish a new government. Some have viewed Locke as justifying revolution on the basis of human rights, but his actual point seems to be less extreme: the retention of one's human rights in civil society affords one the ability to protect oneself from those (whether housebreakers or magistrates) who would try to take one's property or limit one's proper sphere of liberty. Locke's resistance theory represents a chastened, but nonetheless genuine, defense of human rights.

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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