- How Old Are Modern Rights? On the Lockean Roots of Contemporary Human Rights Discourse
Arguing for the proper placement of John Locke’s natural rights theory within intellectual history is a particularly high-stakes enterprise for historians of political thought and political theorists alike. This is due in large part to the fact that, as Brian Tierney notes in his recent study, it is “widely agreed that Locke’s work was an important influence in the formation of modern liberal ideas, including ideas concerning rights.”1 Our understanding of Locke thus contributes to our reflective self-understanding as “modern liberals” (of one stripe or another) to an extent perhaps unequaled by any other thinker so far removed from our own time.
As a result of the rare promise of studying Locke’s natural rights theory, there has been no shortage of scholarly attempts to determine its place in intellectual history on the basis of Locke’s own writings and their relation both to preceding and subsequent traditions and modes of thought. Although John Dunn had argued in his influential study that Locke’s political thought was too thoroughly steeped in theology to remain relevant in the contemporary context, this thesis has since been persuasively challenged (albeit in very different ways) by Simmons, Zuckert and Waldron, among others.2 Each of these scholars has contributed to an emerging agreement [End Page 305] that the thread of Locke’s natural rights theory may indeed be carried all the way up to current political and moral debates in some form or another. The precise length of this thread as it extends in the other historical direction has, however, remained a point of heated controversy. The scholarly literature on this issue may be broadly described in terms of a spectrum determined by two opposing emphases in understanding the relation of Locke’s natural rights theory to its medieval predecessors: a continuity emphasis and a discontinuity emphasis.
On the discontinuity end of the spectrum stand those such as Michel Villey, Leo Strauss, C. B. Macpherson and, more recently, Michael Zuckert who argue for the existence of some sort of “Copernican moment” separating medieval natural rights theories from their modern counterparts.3 Whether this moment is identified with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century or Hobbes in the seventeenth century, these scholars tend to emphasize the distinctively “modern” character of Lockean natural rights theory and its significant departures from medieval modes of thought. According to many of the advocates of discontinuity, Lockean natural rights are not only “modern” in their political applications but also in their more profound meaning as foundations for morality, and particularly in their newly conceived relation to the concept of natural law.4
The continuity end of the spectrum is, perhaps, more variegated, including scholars such as Tuck, Tierney, Tully, Oakley, Nederman, Coleman, and Swanson, among others.5 Despite their many important differences, [End Page 306] these scholars each focus upon the similarities between various elements or strains of medieval thought and modern natural rights theories rather than the differences between them. Insofar as the scholars on this end of the spectrum explicitly consider Locke’s natural rights theory, they tend to emphasize Locke’s intellectual debt to various preceding traditions and thinkers rather than his innovations upon them. Building explicitly upon the work of Tuck, Tierney and Tully, Janet Coleman finds “some extraordinarily Lockean moments” in the medieval thinkers John of Paris and Godefroid of Fontaines, and argues that Locke ought to be understood as contributing to this medieval tradition of thought rather than departing from it.6 Scott Swanson, in turn, builds upon Coleman’s scholarship in carefully connecting medieval understandings of the rights of subsistence and the principle of extreme necessity to Locke’s natural rights theory. Swanson initially goes even further than Coleman in asserting that “all of Locke’s celebrated doctrine is here [in John of Paris’s writings] offered in a nutshell” before concluding on the more moderate note, echoed by Cary Nederman, that Locke’s “application of natural rights of subsistence to politics” may indeed have been something “new under the sun.”7
Brian Tierney, who has long been a prominent...