Natural rights and individual sovereignty

Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (2):147–162 (2004)
TO assert that one should come to terms with the past if one wants to understand the present would be to underline the obvious. And yet, even though we know much more of the history of natural rights theories now, especially of the origin of these theories before the seventeenth century, than we did, say, twenty years ago, this increase in knowledge seems to have had little impact on contemporary philosophical discussions about the nature of rights. Sometimes it seems that philosophers, especially the more analytically minded ones, regard the history of ideas as a separate subject with little or no relevance to their research. One of the reasons might be a tendency to regard conceptual analysis of rights as being relatively impartial between different theories in which these concepts might function. Even those who would allow for a close connection between a certain conception of the nature of rights and a theory of rights would find it prudent to distinguish more or less sharply between the question of what it means to have a right on the one hand, and the question which rights we have on the other hand. I would like to suggest that concepts of rights are the concepts of a theory and that we need to understand the theories from which they have emerged in order to fully understand contemporary rights language. One way of making this claim plausible would be to focus on an issue that has become central to contemporary debates about rights, that is, the conception of the rights-holder as a sovereign individual. I believe that our notion of individual sovereignty wavers between two quite different conceptions of sovereignty. The difference between the two will become obvious if we consider the relation between moral rights and more general moral obligations that people might have. I will then draw attention to a recent account of the history of natural rights theories. The point of doing so is this: if the account is true, then we have to acknowledge that ‘our’ ideas of natural rights (and especially of the sovereignty that people are supposed to possess according to these theories) have....
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DOI 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2004.00195.x
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