A fuller exploration of these would take one back to the middle ages (where William of Ockham’s political thought was and remains hugely influential) and the development of the nation-state leading to the rise of nationalism – which in turn would take one back to the seminal political writing of all time, Plato’s Republic. Other crucial early modern thinkers would include Hobbes and Locke, though the political side of the reformation and the thought of the reformers is equally important.
In the nature of my investigation into rights, rights history, justice, and ethics:
‘This authority and power of self-defense and preservation being originally and naturally in every one of them, and unitedly in them all, for ease, for order, and lest each man should be his own partial judge, they communicated and derived either to one whom for the eminence of his wisdom and integrity they chose above the rest, or to more than one whom they thought of equal deserving. The first was called a king, the other, magistrates: not to be their lords and masters (though afterward those names in some places were given voluntarily to such as had been authors of inestimable good to the people), but to be their deputies and commissioners, to execute, by virtue of their entrusted power, that justice which else every man by the bond of nature and of covenant must have executed for himself, and for one another. And to him that shall consider well why among free persons one man by civil right should bear authority and jurisdiction over another, no other end or reason can be imaginable.’
‘For as to this question in hand, what the people by their just right may do in change of government or of governor, we see it cleared sufficiently, besides other ample authority, even from the mouths of princes themselves. And surely they that shall boast, as we do, to be a free nation, and not have in themselves the power to remove or abolish any governor supreme or subordinate, with the government itself upon urgent causes, may please their fancy with a ridiculous and painted freedom fit to cozen babies; but are indeed under tyranny and servitude, as wanting that power which is the root and source of all liberty, to dispose and economize in the land which God hath given them, as masters of family in their own house and free inheritance. Without which natural and essential power of a free nation, though bearing high their heads, they can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves and vassals born, in the tenure and occupation of another inheriting lord, whose government, though not illegal or intolerable, hangs over them as a lordly scourge, not as a free government — and therefore to be abrogated.’
– John Milton
After some thought, it seems that justice is grounded in rights, and rights are grounded in worth and respect for worth. This, I think, gives the best grounding for rights. I also think that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives the best account of human worth – but I am interested in hearing from those who do not agree on this matter.
Questions to consider: If rights are not grounded in worth, what are they grounded in? Is there a better account of human worth than the Judeo-Christian tradition?
Here’s a fantastic discussion/debate on the topic of grounding human rights:
It’s long and technical, but well worth your time. If you click the link and go to YouTube, each different topics beginning time is marked to make navigation a bit easier.
A few preliminary thoughts:
My goal here is basically to test Nicholas Wolterstorffs thesis that the concept of natural human rights originated not with the Enlightenment, and not in the middle ages, but in the Old Testament. I’ll probably refrain from developing any theories of rights (I’ve done that, albeit not very well, elsewhere) here – this is primarily going to be a historical exercise.
Brian Tierney’s book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Natural-Rights-University/dp/0802848540/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339860404&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+tierney) does what I think is an outstanding job showing that the idea of rights goes back at least to the middle ages – I won’t be defending that thesis because honestly, I think it’s pretty hard to argue with.
There is no room for doubting the idea that justice is a major theme of the Old Testament – particularly in the writings of the Prophets. The question is, however, does this concept of justice contain a primitive idea of rights that developed into what we recognize as rights today?
For inherent, natural rights to be valid, it seems that humans must have worth – humans with value have a right to not be treated in a certain way. This is a thesis of Wolterstorffs that I agree with – that rights are grounded in worth.
‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)
If this is in fact the case, that rights are grounded in worth, then the Old Testament is a treasure-trove of primitive rights ideas – not full-blown theories, obviously. The Old Testament writers were not jurists or lawyers developing legal theory. But a central idea of the Old Testament is that human beings have worth. If the thesis above is true, thenby default the Old Testament is implicitly saying that human beings also have rights.
This leads to an interesting question: can rights be grounded without worth bestowed by God? In other words, can a solid, well-grounded secular theory of rights be developed?
I’m not feeling well enough to delve into the more academic inquiry into rights at the moment – so here’s a few resources to lay the groundwork and context for the more serious inquiry.
This is an excellent (and short) essay by Brian Tierny which briefly details the medieval development of the concept of natural rights: http://www.medievalists.net/2012/06/10/the-idea-of-natural-rights-origins-and-persistence/
Nicholas Wolterstorffs outstanding book, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’: http://books.google.com/books?id=SMUBIUt4PEYC&pg=PA109&lpg=PA109&dq=nicholas+wolterstorff+justice+in+the+new+testament&source=bl&ots=CFv4D9ci9w&sig=OiXGxlqgywVyPVX40JWF8jrZwY0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=f49oT7OuMsiusgL304yVCQ&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false
And lastly, my own musings on the topic of rights, ethics, justice, etc:
I’m doing some reading on the medieval development of the idea of natural rights, as opposed to the notion that they developed as a result of secular though – fascinating subject. Nicholas Wolterstorffs book ‘Justice; Rights and Wrongs’, develops the theory further, that the idea of rights is found in the Old and New Testament. Some more posts (probably brief posts) on the subject will probably be forthcoming.