(The following is a draft excerpt from the introduction to a forthcoming book. Amongst other things, the excerpt touches on Thomas Jefferson’s philosophical influences in drafting the Declaration of Independence, the notion of a human right and why Jefferson would vote for Bernie rather than Biden or Buttigieg.)
Drafters of the Declaration Of Independence and the U. S. Constitution were strongly influenced by philosophers of the European enlightenment in the 18th century. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson, the main architect of the Declaration Of Independence was particularly influenced by the English enlightenment philosopher John Locke and the latter’s notion of a natural right (in contrast to the alleged divinely granted right of the king to arbitrarily take away life liberty or property).
Famously, Jefferson amended Locke’s phrase ‘life, liberty and property’ (from the latter’s 2nd Treatise on Government) to the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the former’s list of what he regarded as self-evidently inalienable rights with which all men have been endowed by their creator. This was a sentiment soon to be echoed in the motto of the French revolution: ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’.*editor’s note - Joe Biden referred to Jefferson’s phrase above in his Easter Thursday 2019 video announcing his candidacy for Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020. Looking at Joe Biden’s political record, he is not a staunch advocate of human rights. When rights and corporate profits conflict, he is on the side of corporate profits. Similarly, Pete Buttigieg is a media creation backed by billionaires - he is the acceptable boyish face of the sort of neo-liberalism that gave us Trump in the first place.
Jefferson was a deist, not a theist: i.e. he held the view (common amongst educated colonists in pre-Darwin, pre-evolutionary, pre-revolutionary times) that some sort of intelligence was responsible for the apparent design in the world but that such intelligence/intelligences don’t necessarily take any interest in what they’ve designed, after designing and/or designing and creating it. For instance, (*editor’s note: unlike Joe Biden who professes to be Catholic and Buttigieg who professes to be Christian) Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ, allowing that Christ really existed as a human being who was admirably moral but denying that he had any supernatural status or powers. Like Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, Jefferson (who would have read Hume’s ‘Dialogue on Natural Religion’) rejected the idea that it is reasonable to believe in miracles.
Whilst privately endorsing some views of Locke, Hume and other enlightenment philosophers, Jefferson realized that publicly putting forward anti-religious views in such times could have very serious (possibly life-threatening) consequences, especially in Europe. To the extent that Jefferson challenged the prevailing idea that there was a divinely-granted right to the monarchy of England to basically do as they please, Jefferson was a progressively courageous secular (at least non-theistic) moralist. To the extent that Jefferson was an advocate of slavery (and personally ‘owned’ slaves) his non-condemnation of the immorality of slavery was something he shared with most of his educated contemporaries and revealed a hypocrisy in his claim that all men have the inalienable right to liberty.
Locke was writing at a time when any public criticism of (Christian) religion was invidious, to put it mildly. He couched his views about humans having natural rights (i.e. rights not dependent for their existence on any particular government) as deriving from natural law (which has had non-religious (e.g. Aristotle) and religious (e.g. Aquinas) interpretations; the latter re-interpreting the former in a religious way). To some interpreters Locke seemed to intend a religious reading of his notion of natural rights – a reading subservient to and deriving from a religious view of natural law. Others have interpreted Locke as advocating that the notion of natural rights is not subservient to natural law; Locke introduced the notion of natural rights via the expedient contemporary notion of religious natural law not because he endorsed that notion but primarily to avoid personal recrimination. Regardless of the correct interpretation of Locke in this regard, Jefferson as a secular (non-theistic) person interpreted Locke’s view of natural rights in a secular way (not deriving from a religious interpretation of natural law and perhaps not deriving from any conception of natural law, secular or non-secular).
