Natural Right and the Historical Approach

"Natural Right and the Historical Approach," Review of Politics, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October 1950).  Reprinted in Natural Right and History (Ch. 1).


THE attack on natural right* in the name of history takes in most cases the following form: natural right claims to be a right that is discernible by human reason and is universally acknowledged; but history (including anthropology) teaches us that no such right exists; instead of the supposed uniformity we find an indefinite variety of notions of right or justice. Or, in other words, there cannot be natural right if there are no immutable principles of justice, but history shows us that all principles of justice are mutable. One cannot understand the meaning of the attack on natural right in the name of history, before one has realized the utter irrelevance of this argument. In the first place, “consent of all mankind” is by no means a necessary condition
of the existence of natural right. Some of the greatest natural right teachers have argued that, precisely if natural right is rational, its discovery presupposes the cultivation of reason, and therefore natural right will not be known universally: one ought not even to expect any real knowledge of natural right among savages. In other words by proving that there is no principle of justice that has not been denied somewhere or at some time, one has not yet proven that any given denial was justified or reasonable. Furthermore, it has always been known that different notions of justice obtain at different times and in different nations. It is absurd to claim that the discovery of a still greater number of such notions by modern students has in any way affected the fundamental issue. Above all, knowledge of the indefinitely large variety of notions of right and wrong is so far from being incompatible with the idea of natural right, that it is the essential condition for the emergence of that idea: realization of the variety of notions of right is the incentive for the quest for natural right. If the rejection of natural right in the name of history is to have any significance, it must have a basis other than historical evidence. Its basis must be a philosophic critique of the possibility, or of the knowability of, natural right- a critique somehow connected with “history.”

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