Human rights, ancient and modern.

AuthorCastillo, Cecilia


A discussion of differing conceptions of human rights requires not only a consideration of rights but of human nature. This discussion will be limited to a consideration of Aristotle's and John Locke's understanding of man and human rights. Indeed, given Aristotle's account of the nature of man, one may persuasively argue that Aristotle has no conception of human rights per se. Rather, Aristotle indicates that human beings as such possess duties or obligations to the political community stemming from their very nature. (1) In contrast, John Locke, the thinker most commonly associated with natural rights or human rights, (2) argues that man's primary concern is for himself and his preservation. (3) Locke speaks of rights that predate political life and which inhere in individuals by virtue of being human beings. Moreover, the political community comes into being for the sake of securing the individual and his rights. (4) The difficulties posed by Aristotle's conception of man and John Locke's are distinct and fundamental and the conclusions of each position are problematic as a basis of human rights.

Aristotle's focus on the perfection of man's function--both as a political and rational animal--as his end or his happiness, fails to recognize particular individuals let alone their happiness; while Locke's emphasis on the individual and his freedom as primary reduces to a mere tool the role others play in an individual's pursuit of happiness. (5) Locke's understanding of man as an autonomous individual, unfettered by God or nature classically understood, leaves man at the mercy of his autonomous will. According to Locke, the political community and thereby its most fundamental virtue--justice--have no foundation other than man's will. (6) Thus the problems associated with each thinker's position are manifest in moral or political life and hence in their inability to address human rights comprehensively. Although both Aristotle and Locke are incapable of providing a solid foundation for human rights, Aristotle provides a more sound foundation for human rights as he bases his understanding of man and his end on nature, and thereby provides a more intelligible argument than Locke.


    In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the end of all man's actions, including virtue and friendship, is happiness. (7) That is, happiness is the end of man, that for which man exists. As Aristotle understands man to be a social and political animal by nature, this happiness includes others and is not simply "selfish." (8) He is quite clear that no one would consider a life without friends and a family happy. Although Aristotle emphasizes that man is concerned with being virtuous not simply with knowing what virtue is, he is, nonetheless, concerned with defining happiness rather than whether anyone has or will attain it. (9) Aristotle also argues that one does not deliberate on the impossible; hence virtue and happiness are attainable. (10) Indeed, all that we do as members of families and as citizens is for the sake of happiness. Although happiness is the end of all our actions, what happiness consists in is not immediately evident to man. Happiness requires self-examination; indeed man's happiness apparently requires one to investigate what life is about. According to Aristotle, the perfection or completion of a "thing's" nature is found in the perfection of its function. (11) This is no less true for man, the rational and political animal. Thus man's desire for happiness is linked to his particular function, reason and reason in community, or, in other words, philosophy and political life or moral life. If man is to be virtuous, he must possess some knowledge of man's nature and of his natural end. (12)

    Man must be all that his nature calls him to be. But what is the nature of man? Man is a rational animal who is naturally social and political. (13) From these observations Aristotle concludes that happiness consists in a life of virtue, both moral and intellectual virtue. (14) According to Strauss,

    The good life is the life that is in accordance with the natural order of man's being, the life that flows from a well-ordered or healthy soul. The good life simply, is the life in which the requirements of man's natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste. The good life is the perfection of man's nature. (15) Moral and intellectual virtue led Aristotle to speak of two kinds of lives and two corresponding types of happiness. The highest level of happiness is that found in the contemplative life which is attained through the highest faculty of man. (16) Through philosophy, man realizes that there is something higher than political life. Political life is certainly real and important, for without it the leisure necessary for the philosophical life would not be available. Nevertheless a hierarchy is clearly evident. Practical or political life provides man with the means to become self-sufficient. Man's physical and moral needs are met through political life. Not simply life, but the good life is secured through political community or civilization. Secure in body and trained in moral virtue through law, man is free to consider his world, to contemplate. But this world for Aristotle was a given; it was not generated by man. (17) Man's nature was to be discovered not created. Man may or may not attain his end, happiness, as determined by his nature.

    Central to an understanding of virtue, then, is the determination of man's nature. If man is also a political and social being by nature, then virtue is only attainable through political life and cannot be understood outside of a political context. And as we know, the political virtue is justice. In other words, man belongs in civil society. (18) Civil society encompasses all the other associations of men, including the family, and is more effective than the family in securing virtue. "Paternal injunctions, which rely for their effectiveness on the natural love between father and son," only secure decent behavior among the "generous-minded." (19) It seems that the only association "capable of securing the conditions of virtue and satisfying all of man's earthly needs and aspirations, is the city" whose end is "the complete human good." (20) Although the political association promotes the "complete life," it must first secure the existence of men. (21) "The common good and the end of political authority is in the first instance peace.... together with the ability to counteract the forces that threaten to destroy it.... Over and beyond mere survival, the city has as its purpose the promotion of the good life or virtue among its citizens." (22) Although the final end of the city is the promotion of virtue, it must first secure its preservation. It must quell discord. How best do we secure this peace or unity of the city? How do we prevent the various claims of power from destroying peace, the necessary condition for the good life? For without peace there will not be a city and without a city there will not be virtue. "Without justice, "where will there be a place for generosity, or love of country, or loyalty, or the inclination to be of service to others or to show gratitude for favours received?" (23) Man is naturally social and political; he belongs in civil society. Civil society may only be secured through justice. "'For these virtues originate in our natural inclination to love our fellow-men, and this is the foundation of Justice.' The key word, of course, is natural." (24) Hence if virtue is to flourish man must secure justice. In so...

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