Sunday, November 17, 2019

What are the basic goods of a flourishing human?

A good place to begin is with the discussion of the basic goods of “the good life”, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough (2012). The relevant discussion is in Chapter 6, entitled ‘Elements of the Good Life’. I published a somewhat critical review of the book on this blog some years ago, but I saw some merit in the authors discussion of human flourishing.

The authors adopt the following criteria to identify basic goods:
Universality: not specific to eras or cultures;
Finality: not just serving as a means to a more basic good;
Sui generis: not incorporated in some other good;
Indispensability: lack of the good leads to loss or harm.
I accept those criteria.

The authors identify the following seven basic goods:
  • Health: ‘‘the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal natures”.
  • Security: ‘‘an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals”.
  • Respect: an individual’s feeling that others ‘‘regard his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on”.
  • Personality: ‘‘the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good”.
  • Harmony with Nature: ‘‘a sense of kinship with animals, plants, and landscapes”.
  • Friendship: ‘‘all robust, affectionate relationships”, including work relationships etc. as well as family relationships.
  • Leisure: “that which we do for its own sake”, not just time off work.

That list summarises 17 pages of discussion, so it may not do justice to the authors’ deliberations. Nevertheless, it provides a basis to consider whether items have been identified appropriately, and whether anything important has been left out.

Health is obviously an essential characteristic of a flourishing human. The authors want to discourage “an obsession with longevity”, but it is reasonable to assert that flourishing involves living healthily for the term of one’s natural life.

Security is important, but it serves as a means to other goods, including a long and healthy life and psychological well-being (an important omission from the authors’ list of basic goods).

Having others respect of one’s views and interests feels good, but it isn’t indispensable to individual flourishing. Respect for one’s natural rights (life, liberty and property) is certainly indispensable, but serves as a means to other goods, including the ability to live a long and healthy life, interact with others for mutual benefit, and to the acquire human and physical capital that contributes to flourishing.

“Personality” does not seem to capture adequately the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good. The authors use the term personality, rather than autonomy or practical reason, because it implies “spontaneity, individuality and spirit”. Those aspects of personality could be more appropriately incorporated under psychological well-being. The basic good corresponding to framing and executing a plan of life seems to me to be best described as accepting responsibility for self-direction.

Living in harmony with nature is important to human flourishing, and not just because of environmental impacts on human health and well-being. As I see it, the motivation for living in harmony with nature stems from deep-seated intuitions about our kinship with other living things.

Friendship doesn’t seem the most appropriate word to capture the wide variety of relationships that the authors put under this heading. The relevant basic good seems to me to be positive relationships.

Leisure is usually thought of as time off work, rather than engagement in doing things for their own sake. Martin Seligman uses the term ‘engagement’ to refer to the relevant basic good in his book Flourish (2011).

The other four elements of well-being identified in Seligman’s PERMA acronym (discussed here) are positive emotion, relationships, meaning and achievement. Of these, Skidelsky and Skidelsky only directly acknowledge relationships as an element of the good life. It seems to me that positive emotion and a sense of achievement are essential characteristics of a flourishing human.

Meaning requires a little more discussion. Seligman defines ‘meaning’ as belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. This makes sense if serving the self means pursuit of personal pleasure. Those who see their lives as meaningful could be expected to value more things in life than their own pleasure.

So, here are the basic goods that I would expect a flourishing human to have:
  1.  The prospect of a long and healthy life.
  2. Wise and well-informed self-direction.
  3.  Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners.
  4. Psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.
  5. Living in harmony with nature.

What do I plan to do with this list? My interest is in the factors that lead to differences in opportunities for human flourishing in different countries. For example, which are the countries where some person chosen at random is likely to have the best prospects of a long and happy life? How can we explain why the prospects for that individual are better in those countries?
Such questions will be explored in later posts.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What is it important to know about freedom, liberty and natural rights?

Dear readers, this article summarises the conclusions of a series of recent posts on this blog relating to freedom, liberty and natural rights.

