The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law

By Randy E. Barnett | Go to book overview

SEVEN The Partiality Problem

1. Introduction: When Interest Becomes a Problem

THE problem of interest takes many forms but traces from the common tendency of persons to make judgments or choose actions that they believe will serve their interests. Put another way, people tend to try to satisfy their subjective preferences (although these preferences may not always be self-regarding). Natural rights theorists acknowledged the pervasiveness of this phenomenon by according the impulse towards self-preservation a central place in their theories. As seventeenth-century natural rights theorist, Samuel Pufendorf wrote:

[I]n investigating the condition of man we have assigned the first place to self-love, not because one should under all circumstances prefer only himself before all others or measure everything by his own advantage, distinguishing this from the interests of others, and setting forth as his highest goal, but because man is so framed that he thinks of his own advantage before the welfare of others for the reason that it is his nature to think of his own life before the lives of others.1

In an essay on natural law, Pufendorf expanded on his last point:

In common with all living things which have a sense of themselves, man holds nothing more dear than himself, he studies in every way to preserve himself, he strives to acquire what seems good to him and to repel what seems bad to him. The passion is usually so strong that all other passions give way before it.2

The fact that people make choices on the grounds of interest is not, by itself, a problem. Rather, acting out of interest can be considered a problem only against some normative background that distinguishes objectionable from unobjectionable actions. For natural rights theorists, this normative background was supplied by the human need for peaceful social interaction with which self-interested actions can sometimes interfere:

Man, then, is an animal with an intense concern for his own preservation, needy by himself, incapable of protection without the help of his fellows, and very well

____________________
1
Samuel Pufendorf, De lure Naturae at Gentiun Libri Octo ( 1672), trans. C. H. and W. A. Oldfather ( New York: Oceana Publications; London: Wildby and Sons, 1964), Prol. 39.
2
Pufendorf, De lure Naturae, p. 33.

-135-

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