Our Not So Self-Evident Natural Rights

January 3, 2013

Natural Responsibilities, Natural Rights / Rights

It is a great paradox that even those who supposedly believe in and gave us the conception of self-evident rights may have had doubts about their self-evidence. I’ve written extensively already about Jefferson’s doubts that were reflected in the Declaration of Independence.

But it may also be the case that even the preeminent seventeenth century philosopher of natural rights, John Locke, may have harbored doubts as well. Who cares? Maybe no one but me.

Indeed, the seventeenth century may seem irrelevant to us today. But you have to remember that the idea of “self-evident” rights that was enshrined in the Declaration came from ideas of natural rights philsophers. Many historians of the American founding think Jefferson, Adams, Mason, Wilson and others were heavily influenced by Locke’s thinking.

So if Locke had doubts himself about the self-evidence of rights that would be interesting and relevant to those who want to claim that the Declaration endorses a notion of self-evident rights.

To dig into Locke’s doubts, would take a much longer scholarly essay than this blog permits. But let me summarize the issues for you in case you want to investigate some more.

John Locke’s classic statement about natural rights appears in his Second Treatise on Government. Here Locke makes his famous case that humans beings are created equal and independent and from this equal creation flow our rights.

Locke argues that these rights are already self-evident in nature and flow from our Reason which can discern a Natural Law. Specifically, we discern that in nature we are all the “workmanship” of God and thus all God’s property. Since we are equal to each other and are in essence the property of God, no one may take one another’s life, liberty or property.

The problem is that in his Second Treatise Locke doesn’t defend the notion of Natural Law which serves as a foundation for our rights. This has raised an interesting problem in Locke scholarship. Did Locke take for granted the existence of the natural law because he had written about the topic already as a younger man? That is one way of reading Locke and he comes off looking fairly traditional. In the earlier essays he argued that Reason can discern a creator God and from that creator God we can infer a moral lawgiver and the existence of a natural law. Locke is simply assuming that view of natural law as a starting point in his Second Treatise on Government which sets out the implications for rights and government. Perhaps.

But there are reasons to doubt this reading of Locke. He does not allude to his earlier essays on natural law in his Second Treastise. But even more importantly, doubts about what the mind can know are a central topic in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the massive work for which Locke was famous in his own lifetime. Locke tells the story that he set out to write this work in response to a discussion with friends about the foundation of human morality.

In this work, Locke argues that the mind is active in producing the knowledge it reaches by imposing on the sense experience a framework of key concepts or structures such as space, time, duration, infinity, duration, causation and other complex concepts that structure our thinking. In Locke’s essay, human knowledge is constructed actively by the mind. Our knowledge is neither innate or directly read from nature.

While Locke wrote a brilliant analysis of the mind, most scholars believe Locke knew he failed in his purpose of finding the foundation of the moral law. It is hard to see how the mind of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding could be the mind that unambigously discerns a natural law to which all people assent.

If you followed me this far, you’ll see that Locke’s own work on the mind ultimately underminsd his earlier writing on the self-evidence of the natural law and perhaps even the discernment of a Moral Lawgiver. And if that is the case, then Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, and the rights that emerge from it, are sitting on a foundation that Locke ultimately destroyed with his own work.

On what foundation then was Jefferson resting when he wrote the Declaration? Perhaps this is part of the reason Jefferson harbored his own dobut about Natural Rights.

What do you think about the self-evidence of natural rights?

Further Reading:

  • John Locke, The Second Treatise on Government
  • John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Howard Schwartz, Liberty in America’s Founding Moment: Doubts about Natural Rights In Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence
    for a contrasting view, see:
  • Michael Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism.
  • Scott Gerber, To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence andConstitutional Interpretation.


, , ,