It might help you in reading the article to think of it as an outline of the chapter on freedom in a book about freedom, progress and human flourishing. It would help me if you could provide comments below, or by email, on whether you think the article captures adequately what it is important to know about liberty.

The meaning of freedom, liberty and rights. 

Freedom sounds good, but the meaning of the word depends on context. For example, when people talk about freedom from fear, or freedom from want, they may have something important to say about human flourishing, but it isn’t necessary related to personal freedom or economic freedom, which are aspects of liberty. My focus in this post is on liberty.
Liberty has a more precise meaning than freedom. I adopt Friedrich Hayek’s definition of liberty as “a state in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society”. In the civic republican tradition, liberty is sometimes defined more broadly to encompass political freedoms, including the right to political participation. To avoid confusion, however, I think it best to stick with Hayek’s definition.
Rights refer to things that one is morally or legally entitled to do or have. As with freedom, the precise meaning depends on context and qualifier words. A negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another person or group whereas a positive right is an entitlement to have another person or group do something. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encompasses not only the negative right to liberty and positive legal rights (including political freedom) but also economic and social aspirations that cannot necessarily be met by anything that a person or group might do.   
My focus here is on natural rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - as famously proclaimed in the United States Declaration of Independence. The inclusion of “pursuit of happiness” as a right in the Declaration might appear to be redundant since pursuit of happiness is encompassed in our understanding of liberty. In 18th century America, however, an inalienable right to liberty could have been interpreted in civic republican terms. At that time, pursuit of happiness was widely perceived as the activity of human flourishing, as perceived by Aristotle. (Further explanation is provided in an earlier post.)

Liberty is worth having.

Anyone who lives in a liberal democracy should ask themselves from time to time what it would be like to live without liberty. What would your life be like if you lived in a country where you didn’t have freedom of religion, where you could be jailed for expressing views not approved of by political leaders, where you could be subject to arbitrary arrest, where your property could be arbitrarily seized by the government, or where your freedom to  move around was restricted? Such countries are still easy to find.
The right to freedom of speech is particularly important because free speech helps to protect liberty more generally. Some restrictions on freedom of speech have long been widely accepted as desirable, for example to discourage incitement to violence. However, recent efforts in some liberal democracies to make it a crime to offend others based on identity characteristics - such as ethnicity, religion or gender - have potential to curtail freedom of speech substantially. Even when people strive to be respectful in the way they present their views, some people with opposing viewpoints are likely to claim to be offended if they can thereby stifle debate on controversial topics.

Norms of liberty make it possible for individuals to flourish in different ways.

As explained by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl: 
“Individual rights are … needed to solve a problem that is uniquely social, political and legal. … How do we allow for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways … without creating inherent moral conflict in … the structure that is provided by the political/legal order? How do we find a political/legal order that will in principle not require that the human flourishing of any person or group be given structural preference over others? How do we protect the possibility that each may flourish while at the same time provide principles that regulate the conduct of all?”  (Norms of Liberty2005, p 78).
A discussion of views of other authors who have also advanced metanormative arguments for individual rights was posted on this blog some years ago.
Moral intuitions support natural rights.

Natural rights are inherent in human nature. They have traditionally been seen to be endowed by God, but widely-held intuitions about natural rights can also be explained in terms of the evolution of the ethics of respect. Moral intuitions that it is good to respect the lives and autonomy of others provide support for norms of liberty that maximize the opportunities available for all to flourish. As discussed in a recent post, it seems reasonable to suppose that the ethics of respect evolved because of the benefits that voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit brought to individuals and communities.  
Those who seek to deny the existence of natural rights tend to argue that individual rights are bestowed by governments, so it is legitimate for governments to remove them if that serves what they see as the “greater good”. There are times when individual rights do need to be compromised (e.g. via compulsory land acquisition) to prevent a community being held to ransom by an individual, but this should not be done lightly and fair compensation should be provided.

Respect for the rights of others has been advocated as an ideal since ancient times.

