The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Rights


Discovery and Reformation
Martin Luther

Discovery and Reformation Reader
Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
The concept of "right" is so thoroughly ingrained in our way of thinking that we tend to think of the concept as a universal truth about humanity, but it is in fact a modern invention. In European culture its origins go as far back as the Middle Ages as landed nobility struggled with monarchs over the question of how much authority a monarch should have and how much autonomy (self-law) the nobility should have. Martin Luther founded his rebellion against the Catholic church on the notion of Christian freedom; every Christian had the freedom to believe as they chose without external coercion, in other words, in matters of religion, humans were meant to be autonomous. This autonomy in religion stressed in Protestantism would easily cross over into social and political life and develop in the Enlightenment into the concept of "rights," which for our purposes we will provisionally define as "principles of autonomy." These principles spell out which areas in life an individual is free to make his or her own decisions and which areas in life an individual can be coerced into a decision by either society or government. So the operative distinction in the Enlightenment discussion of rights is that between "autonomy" on the one hand and "authority" on the other.


To understand the consequences of the shift in social and political discourse to stressing rights over authority, it would be helpful to try to comprehend what a culture that does not base its political discourse on rights uses as its philosophical foundation. Most historical cultures define the individual's relation to society not by the concept of "right," as we do, but the the concept of "obligations." This means that an individual sees himself or herself in relation to others based on the duties he or she owes others and society. Obligations tend to be stable, inherited, and concrete; they remain relatively the same through history as a culture develops.

When one defines oneself in relation to others not on one's obligations, but on principles of autonomy and rights, then one defines oneself in negative relation to others and society—that is, you derive your selfhood based on aspects of your life that you demand are not to be interfered with. Rights as principles of autonomy are not stable; they are based on general agreement and can appear or disappear very quickly. You receive a right to anything only when others agree that you have that right—for instance, I don't have the right to drive my car while intoxicated because the social group around me is not willing to agree to let me have that right. In order to secure rights, I need to secure the agreement of the social group around me. In other words, rights are fundamentally contractual . If the social group around me is not willing to grant me rights, then I need to secure them through conflict . Not only that, rights often conflict with one another and people seem to pursue their own self-interest against the interest of others—some person's right to smoke may interfere with my right to breathe fresh air. Therefore, rights are fundamentally conflictual . The history of modern Western culture has by and large been a history of the conflict between these principles of autonomy, through which we define ourselves individually, and authority, between conflicting self-interests, and between groups that have certain rights and groups which are denied those very same rights.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97