A contemporary of Locke’s was Thomas Hobbes, who was also influential for the drafters of the Declaration Of Independence and Constitution as far as the notion of a natural right is concerned. Hobbes also talks in terms of a state of nature but differs from Locke in two ways. First, Hobbes does not describe natural rights as depending on natural laws (possibly religious in origin). Second, whereas for Locke natural rights imply duties to help others (even in a state of nature), Hobbes denies that natural rights entail any obligation to help anyone else. For Hobbes, in a state of nature its ‘dog eat dog’ – a state of war. There is a natural moral right to self-defense for Hobbes (and Locke) but the notion of a moral right to property on Hobbes’ view makes little sense since in a dog eat dog situation, anyone who is relevantly more powerful than you can potentially just come along and take your property away.
One consents to be governed in order to avoid a state of nature (differently described by Locke and Hobbes). One gives up some natural rights (e.g. in the Hobbesian sense the unrestricted right to do as one pleases, e.g. take the property of others) in order that government sees to it that other rights are enforced (e.g. no one can arbitrarily just take away your property). One implicitly enters into a social contract enforced by government – if that government doesn’t enforce certain rights one has the right to reject that government.
The question arises: which conception of a natural right did Jefferson intend when drafting the relevant part of the Declaration Of Independence (referencing life liberty and the pursuit of happiness)? Did he intend a Hobbesian conception (involving no duties to help others in a state of nature)? Did he intend a Lockean conception (possibly derived from natural law in either a religious or non-religious form) according to which one has a duty to respect the rights of others even in a state of nature?
Transposing from the state of nature to the state of being governed, on a Hobbesian view of a natural right, human rights (in the sense of having a duty to respect the rights of others) don’t exist, only legal rights exist. On the Lockean view of a natural right in similar circumstances, human (not merely legal but moral) rights do exist. How should Jefferson’s notion of a right be understood?
The question is important because the notion of a right, rubber-stamped in the Declaration Of Independence, is echoed in the Bill Of Rights of the Constitution. If the notion of a right in the Declaration Of Independence is Hobbesian (since there are no moral duties in a state of nature for Hobbes) this implies that the Bill Of Rights which are now part of the U.S. Constitution are merely legal rights (to e.g. freedom of speech etc.) not moral rights. Legal rights can change, depending on who is in power and what their donors want them to do. On this view, Bill Jefferson Clinton’s legislation (the telecommunications act, 1996) effectively restricting the free press in America from over fifty to just six corporately controlled outlets is not a moral issue, just a legal one. Similarly, ‘Citizens United’ which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of, according to which mega-rich corporations can give unlimited money to back the politicians they think will promote their agendas is a mere legal issue, not a moral one.
However if the notion of a right in the Declaration Of Independence is Lockean, this implies that the rights of the Constitution are not merely legal but are to be understood as also having a moral status – technically a deontological kind of moral status involving the notion of duty. This sort of interpretation of a constitutional right is sympathetic to those who think that e.g.. there ought (morally) to be a free press (and free objective television media) in America, of the sort that has not existed in decades. Relatedly, as Bernie Sanders has argued, Citizens United is morally outrageous - it effectively kills democracy in America, simultaneously promoting a rigged economy which favors the 1 percent of the wealthiest people in the U.S.A.
If one interprets Jefferson in the Declaration Of Independence as intending a Lockean account of a natural right, the idea of contemporary American politicians talking about human (moral) rights in America (and generally) makes sense. For instance, Bernie Sanders has championed the idea of universal health care in America as a human right, but has often been rebuked in the main stream media with the question – where do such rights come from? (the rhetorical implication being that there are no human rights as such, though perhaps viewers seldom realize the totalitarian implication of this mainstream media point). The answer to this rebuke is that if Jefferson’s notion of a right is interpreted in a Lockean way, (and there is reason provided above to think that it should be) human rights (perhaps deriving from natural law) even in a state of nature, let alone in a state of government, entail a moral duty to help others.
Such a Lockean notion of a human right, endorsed by Jefferson, also impinges on many other issues in US politics, e.g. Democratic Party Progressive Caucus leader Ro Khanna’s bill to prohibit lethal force for police officers in America unless such force is absolutely necessary.