In ancient Greece, the poems of Hesiod, which appear to date from the 8th or 7th century BCE, urge people to comply with rules of just conduct rather than to seek to benefit via predation. In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses, to “put away all notions of violence” for “fish, and wild animals, and the flying birds” may “feed on each other, since there is no idea of justice among them,” but “to men [Zeus] gave justice,” which is the “best thing they have.”  Hesiod condemns both force and fraud: the grabbing of goods either by “force of hands” or by “cleverness of … tongue.” (Further discussion here.)

Perceptions of natural law have not always supported universal human flourishing.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was the great philosopher of individual human flourishing. His emphasis on the natural capacity of humans to use reason to guide themselves and exercise appropriate moderation in their behaviour provides a basis for understanding human flourishing to be an essentially self-directed activity.
Nevertheless, Aristotle argued that it was natural to make slaves of defeated enemies. He viewed the system of conquest and slavery as a natural system governed by internal sources of change. By identifying the whole system as natural he was able to disregard the use of force at the heart of it.
The perception of what was natural of Cicero, the Roman statesman, lawyer and philosopher who lived from 106 BC- 43 BC, was more supportive of liberty. He argued that “nature made us just that we might participate our goods with each other, and supply each others’ wants”.
(Further discussion here and here.)

Reason and spontaneous legal processes both played a part in recognition of natural rights.

Beliefs and values supporting natural rights of individuals to life, property and liberty seem to have travelled from Cicero to the modern world through both the spontaneous evolution of rules and evolution of reasoning about the natural law. Those different transmission processes interacted. There were periods when reasoning about natural law held back recognition of individual rights to participate in mutually beneficial activities e.g. lending and borrowing. Eventually, however, reasoning about natural law reinforced and extended individual rights recognised under common law. (Further discussion here and here).

Rule of law protects natural rights and enables people to live in peace.

From the 12th century onwards, with the advent of centralised monarchies in Europe, homicide came to be viewed as an offence against the crown, rather than a civil matter. That enabled societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself justice. More effective justice systems penalised plunder, and thereby promoted peacefulness and improved incentives for mutually beneficial exchange.  
Evolution of the rule of law provided greater protection to natural rights by requiring people to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property.  (Further discussion here.)

Systems of government preferment are an infringement of natural liberty.

Adam Smith argued that it was an unjust infringement of natural liberty for the powers of government to be used to assist some economic groups at the expense of others. Smith’s ideal of everyone being free to pursue their own interests in their own way is consistent with Francis Hutcheson’s earlier explanation of the right to natural liberty in terms of pursuit of happiness. (See this post).

In The Law, published in 1850, Frédéric Bastiat foresaw the potential for the universal franchise to endanger natural rights. He was concerned about the use of the power of the state by some groups to seize and consume the products of the labour of others. Legislation that seriously endangers natural rights is difficult to reconcile with rules of just conduct that have evolved to foster mutually beneficial interactions. (See discussion here.)

The right political participation should be viewed as a natural right.

Moral intuitions supporting the right to political participation presumably evolved because human flourishing has always required individuals to participate actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods. Such involvement is less active in modern societies in which many collective goods are provided by remote government agencies and citizen involvement usually involves little more than voting.
The exercise of voting rights provides citizens with some protection against tyranny, but increasing numbers of people in the liberal democracies nevertheless feel unhappy about the outcomes of democratic political processes. That unhappiness may stem to an important extent from unrealistic expectations of what political processes can deliver. It seems likely to increase as low productivity growth reduces government revenues and demographic change increases political demands on governments.
Technological advances that enhance opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises offer hope that people will in future be able to exercise their natural political rights in ways that give them more involvement in decisions that affect them.
(More discussion here and here.)

For liberty to prevail the ‘real constitution’ must be pro-liberty.

