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The Origins of Human Rights

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 1470 words Published: 14th Nov 2016

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Origins of Human Rights Essay – Question 1

‘How was the idea of rights used to understand the relations between individuals and the state?’

Through the rise of empire, human rights evolves and moulded to fit the shifting political and social changes attributed to the nature between the individual and the state. In particular, several views off several time periods must be observed in order to understand how rights regulated the relationship between the individual and the state. The Social Contract school of thought and the philosophers associated with it are a strong indication of these shifting thoughts: Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762) all discuss this relationship with their own respective theories. Based on these arguments, this essay will aim to show that the idea of rights and their relation to the individual and the state could be understood with the evolution of the concept of what the nation state is.

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The idea of the role of rights between the individual and the state can be addressed typically under the study of ‘Social Contract’. This school of thought questions the origin of society and the legitimacy of the state’s power over an individual. The arguments often state that an individual, in some form of consent, has willingly forfeited some of their rights and freedoms whilst submitting to an authority which will protect their remaining rights. This is imperative to our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state for the reason that it deeply explores the prior ‘natural state (the state in which there IS no relationship) and the post political state (Where an institution is created to defend rights). This will be discussed throughout this essay through the opinions of prominent philosophers.

In 1625, Hugo Grotius promoted his school of thought during the war between Spain and Portugal and was employed by the Dutch, allowing him to defend ‘seizure in the natural principles of justice’. Grotius furthermore promoted the Natural Rights of individuals, namely that each individual owns natural rights which give their own self-preservation. These natural rights in turn suggested that the power of the state can be returned to the individuals if the political state were to fail the reason it was created. The nature of these examples of natural law could lead one to question how they coincided with their context. Grotius’ ideas as a result reflected both a self-preserving outlook and an emphasis of individuals under their own jurisdiction (Soi Juris). Grotius furthermore notes no significant moral difference between the individual and the state. This draws the conclusion of more justification for the Dutch Trade Empire, stating that ‘It shall be permissible to acquire for oneself and to retain these things which are useful for life”. Restating that the idea of rights and their relation to the individual and the state evolved alongside the concept of a nation state.

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Thomas Hobbes in 1651 published his thoughts on the individual and the state in ‘Leviathan’. This stated that an individual deprived of society lived in an anarchic condition which he referred to as “solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and short”. Hobbes takes this incredibly cynical outlook and bolsters the argument that this essay makes in that rights of the individual were a reflection of the nation state. This is due to the English civil war around this period. Furthermore emphasised in writing that individuals had to forsake some of their rights, such as the right to kill, (killing in a war context), if others were to forsake theirs too. Ultimately this would create a supreme authority to preserve their lives and property (eventually a ‘monarch’). These subjects had no rights against the monarch, who himself had moral obligations towards natural law. Seeing the above, we can tell that Hobbes is an absolutism-supporter and states that ‘law is dependent upon the sanction of the sovereign and the government without sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all”. This further implies that these rights; absolutist during a civil war, reflect Hobbes emphasising civil law as real law due to the enforcement of a sovereign.

John Locke’s theory was outlined in 1689, a theory which differed greatly from Hobbes’ pessimistic “The natural state is cruel” statement. This theory stated that the individual in the state of nature had a “reasonably good and enjoyable” life, yet retained the issue that property was insecure. It should be further stated that in this state man had all his natural rights and that, in this natural condition, could be considered completely free due to there being no relationship with the state; i.e. no real civil law or enforcement, yet still retained morality thus being a ‘state of liberty’. Locke, unlike the theorists mentioned above, puts particular emphasis on property in the social contract. According to him, property is made when the individual mixes effort with nature and, given with the above discussion of the law of nature, there are limits as to how much an individual can take. One should only take as much as one can use without leaving others to suffer for not having enough themselves. This emphasis is grounded by his argument for the relationship of social contract and civil government because it is the protection of physical property, whether it is physical property or the property of their own being, which a man will look for when he seeks to leave the state of nature. Locke continues to write that the property of an individual is insecure in relation to the state of nature due to three strong reasons: The absence of established law, The absence of an impartial judge and the absence of a natural power to execute the natural laws. As said before, man in the state of nature needed to protect their property due to these reasons, and as a resolution entered into a ‘social contract’. Locke states that “Man did not surrender all their rights to one individual, but surrendered only the right to preserve/maintain order and enforce the law of nature”. As such, the rights to life, liberty and estate were all retained as these were unable to be separated from the natural rights of man. With the relationship to the state being formed, the individual gained three things: the law, judges to make formal judgements on the law and executive power to enforce the law. Locke writes that “The purpose of government and law is to uphold and protect the natural rights of men. So long as the government fulfils this purpose, the laws given by it are valid and binding but, when it ceases to fulfil it, then the laws would have no validity and the government can be thrown out of power. In Locke’s view, unlimited sovereignty is contrary to natural law.Locke continued to support for a constitutionally limited government. And as such his life liberty and property arguments greatly dominated and influenced the declaration of American independence of 1776

Rousseau in 1762 stated that state, law and government were interchangeable ideas. He wrote ‘The Social Contract’ stating that it was a ‘hypothetical construction of reason’. Rousseau’s view places itself between Locke’s constitutionalism and Hobbes’ absolutism and gives strong reason for observation to the essays argument as this argument and theory on natural law is centred around the liberties and freedoms of the individual. This in turn gave inspiration to American and French revolutions. Rousseau writes that the life in the State of Nature was happy and there was equality among men, yet eventually with population increased, the means by which people could satisfy their needs had to change. Individuals became families, families became communities. Communities caused labour division. This led to reward difference and resulted in envy pride and contempt. The most important creation was of private property which he states is the one turning point from a pure state into a greedy, competitive, vain and unequal society. This is to say the creation of property was the complete and utter destruction of the state of nature. The individual surrendered their rights to the community as a whole, which he came to state as ‘general will’. Through social contract, a new form of social organisation – the state- was formed to assure and guarantee rights, liberties, freedom and equality. State and law were the product of the general will of the people. General will was the will of the majority which must be blindly followed as it is supreme.


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