More on Rights

I’m still not feeling well enough to really go deeper into rights-history, so for now here’s what I’ve been thinking of:

Is a secular (non-theistic) grounding of human rights possible? Can one ground rights in a solid way without recourse to some kind of theistic belief? For those who may not know, I myself am fully convinced that only a theistic account of rights/worth provides the grounding needed for a solid theory of rights.

4 thoughts on “More on Rights

  1. Ryan June 17, 2012 / 1:26 pm

    Absolutely, it is possible, and has a long history of philosophical discourse. Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are early examples of philosophers from very different schools of thought who nevertheless both wrote about a system of rights that did not rely on theist accounts, while John Rawls and Robert Nozick would be two more contemporary examples of competing schools that both give non-theist or even explicitly atheist accounts of rights-derivation. Even John Locke wrote that the state of nature had a governing law–Reason–from which specific rights such as the right to life, liberty, and property could be derived. Whether man was endowed with Reason from God or not is irrelevant to Locke’s discussion; man has Reason, and with that alone, rights can be established. In fact, Locke gave a pointed criticism of accounts of rights that were based on religious grounds. In his “Letters Concerning Toleration,” he said that there was no independent way of evaluating the claims of competing religious groups, and that by extension, denying people worldly rights on the basis of their belief in specific religious creeds was untenable.


  2. whitefrozen June 17, 2012 / 2:08 pm

    Rawls and Nozick I’m not as familiar with as I’d like to be – but Burke, Locke and Rousseau do indeed present compelling accounts of rights – though I would personally consider Locke to be the weakest, simply because I find the whole ‘natural law’ idea untenable and based more on nominalism than I’m comfortable with. I’m certainly not, however, advocating denying *anyone* any rights based on creed. I’m trying to see what account provides the best grounding of rights – not trying to take away rights based on creeds that I find unsatisfactory.


    • Ryan June 17, 2012 / 2:33 pm

      Sorry, it wasn’t my intent to sound accusatory. The “Letters Concerning Toleration” remark was more of an aside than it was a response. Rousseau and Rawls in particular echo your concerns with Locke. Rawls’s “Theory of Justice” might, in that sense, be a good source, but I can’t even pretend to understand, let alone summarize, most of its contents.


      • whitefrozen June 17, 2012 / 2:43 pm

        No worries. Rawls is very dense – hence why I’ve not gotten into him yet. I’m actually at the moment going through some of Locke’s 2nd Treatise, and I need to try and find the Rousseau that’s hiding about. Hobbes as well presents some interesting, though grim, ideas on justice, etc.


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