It is illusory to think of political institutions as external to society. The rules of the game exist only insofar as they are continually maintained in existence by human agents acting in certain systematic ways. The constitution of a free society is a pattern of interactions in which people give one another incentives to act and keep acting in ways that tend to maintain liberty. It is not the rules per se that gets disputes resolved, but rather the incentive structure that makes the system’s administrators likely to act in accordance with such rules.
Sheldon Richman defines the real constitution as the set of dispositions that influence what most people will accept as legitimate actions by the politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government. He derives support for this concept from Roderick Long’s observation that “government is not some sort of automatic robot standing outside the social order it serves; its existence depends on ongoing cooperation, both from the members of the government and from the populace it governs”.
It follows that for liberty to prevail the real constitution must be pro-liberty. As a corollary, tyranny cannot persist in any jurisdiction when the real constitution is pro-liberty.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Can any of the positive rights listed in the UDHR be considered natural rights?

A statement made last year by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) prompted me to take another look at it  In her statement, Ms Bachelet suggested that the UDHR has “withstood the tests of the passing years” and “has passed from being an aspirational treatise into a set of standards that has permeated virtually every area of international law”.

The UDHR is not a document that I look at often. My reason for largely neglecting the document has been the perception that it is aspirational, and involves a large element of wishful thinking. Ms Bachelet’s suggestion to the contrary reminded that Friedrich Hayek had asserted that by proclaiming social and economic aspirations to be rights, the UDHR was playing “an irresponsible game with the concept of ‘right’ which could result only in destroying the respect for it” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, p 105).

After re-reading the UDHR, there are a couple of points I would like to make about it.

First, Hayek was right!
Hayek’s warning about the confusion of the concept of right in the UDHR was appropriate. For example, consider Article 15:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Article 15 seems to tell everyone that the world owes them a living. But who will pay? Nature has different imperatives. Human flourishing depends on what people can do individually and collectively to help themselves and each other. Governments may help by defending the natural rights that enable people to better their own condition and help others. Although they often promise to ensure that everyone has an adequate standard of living, governments can’t themselves generate the wealth needed to keep such promises.

Governments can redistribute wealth, but their redistribution efforts tend to discourage wealth creation. What happens when redistribution is pushed too far is obvious from the recent experience of Venezuela. The policies followed by the Venezuelan government were presumably intended to contribute to the human flourishing aspirations underlying Article 15, but they have had the opposite effect of impoverishing many people in that country. The incoming Venezuelan representative on the UN human rights council would do us all a favour if he or she could acknowledge the consequences of the Venezuelan government’s efforts to comply with Article 15.

The UDHR would have provided a more coherent defence of human rights if its framers had given more attention to the insights of Frédéric Bastiat about natural rights and the role of law. In The Law, published in 1850, Bastiat makes the point that everyone has a natural right to defend their person, their liberty and their property, and asserts that the law should be viewed as “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense”:
“When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of these. They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all”.

Second, some of the positive rights in the UDHR are worth supporting.
I am referring to various legal rights relating to natural justice, or procedural fairness, and the right of political participation in Article 21:
“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”.

People who live in liberal democracies tend to take that right that for granted, and many are even disillusioned about it, but it is a right that people seek persistently when it is denied to them. Tyrants understand that well; although they often claim to be adored by citizens, they are rarely willing to allow their popularity to be fairly tested in fair elections. The recent protests in Hong Kong show that the right to political participation is keenly sought even when people live under a regime that, for the time being, provides individuals with greater economic freedom than is enjoyed in most liberal democracies.

Friedrich Hayek argued in favour of recognition of such political rights in the following terms:
“Since we are all made to support the organization of government, we have by the principles determining that organization certain rights which are commonly called political rights. The existence of the compulsory organization of government and its rules of organization does create a claim in justice to shares in the services of government, and may even justify a claim for an equal share in determining what government shall do” (LLL, p 102).

Is political participation a natural right?
It seems to me that the right to political participation should be viewed as a natural right for much the same reasons as I have argued that humans have a natural right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing. It is part of human nature to seek mutual benefit by participating actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods because provision of such goods is, and has always been, necessary to human flourishing. As Aristotle said, “man is by nature a political animal”.

The context in which Aristotle made that observation is worth quoting because what he described seems to an essentially voluntary process of people coming together for mutual benefit:
When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.
Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, Book 1, Part 2).

