Sunday, November 23, 2008

U[I]nalienable Rights

[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. -- Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind," p. 165.

That was Allan Bloom crediting Hobbsean-Lockean Enlightenment with the notion of unalienable rights. The East Coast Straussians, of which Bloom is the most famous figure, view "rights talk" as a fundamentally modern enterprise and a break with classical or Christian "worldviews." A number of notable social conservatives agree with this idea -- for instance, Robert Bork -- and they in turn are likely to endorse a strictly constructed understanding of the US Constitution, with the Declaration of Independence purposefully having no part of constitutional interpretation.

Yet, Allan Bloom's/the East Coast Straussians' view of "rights talk" remains highly debated. This is the subject of many books, not a medium sized blog post. The rest of my post is going to have a narrow focus: Who first coined the phrase "unalienable" or "inalienable rights"? I have found that it was indeed John Locke, as Bloom notes above. This is not the same as the much harder to answer question: Who first posited the concept, without necessarily using the phrase? For instance, Roger Williams' ideas on "liberty of conscience" more or less say the same thing as Locke's, and Williams predated Locke. However Williams didn't use the phrase "u[i]nalienable rights."

The most recent Coral Ridge program featured one Dr. Robert Peters who suggested that Samuel Rutherford and John Knox first put forth the concepts of u[i]nalienable rights even intimating they used that term by name. However, that is not true. They didn't use the term "u[i]nalienable rights." At least not from what I have uncovered.

It's been noted that John Locke borrowed the concept of u[i]nalienable rights from Samuel Rutherford. However, no evidence directly connects Locke to Rutherford. Locke certainly never cited Rutherford. Francis Schaeffer seems to be the source of this myth in the modern age. It's possible that Locke absorbed Rutherford's ideas by osmosis. [They were "in the air" as Tom Van Dyke would put it.] However, Locke's views were similar to Rutherford's only insofar as both posited the legitimacy of resisting Kings under Romans 13. On religious liberty issues, Rutherford and John Knox were both unrepentant theocrats who defended Calvin's execution of Michael Servetus simply for preaching theological unitarianism. You can read of the very disturbing primary sources here. On top features a quotation of Rutherford's:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, "A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience." (1649).

You can read John Knox's disgraceful defense of Servetus' execution here.

It's been brought to my attention that Roman Catholic theologians may have anticipated John Locke's and Algernon Sidney's natural rights ideas that America's Founders used to declare independence (indeed Sidney cites them in his writings). However I still have seen no evidence that these Roman Catholic sources used the term "u[i]nalienable rights."

Why is all of this relevant? For a variety of reasons, folks of different ideologies want to "claim" the Founding. If their heritage gave it us, as the theory goes, they own it and therefore deserve some kind of special recognition or privilege in terms of what America "ought" to be. It's no surprise that on the Calvinist Coral Ridge Hour they tried to credit Calvinist sources, that the Acton Institute, comprised mainly of Roman Catholics, wants to credit Roman Catholic sources for America's Founding ideals, and secularists want to credit the Enlightenment. None of this, of course, "poisons the well," because one of them may be right...or not.

But, in the end we are left with John Locke as the first to coin the phrase "u[i]alienable rights," and without question he is "America's philosopher." And in this "religious heritage" battle over American Founding ideals we are left with a half empty half full figure with Locke. Locke called himself a Christian and believed Jesus was the Messiah and termed Christianity "reasonable." He also excessively used reason/natural law in his philosophical inquiries and posited ideas that arguably conflicted with the traditional Christian view of reality. Finally he was accused of being a theological unitarian in an era when one wasn't free to openly deny the Trinity (see Servetus). And in all likelihood, he was one.


Tom Van Dyke said...

But the question is whether unalienable rights as endowed by his Creator under the laws of nature and nature's God are the same as rights claimed/asserted by man on his own behalf with no other grounding. This is the question of our current age.

"[W]ithout intending it, he is in agreement with today's liberals, who (unlike Bloom) want to replace the America of equal opportunity and moral self-restraint with a society of forced egalitarianism and libertine self-expression. In such a society, liberty will be abolished in favor of a false conception of equality (it is already in the course of being abolished). The kind of education that Bloom praises will disappear."

---From the "West Coast Straussian" Thomas G. West's rebuttal to Allan Bloom's version of the Founding:

Hunter Baker said...

The question behind the question is how do you get a John Locke? And why didn't philosophers from a non-Christian part of the world come up with the idea. Locke comes from a culture that has marinated in Christ for centuries. So what if he ends up as some kind of unitarian? That hardly undercuts the importance of Christianity in the natural rights tradition.

Anonymous said...

I would urge caution in handling the notion of inalienable rights.

Contemporary speakers often treat inalienable rights and natural rights interchangeably. But there is a very important difference. A natural right is (roughly) a right had prior to society and its conventions and grounded in human nature, whereas an inalienable right is one that cannot be voluntarily surrendered or transferred to another.

Hobbes, for example, thought that we have a natural right to self-preservation, which in the state of nature amounts to a right to everything on earth. However, the only inalienable right for Hobbes is the right to immediate self-defense (L 21.11) -- this is inalienable because human psychology makes incapable of peacefully acquiescing in our own death (L 14.29).

Hutcheson, similarly, defended liberty of conscience as "unalienable" on grounds of psychological necessity: "men must assent according to the evidence that appears to them, and cannot command their own assent in opposition to it" (System 3.9).

