Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Are There Natural Rights in Aristotle?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Are There Natural Rights in Aristotle?

Article excerpt

I would like to begin addressing the question raised in my title by distinguishing two issues: First, does Aristotle have the concept of natural rights? Second, does he give this concept a central role to play in his political theory? The first question is one that I have found most difficult to answer, partly because I am not sure what is involved in having this concept. Nonetheless, I am inclined to say that Aristotle does have it. At the same time, I am convinced that the second question should be answered in the negative: the concept of a right plays no significant role in his thinking. For this reason, it is not a matter of great importance to decide whether or not he has the concept. My thoughts about these issues have been stimulated by Fred Miller's splendid new book;) although we disagree, I have benefitted enormously from the order he has brought to the study of Aristotle's political philosophy and from his efforts to show that the concept of rights plays a central role in it.

Before going any further, something should be said about the word "natural" that appears in my title. Miller distinguishes two ways in which rights can be called natural, and holds that Aristotle recognizes natural rights in one sense but not the other. First, "natural" can be contrasted with "conventional," "legal," and "customary." This is the familiar distinction the Greeks made between physis (nature) and nomos (law, custom, and so on). Aristotle makes use of the distinction when he contrasts natural and legal justice.(2) According to Miller, Aristotle has a theory of natural rights in the sense that he has a theory of natural justice that serves as the basis for his recognition of rights.(3) It is naturally and not merely legally just that certain people be treated in certain ways; they have a valid claim, based on natural justice, to such treatment, and this claim is valid whether or not it is recognized by a legal system.(4) On the other hand, the term "natural right" can also be used in a second way, to designate a right that is possessed in a state of nature, that is, at a time prior to the existence of political communities. Miller holds that Aristotle does not recognize natural rights of this sort, but as he points out, this would not prevent Aristotle from recognizing natural rights in the first sense. The natural rights Miller finds in Aristotle are not possessed by all people at all times; rather, his thesis is that when the polls does come into existence, Aristotelian natural justice requires that political systems be structured in ways that recognize the rights of certain human beings. More specifically, when the polls arises, certain people have a natural right to hold various political offices and to own property.

Miller makes another important distinction when he warns us not to assume that all theories of rights must be liberal theories.(5) Because theories of rights have come into their own in the modern period, we might be tempted to make it definitive of rights that they carve out a zone of freedom in which individuals are allowed to make their own decisions and pursue their good as they please (so long as they do not harm others). According to this familiar conception of rights, others are not allowed to treat me in certain ways without my permission, even if they would on balance do me some good. For example, they cannot interfere with my unhealthy eating habits, even though their prohibitions would make me better off; I have a right to injure my body, since it is my property.

It should be obvious from the start that Aristotle does not have this conception of rights. His ideal city interferes with the lives of its citizens in all sorts of ways that contemporary rights theorists would find objectionable--for example, by requiring extensive participation in politics and demanding that all children be sent to public schools. However, Miller asks us not to infer that Aristotle has no conception of rights at all, and I am sympathetic to his point. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.