The political participation of a citizen in a liberal democracy, which usually doesn’t involve much more than voting, has little in common with the participation of citizens in the functioning of the city states that Aristotle wrote about. Perhaps that helps to explain the disillusionment that many currently feel about the exercise of their democratic rights. Responses to surveys suggest that many people want more involvement in decisions that affect them.

Many people are also unhappy about the outcomes of democratic political processes. In my view that unhappiness stems to an important extent from inflated expectations generated by UDHR and other authorities which assert that people have the right to expect politicians to deliver them a standard of living they consider to be adequate. Another important source of disillusionment is the ‘plunder’ that Frédéric Bastiat foresaw as a likely outcome of the universal franchise. Bastiat was referring to the use of the power of the state by some to seize and consume the products of the labour of others. These days economists refer to that as rent seeking and usually consider it to be a major obstacle to productivity growth.

It seems likely in the decades ahead, that low productivity growth will reduce the rate of growth in government revenues in many democratic countries, at the same time as an increase in the proportion of elderly people places increased political demands on governments. Consequently, governments are likely to be forced to reduce their involvement in provision of services that can be supplied either privately, or via voluntary cooperative activity.
Fortunately, as I have previously discussed, technology is developing in ways that are likely to enhance our opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises.

The right to political participation should be viewed as a natural right which evolved because human flourishing required individuals to participate actively with others in decisions relating to provision of collective goods. Such involvement is less active in modern societies in which many collective goods are provided by remote government agencies.

The positive right to political participation is nevertheless an important right recognised in the UDHR. It differs from social and economic aspirations - that are also claimed to be rights in the UDHR - because it is a right that governments can comply with. The exercise of voting rights provides citizens with some protection against tyranny.

The disillusionment that many people in the liberal democracies feel about the exercise of their democratic rights seems likely to increase as low productivity growth reduces government revenues and demographic change increases political demands on governments. Technological advances that enhance opportunities to seek mutual benefit in cooperative enterprises offer hope that people will in future be able to exercise their natural political rights in ways that give them more involvement in decisions that affect them.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

How does liberty promote peacefulness?

People who understand that self-direction is essential to their own flourishing have no difficulty grasping how liberty has potential to promote peacefulness. Such people usually advocate the non-aggression principle, which requires them to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. They are likely to see that principle as an application of the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated, the Kantian imperative, the ancient virtues of justice, temperance and loving-kindness, a matter of honor and integrity, the ethics of respect, norms of reciprocity, or some combination of the above.

The extent of adherence to the non-aggression principle is a determinant of both liberty and the peacefulness of a society.  A society in which 100% of the population adhered to the principle would be entirely peaceful. A democracy in which 90% of the population adhered to the principle could be expected to be more peaceful than one in which a lower percentage of the population did so, other things being equal.

The proviso is important. One “other thing” that also has an important influence on the peacefulness of outcomes is the way perceived aggressions are dealt with. In particular, outcomes in countries where do-it-yourself (DIY) justice is the norm are likely to be less peaceful than those in countries governed by rule of law. The problem with DIY justice is that it is often perceived to be biased, and hence results in family feuds and further retribution.

John Locke recognised DIY justice as a flaw in his vision of humans being “perfectly free …  subject only to limits set by the law of nature”. He noted that it would be seen to be “unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases” because:
 “self love will make men partial to themselves and their friends; and on the other side, that ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow: and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men” (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2).

In writing that, John Locke was possibly mindful of the historical experience of DIY justice in England and Europe.  

Historical explanations of the growth of peacefulness

In attempting to explain the long-term decline in homicide rates in Europe, shown in the accompanying graph, Steven Pinker follows the reasoning of Norbert Elias who suggested that the advent of centralised monarchies, replacing a patchwork of baronies and fiefs, played an important role in encouraging people to display greater self-control (a modern word with a similar meaning to the ancient virtue of temperance). In England, King Henry I, who reigned in the early 12th century, redefined homicide as an offence against the state rather than as a tort. That changed the rules of the game. As Pinker puts it:
A man’s ticket to fortune was no longer being the baddest knight in the area but making a pilgrimage to the king’s court and currying favour with him and his entourage” (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, p 75).

