Roger Scruton: First Person Plural

“[F]reedom is fully realized only in the world of persons, bound together by rights and duties that are morally recognized.”—Roger Scruton

In a work that deals with the big issues of metaphysics, psychology and aesthetics, Scruton’s chapter on human rights may seem rather prosaic, especially when examining its legal and political dimensions. Yet it is key to understanding the philosophy behind his new book The Soul of the World (Princeton, 2014).

In Chapter 4: “First Person Plural” Scruton begins with a discussion of the “I-You encounter between subjects.” The English philosopher explains that an important part of human relationships is the “declaration” in which we make a promise to others. By doing so we respect others as “subjects” like ourselves, and not merely as “objects” to be used or avoided. It likewise forces other people to recognize our claims and is the basis of our freedom.

It is a fact that many of our personal interactions involve commitments, like when we say “let’s meet for lunch tomorrow.” Scruton finds an important parallel in the Jewish covenant tradition in which God makes demands but also binds Himself by certain obligations. “Our relation to God is a relation between free beings, who take responsibility for their actions.” From this one can derive the basis of legal agreements. “A contract is valid only if made with a responsible adult.” It cannot be made under duress and the terms must be sufficiently clear. A contract is something to be honored by both parties since they each benefit from its provisions.

The underpinning of all contracts is the “calculus of rights,” a term that the author uses to describe the ancient concept of “natural law.” This is the idea that all rational beings are capable of understanding basic moral precepts. Our rights, says Scruton, can be divided into two types: freedom rights and claim rights. (These are traditionally referred to as “negative” and “positive” rights.)

“A freedom right,” Scruton explains, “imposes a general duty on others to observe it; but it may arise from no specific relationship, and may make no specific demands of any individual. It is a right that is violated by an act of intrusion or invasion, but which is respected by doing nothing.” Classic examples of this are the rights to life or property. It might be referred to colloquially as the “right to be left alone” assuming that I am doing nothing to harm others. This is in obvious contrast to claim rights that exist in formal legal agreements like the sale of a house.

But what happens when claim rights are adopted in the political arena, going well beyond their accepted place in contract and tort law, and become “human rights”? Scruton says that this leads to “rights inflation” and an unavoidable conflict between different views of freedom. It is a point that I will take up in my next post.

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