Human Rights and the Social Contract

Human rights are rights that we enjoy simply because we exist as human beings. They are inherent to all humans regardless of their nationality, gender, religion , ethnic origin, language or any other status. Human rights refer to fundamental rights and freedoms of humans. They range from the most fundamental- right to life to those that make live livable, such as right to food, right to health, education, work and liberty. Human rights are interlinked with social contract. In fact, the universal declaration of the human rights is social contract. The idea of social contract is linked to legitimacy, sovereignty and power. The social contract is related to the notion of state of nature. Some thinkers say that it is Thomas Hobbes who coined this term. But Christopher Watkins suggests that Hobbes got his notion from theology. We can figure out a state of innocence in Eden and a fallen state after that. The state of nature is a state after the fall which needs the state of grace earned by the obedience of Jesus Christ which itself takes us to a state of glory to enjoy eternal life.

We can certainly notice how social contract theory appears to locate itself in a language and narrative of salvation story. Unfortunately, we have two emancipation stories in the social contract theory. One frames nature as Egypt holding us captives while the other frames nature as the promised land of liberation. The nature as Egypt holding us captive can be seen in Thomas Hobbes and John Lock while nature as a promised land of liberation is present in Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The Hobbesian and Lockian view sees nature as conflictual and unfinished. Therefore, it has to be subdued. Hobbes’ discourse is dominated by the lexicon of war. Nature to him is unfinished and raw. It requires human intervention in order to bring it to completion and perfection. This state of nature is bare state where nature is ethically neutral. Ethical nature of nature in the state of nature is, therefore, a blank slate. This is why we have to come out of nature and become civilized by surrendering our rights to one ruler who will then secure our rights and life. Lock on the other hand sees nature as waste. To him nature does not have any monetary value. Hence, he teaches that by mixing one’s labor, one creates value. Property, therefore is proper to humans. But this view has disturbing relations to ethics. It opens everything non-human and even human to be appropriated as property through the application of human labour. He thinks that it is human labour that brings nature to completion. This means somehow Lock seem to position money as our second nature that we create though our work.

Rousseau’s story of nature is very different. Nature is the promised land for Rousseau. It has to be conserved and preserved. He teaches that in the state of nature there is a balance and nature actively maintains it. We, therefore, do not have to subdue nature but have to work to preserve the character and fundamental features of nature. Rousseau see nature not as chaotic and conflictual but as pure and almost perfect.

Based on this view of nature as Egypt that holds us into bondage (Hobbesian and Lockean position) our engagement with nature becomes a kind of construction. We have to bring the raw nature to completion (Anthropocene). This explains the Geo-constructivsm of today. We, therefore, looks for geo-engineering to overcome global warming. Based on the view of nature that see it as a promised land (Rousseaun view), we are called to conserve nature and save its balance. This disposition is at the heart of the belief: nature knows best.

These two views of the state of nature are incompatible. They are also at the heart of our understanding of political freedom and, therefore, by implications human rights. Hobbesian and Lockean view sees freedom as a liberation from the unproductivity and fear of insecurity through sovereign power and through private property. Freedom for Hobbes is choice of artificial chains enforced by an overwhelming Leviathan. It a freedom not to conform to nature but to free oneself from nature. Rousseau on the other hand, sees freedom in conserving and imitating nature. Freedom, therefore, is not to be constructed on a tabula rasa as in the case of Hobbes but has to be recaptured. Rousseau beautifully says this when he says,’ Man is born free but is in chains everywhere’. Hence, Human rights become in Hobbesian and Lockean sense a way of perfecting human nature. Left to ourself without human rights, we are in danger of destroying each other. The Rousseaun view on the other hand sees human right are embedded deeply in human nature and all that we have to do is discover authentic human ways of being in the world.

Flowing from these two contradictory views of nature, we have two contradictory views of economy. Hobbesian and Lockean view understands the economy as turbulent and chaotic. Therefore, it has to be managed by an agile capitalism. Markets replaces nature. Hence, markets are also viewed as chaotic and have to be managed through capitalism. On the Rousseaun side, the adage that nature knows best becomes the market knows best. Unbiased market or the invisible hand of the market takes the place of Rousseau’s pure nature.

Neo-liberal economy has its roots in our theory of social contract that we have tried to unearth in this study. Hence, freedom, democracy and even Human rights seem to have become indistinguishable from the market. Market itself has embodied the freedoms of human. Does this mean that market has embodied human rights? Have we arrived to this destination through a theologico-political stirrings in our society from the time of modernity?

Our entanglement from the clutches of the market would begin with a realization of our parasitic relation with nature and may have to move to what we may call rights of symbiosis where humans and the non-human has a common legal status and common rights. Perhaps we need inclusive legal framework at a time of environmental emergency produced by capitalism and consumerism combine.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao