Progressivism and the doctrine of natural rights

Social Philosophy and Policy 29 (2):177-195 (2012)
This essay treats the Progressives' critique of the Founders' doctrine of natural rights. Natural rights had been attacked before the Progressive erabut the Progressives launched the most thoroughgoing and systematic critique in American history. The leading thinker conducting the critique was America's foremost philosopher John Dewey. His critique had five major points: (1) that America had entered an entirely new age of social and economic organization requiring a different political theory; (2) that all theoretical claims of truth, like natural rights, are relative to the age in which they were born and thrived; (3) that theoretical ideas serve the aims of different classes, with natural rights representing the economic and political interests of the emerging bourgeoisie; (4) that natural rights encouraged a diminished goal for human beings, emphasizing the fulfillment of individual self-interest rather a higher idea of human development and of social cooperation; and (5) that any metaphysical claim in politics is undemocratic by virtue of ascribing a standard of right that is prior to and higher than a decision of a democratic majority. The paper concludes by briefly sketching the influence that this critique had on the heirs of the Progressives, the modern liberals
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