The advent of centralised monarchies also improved incentives for mutually beneficial trade by penalising plunder. When people are engaged in mutually beneficial trading, they have an added incentive to refrain from murdering their trading partners. Given appropriate incentives, the ancient virtue of prudence helped people to exercise the Christian virtue of loving their neighbours rather than murdering them.

In case anyone is wondering, the thought in the preceding sentence wasn’t borrowed from Steven Pinker. Pinker doesn’t claim that the Christian virtues played a positive role in the civilisation process. He suggests, with some justification, that in the middle ages Christianity was more concerned with saving souls than with the sacredness of life. Nevertheless, at a couple of points in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker acknowledges the importance of the various versions Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions.

If you are sceptical about the ability of an autocratic monarchy, a Leviathan, to play a positive role in defending rights and promoting peace, it may help to think of the advantages of stationary bandits replacing roving bandits, as suggested by Mancur Olson. Even if the motives of a stationary bandit are entirely selfish it can still be in his interests to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with his subjects. In exchange for taxes he may use his power to give them the incentive to attempt to accumulate wealth, for example by recognising property rights and enforcing contracts. There is further explanation here.

In historical terms, monarchies that were prepared to use their coercive powers to defend the rights of citizens were a step in the direction of rule of law – a set of institutions protecting individual rights and ensuring that no-one is above the law.

Steven Pinker notes that a humanitarian revolution occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries resulting in a reduction in barbarity of punishments, a greater willingness to allow heretics to go to hell rather than to persecute them to save their souls, and a reduction in the power of kings. Pinker attributes this revolution to enlightenment humanism. I have previously argued that Pinker is broadly correct to present this as a coherent world view in terms of its impact on public opinion, despite the disparate views of leading thinkers.

Other factors which Pinker sees as contributing to the peacefulness of societies include: growth in the power of women; an expansion in the circle of sympathy to encompass people in other communities and other countries; and ‘the escalator of reason’, which involves detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint. I have discussed those processes previously, so I will not dwell on them here. It is worth noting, however, that the circle of sympathy and escalator of reason also promote freedom via greater recognition of human rights and enabling widespread adoption of emancipative values.

So, has the greater liberty of the western democracies made them uniquely peaceful?

The answer isn’t obvious. Homicide statistics suggest that some countries with autocratic governments are also relatively peaceful. It seems likely, however, that may reflect suppression of violence rather than genuine peacefulness. That view is supported by the explosion of violence that occurred in eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

Research by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti, using an extensive international data base, suggests that the level of lethal violence is heavily dependent on the rule of law, the extent of corruption, the level of democracy, and social and economic equality. High crime societies are characterised by stronger authoritarian and conservative moral views, more collectivist cultures, and short-term cultural orientations (‘Cross-Comparative Perspectives on Global Homicide Trends’,  Crime and Justice 43(1): 2014).

The relationship between rule of law and homicide rate, as depicted in the graph at the beginning of this post (borrowed from the article by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti) is particularly pertinent to the question of how liberty promotes peacefulness. The rule of law index used (the World Bank’s index constructed by Daniel Kauffman, Aart Kraay and Massimo Mastruzzi) captures “perceptions of the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence”. I have previously noted that the index covers similar ground to the legal component of an economic freedom index.


Liberty promotes peacefulness because it requires people to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. The rule of law that protects liberty also promotes peacefulness by enabling societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself justice.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How can you believe in the existence of natural rights?

In preceding articles on this blog I have traced the evolution of the concept of natural rights from ancient reasoning about natural law to the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. The importance of the Declaration’s assertion of natural rights stems from the moral support its inspiring message has provided, and still provides, to people whose rights have been infringed or insufficiently recognised in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

Not long after the U.S. declared independence, some influential philosophers began to cast doubt on the concept of natural rights. The famous British statesman and political philosopher, Edmund Burke, argued that “the primitive rights of man undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790).