I think the closest thing in Locke to inalienable rights is his argument against absolute arbitrary authority: since we don't have a right to arbitrary suicide in the first place, we therefore cannot voluntarily surrender it to others. But, in general, the name of the game for Locke, of course, is people surrendering their natural freedom and the rights that come with it, in order to better preserve their property (which is consistent with the legislative power, authorized by majority rule, taking some of your property for the common good).

In sum, 'inalienable rights' traditionally refers to a specialized class of rights that, for some reason or another (psychological necessity, not ever existing in the first place), cannot be voluntarily surrendered or transferred to others.

Hunter Baker said...

I recognize such distinctions can be drawn, but they don't mean much to my argument. The only point I seek to make is that the tradition of rights, natural or inalienable, comes out of the Christian west.

Is John Locke Billy Graham? No. Does it matter much? No.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Your point is well taken. However, the story behind why the rights theory developed and who in the Christian West developed them and on what grounds are also important historical nuances. For instance, Rutherford, Knox, Calvin, and Winthrop aren't exactly minor figures ignorant of the Bible or the historic teachings of Christianity. Yet, their understanding of the Bible (as defensible as Locke's, arguably more orthodox and traditional) led them to conclude we should burn heretics at the stake or hang them. Rights teachings, it seems to me, caught on because they solved a problem that plagued the Christian West, much like an antibody develops to immunize against a virus.

Hunter Baker said...

I'll tell you who I think is overlooked in that recitation. Luther. Read Luther's On Secular Authority. He has it down well ahead of Locke. No souls ruled by steel.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not atall, Jonathan. The question of heretics is a political one and therefore derivative.

Mr. Baker's objection may be illustrated through the controlled experiment of looking at Islam: a putatively Abrahamic religion and a culture that was more steeped c. 1000 CE in Plato and especially Aristotle than the putatively Christian West. In other words, they had not only the God of Abraham but the classical Greeks as well.

Yet the closest they came to anything resembling Americanism is the modern nation of Turkey, which emphasizes not American-style religious pluralism, but the French notion of laïcité, a militant secularism, a "freedom" from religion.

According to my latest issue of First Things, the French word laïcité! [etymology: "laity"] is chanted in the streets of Istanbul by the Kemalists, those who embrace Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of the modern Turkish state.

Whether laïcité is a viable let alone tenable political mechanism---and it's at the gates of America, if it hasn't finally breached the walls---as Chou en-Lai supposedly said about the effects of the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell.

Nice, Dave2. Very nice. The notion of liberty per Locke is analogized if not tied in principle to the right to property, and every man owns himself. Still, despite efforts to make Locke a subversive, he says that God gave man life, and accordingly, man is not free to do himself in, to throw away the gift he has been entrusted with. Worth more study and discussion, and thank you. You found the bullseye on this.

Jon, I do not agree that "rights teachings" got around the problem, per Thomas G. West's quote above. Laïcité? Non, Non, Monsieur. We do not ban Muslim headscarves in this here country, although we have our own Kemalists when it comes to the free exercise of religion when it comes to thought, speech and, in the coming days, perhaps deed.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

It is fruitful to consider exactly what a "right" is, in the context of thinking about which ones are not alieanable. The concept is surprisingly slippery.

Locke's formulation, that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" jazzes me, of course, since he uses "ought", a word I spend too much time thinking about. Locke is establishing a universal moral proscription, albeit without linking it to his moral theory, pointing instead to an innovative application of property rights (here is Locke's full sentence): "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's."

The founders had less of a Lockean divine moral proscription (based on God's property rights in his handiwork) in mind than criteria for just rebellion; not so much that it is "wrong" in a moral sense to violate rights as that violation of rights provides the operational criterion for distinguishing governments that can be justly overthrown. For although "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed", yet the framers of the DoI pointed out that "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes", i.e. mere unaggravated lack of consent of the governed. But systematic violation of natural rights is evidence of "a design to reduce them [the subjects] under absolute Despotism", which implies abdication of sovereignty, permitting rebellion.

Fun stuff.

It brings to mind an analysis (perhaps by Lysander Spooner?) of why the founders so prominently left property out of "life liberty and pursuit of happiness", when the Lockean influence would indicate including it, as would the Virginia Declaration of Rights, surely known to Jefferson. The reason, supposedly, was that the Declaration (and later the Constitution) was meant to retain its relevance in the anticipated post-slavery society to come, and so touchy terms like "property" that had one meaning in a slave society, but would have a different meaning after abolition, were avoided in the interests of long-term continuity. Just a theory.

Hunter Baker said...

I don't know if it's been addressed previously in this blog, but it should also be noted that the U.S. Constitution is a different kind of document from state constitutions. It is for a government of limited powers, not for one of inherent authority and it had to be careful not to disturb settled arrangements in the states (like religious ones). For that reason, when you read it, you are not looking at a document seeking to explain the good, the true, and the beautiful, but rather one that seeks to explain how two governments can interact with the same population.

Lindsey Shuman said...


Didn't Aristotle, Socrates, and others also argue for the u(i)nalienable rights of man? I guess that I am wondering why we are focusing exclusively on Locke, Rutherford and others when the ancients also made the same conclusions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Didn't Aristotle, Socrates, and others also argue for the u(i)nalienable rights of man?

No, which is why the development of the notion of what we now know as "universal human rights" is so important.

"Justice is equality, but only for equals; and justice is inequality, but only for those who are unequal."---Aristotle

This view is called by some "classical natural right." It differs from both the Christian version and the modern version.