Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

Human Rights, Ancient and Modern

Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

Human Rights, Ancient and Modern

Article excerpt


A discussion of differing conceptions of human rights requires not only a consideration of rights but of human nature. This discussion will be limited to a consideration of Aristotle's and John Locke's understanding of man and human rights. Indeed, given Aristotle's account of the nature of man, one may persuasively argue that Aristotle has no conception of human rights per se. Rather, Aristotle indicates that human beings as such possess duties or obligations to the political community stemming from their very nature. (1) In contrast, John Locke, the thinker most commonly associated with natural rights or human rights, (2) argues that man's primary concern is for himself and his preservation. (3) Locke speaks of rights that predate political life and which inhere in individuals by virtue of being human beings. Moreover, the political community comes into being for the sake of securing the individual and his rights. (4) The difficulties posed by Aristotle's conception of man and John Locke's are distinct and fundamental and the conclusions of each position are problematic as a basis of human rights.

Aristotle's focus on the perfection of man's function--both as a political and rational animal--as his end or his happiness, fails to recognize particular individuals let alone their happiness; while Locke's emphasis on the individual and his freedom as primary reduces to a mere tool the role others play in an individual's pursuit of happiness. (5) Locke's understanding of man as an autonomous individual, unfettered by God or nature classically understood, leaves man at the mercy of his autonomous will. According to Locke, the political community and thereby its most fundamental virtue--justice--have no foundation other than man's will. (6) Thus the problems associated with each thinker's position are manifest in moral or political life and hence in their inability to address human rights comprehensively. Although both Aristotle and Locke are incapable of providing a solid foundation for human rights, Aristotle provides a more sound foundation for human rights as he bases his understanding of man and his end on nature, and thereby provides a more intelligible argument than Locke.


In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the end of all man's actions, including virtue and friendship, is happiness. (7) That is, happiness is the end of man, that for which man exists. As Aristotle understands man to be a social and political animal by nature, this happiness includes others and is not simply "selfish." (8) He is quite clear that no one would consider a life without friends and a family happy. Although Aristotle emphasizes that man is concerned with being virtuous not simply with knowing what virtue is, he is, nonetheless, concerned with defining happiness rather than whether anyone has or will attain it. (9) Aristotle also argues that one does not deliberate on the impossible; hence virtue and happiness are attainable. (10) Indeed, all that we do as members of families and as citizens is for the sake of happiness. Although happiness is the end of all our actions, what happiness consists in is not immediately evident to man. Happiness requires self-examination; indeed man's happiness apparently requires one to investigate what life is about. According to Aristotle, the perfection or completion of a "thing's" nature is found in the perfection of its function. (11) This is no less true for man, the rational and political animal. Thus man's desire for happiness is linked to his particular function, reason and reason in community, or, in other words, philosophy and political life or moral life. If man is to be virtuous, he must possess some knowledge of man's nature and of his natural end. (12)

Man must be all that his nature calls him to be. But what is the nature of man? Man is a rational animal who is naturally social and political. …

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


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.