Natural Rights by Tom Kilcourse, Author. He has been a garage hand, a coal miner and a bus driver, before gaining a trade union scholarship to study at Ruskin College, Oxford. He later gained a State Scholarship to read economics at Hull University.
When asked to contribute to a discussion on ‘natural rights’ I am tempted to think that my background as a writer of fiction gives me an advantage: how creative and imaginative can I be? However, the task here is not to create a situation that will challenge the skills of some fictional detective, but to comment on a question that has been raised over the centuries by some heavyweight philosophers. So, why the temptation? To explain my response in the simplest terms, I am convinced that the concept of natural rights is a fiction and that the term is misleading.
Though Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau and others have introduced the concept of ‘man in nature’ as opposed to man in society, I believe that introduction to be merely a suppositional device from which to launch their ideas. ‘Man in nature’ is no more than a platform designed to give credibility and authority to their concepts. I know of no evidence that mankind ever existed as autonomous individuals in nature. Man is a social creature, and always has been, which implies the existence of leaders and followers and obedience to group norms. It is through that membership, and his position in it, that the rights of man are determined, and always have been. I suppose it possible to suggest that mankind’s social nature implies an entitlement to certain rights, but these are more properly considered as social rights,
Nature presents us with challenges, dangers and opportunities, but not with rights. Any question of our rights inevitably demands some examination of their true source, be that source the state, society, or god. I shall avoid discussion of the last of these, divine right, as I consider it grounded in unprovable belief, though for centuries it was the principal foundation for human rights, and remains so today in many parts of the world and in various cultures. This brings us then to consider the state and society at large as sources of our rights. We must also examine the influence of power over our rights. As the power of the church declined in the West, so did its influence to define our rights. Our rights now must consider the balance of power between society at large, and the state.
Society at large and the state differ in how they define and enforce our rights.
‘The state employs the method of coercion or compulsion: its purpose of declaring and enforcing a scheme of law and order makes the method necessary; and the unity of its organisation makes the method possible. Society uses the method of voluntary action and the process of persuasion: the nature of its purposes can be satisfied, and is best satisfied, by that method; and the multiplicity of its organisation, which enables men to choose and relinquish freely their membership of its various and alternative groups, enables them also to escape coercion by any group if coercion should be attempted.’ (Ernest Barker. ‘Principles of Social and Political Theory’)
For at least two centuries the principal determinant of rights in the West appeared to be society at large, with the state taking something of a back seat, often playing a subordinate role in response to strengthening social norms. We saw the rise of liberalism with such champions as J.S.Mill supporting the rights of individuals to think and behave according to their conscience. Now in my eightieth years, I still remember my excitement as a young man when introduced to Mill’s writing. His views on liberty remain the most influential effects on my own thinking. Over subsequent decades the focus shifted from the state to individual liberty with legal constraints on our rights, with a number of notable exceptions, replaced by social norms
That process has continued in the West until we reached the point where the individual appeared not to be answerable to either state or society. We have seen the growth of neo-liberalism in which the rights of the individual to pursue his interests and well-being are considered virtually absolute, with the role of the state being confined to the provision of security. So, the state’s power to employ the method of coercion or compulsion, was successfully challenged, most notably in the field of economics. Concurrently, society’s ability to use the method of voluntary action and the process of persuasion to influence individual behaviour and intrude upon rights also declined, but for different reasons.
What has happened in the West illustrates unequivocally that our rights are not ‘naturally’ determined, that far from being rights owed to the nature of man, they are simply concomitants of power. Retreat of state control has enabled those with the power to rise above the norms of society. Indeed, it has promoted the fragmentation of society, with the powerful moving in social circles populated only by the equally powerful, while the powerless, who share the same ‘rights’ in theory, are prevented by circumstance from exercising them. In effect, though discussion of rights may exercise some people in academic circles, it has only an esoteric quality off campus. When state involvement and social constraint diminish together, power becomes the sole arbiter of whose rights are respected.
This last point has perhaps been best understood by certain activist groups who, in recent decades, successfully convinced the state to use its legislative power to underline the rights of certain groups, whether racially or sexually based, and to sanction would-be critics. Consequently, the rights of these minorities are supported by the power of the law, while that same power is used to silence less organised would-be critics. We have reached a position that J.S. Mill explicitly rejected, that giving offence to someone by word of mouth also offends the law of the land, and carries legally enforced sanctions for the offender. Indeed, offence is commonly presumed even when no complaint is forthcoming from the subject of a remark. Thus, aberrant minorities are given the right to curtail others’ freedom of speech through use of the power of a state that had been drawing back from direct engagement in social organisation.
This situation raises for me a question that has been discussed in relation to the rise of totalitarian government, be it Marxist or fascist. Has the state the right to alter the society that gave birth to it? If it has, where lie the limits to that right? In some places there is no distinction drawn between state and society, but that has not been the understood position in the West. Again, we are drawn to the conclusion that rights not only do not rest in our nature, but do not exist at all, other than conceptually, for those without power to exercise them. In the literature on this subject one finds self-preservation presented as a natural right, but this has been negated by laws that prevent the ownership or carrying of weapons with which one might preserve one’s self. There is perhaps no better illustration of the truth that a right without the power to implement it is no right at all.
Tom Kilcourse began working life as a manual worker in Manchester, where he had been raised by poor grandparents. He worked as a garage hand, a coal miner and a bus driver, before gaining a trade union scholarship to study at Ruskin College, Oxford. He later gained a State Scholarship to read economics at Hull University.
During his career in management development he was widely published in academic and management journals, spoke on management in America, Europe and the UK, and appeared in educational videos on management made for the BBC. He began writing short-stories in the 1970s and has been published in various literary magazines.
Since retiring, he has published two short-story collections, ‘The Human Circus’ and ‘More Short Stories’ and continues to be published in journals. He has also published four novels, ‘The Great Collapse’, ‘Who Killed Clarissa?’, ‘A Deadly Deception’, ‘A Phantom Madman’, and ‘The Great Collapse’, in which he weaves social commentary into mysteries. Also, he has published a short autobiography ‘It’s Only Me’ and a book on management development. Tom also writes essays on politics and economics.
© Tom Kilcourse