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Notions of rights

28 April 2013

One of my research activities on top of my coursework and dissertation at the moment is the moral ontology of rights in early modern jurisprudence. At present I am trying to understand the different such ontologies operative over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, how they operated within/related to different political theories, and how they related both to the classical understanding of right (not rights) and the post-Benthamite correlativity thesis which defines rights ontologically to this day (you’ll note that I categorically do not subscribe to Richard Tuck’s interpretation of Pufendorf as subscribing to the correlativity thesis).

At present I am observing two distinct families of ontologies. One, identified strongly with Hugo Grotius, I am terming the ‘chattels thesis,’ because it conceptualises rights as objective categories to which moral subjects lay ownership claims (and also because I like the word). The other, identified with the ‘radical enlightenment’ tradition of Spinoza and Hobbes, I am terming, provisionally and rather unimaginatively, the ‘conatus thesis’ or ‘potency thesis.’ It seems to understand rights as proceeding from power, strongly associating might and right. While it’s early days, I am finding that the potency thesis seems to entail ontological inalienability of a sort, and thus a necessary aspect of performatism in the actualisation of the social contract. This is in marked contrast to my ‘chattels thesis,’ within which alienability of rights is not only possible but necessary to the formation of social order.

I’m hoping to prepare a paper or two on the topic in coming months so expect more thorough research reports and analyses of the sources as my work progresses and the historiography I’m thinking I’m to end up proposing takes shape.

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