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, argued that only political rights – rights established and enforced by governments have “any determinate and intelligible meaning”. He viewed natural rights as “rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts” (Anarchical Fallacies, 1796).

Much modern questioning of the existence of natural rights stems from doubts about the existence of a Creator who could endow them in the manner suggested by the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Michael Birshan has suggested that although it is plausible that there is a system of natural rights instituted by a Supreme Being, “it is much less plausible that man could ever discover them through rational reasoning”.

Does it make sense to view natural rights as stemming from our human nature, without necessarily involving the intervention of a Supreme Being? I believe it does. I advance two overlapping lines of argument below to support the view that natural rights are inherent in the nature of humans.

The first line of argument stems from Aristotle’s observations about the natural potential for individual humans to flourish. As explained recently on this blog, an understanding of the nature of human flourishing implies that individuals have liberty to exercise responsibility for self-direction. In one of the first posts published on this blog I drew attention to the observation of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl about the role of liberty in protecting “the possibility of agency or self-direction, which is central to any and every form of human flourishing”.

However, that line of argument doesn’t fully explain why you and I have strong moral intuitions that we, and Mr Xi, should recognise that other individual humans have the right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing.

My second line of argument is that a capacity for moral intuitions is inherent in human nature and has evolved over time into the ethics of respect – the foundation of natural rights - as a consequence of natural processes of cooperation for mutual benefit.

In ancient times, the existence of such intuitions was recognised by Cicero, who argued that “respect for virtue” is a ubiquitous aspect of human nature and that “nature made us just that we might participate our goods with each other, and supply each other’s wants”.

In the 18th century, Francis Hutcheson also recognised such intuitions in discussing the “the right to natural liberty”:  “Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil of cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others, without necessity for some more general good”.

More recently, intuitions about ethical treatment of others have been studied by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, in The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, 2012.  The basic idea of his moral foundations theory is that our moral intuitions are related to adaptive challenges of social life that have been identified by evolutionary psychologists. Moral foundations are innate, but they are expressed in differing ways and to differing extents in different cultures. I have high regard for Haidt’s moral foundations theory but, as noted previously, in my view his survey methods exaggerate the extent that people who give high priority to liberty are undisturbed by feelings of empathy and disgust.

The best philosophical discussion I am aware of about the evolution of the ethics of respect is that by Robert Nozick in Invariances, 2001. Nozick began his earlier, and more famous, book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by assuming a state of nature in which individuals are in a “state of perfect freedom”. He noted that he was “following the respectable tradition of Locke, who does not provide anything remotely resembling a satisfactory explanation of the status and basis of the law of nature in his Second Treatise”. Chapter 5 of Invariances does seem to me to provide a satisfactory explanation of how moral intuitions might have evolved naturally to support the ethics of respect.

Nozick’s argument can be briefly summarised as follows:
  • The higher capacities of humans, including capacities for conscious thought, control of impulses and planning, have been selected for by evolution because of the benefits they bring e.g. in enabling adherence to ethical norms.
  • The use of norms to guide behaviour enables humans to extend the realm of cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit beyond what would otherwise be possible.
  • Cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit includes, among other things adherence to norms of non-interference – refraining from murdering, enslaving and stealing from others – provided they are willing to reciprocate. 
  • The impetus to extend the sphere of voluntary cooperation for mutual advantage beyond the immediate family or group is the perception that this brings benefits greater than can be obtained otherwise e.g. by involuntary exchanges. That has been an important component of the history of ethical progress, even though there has been much backsliding
  • Evolution may have shaped humans to enjoy cooperative activity. A reputation for adhering to norms of cooperative behaviour brings rewards by attracting further cooperation, and may have conferred reproductive advantages.
  • The internalisation of norms enables them to be followed even when no-one is watching who can sanction deviations. Internalisation brings ethics into play. Something other than (or in addition to) punishment by other people must support rules if they are to become ethical principles or values.
  • The evaluative capacities of humans enable them to generalise from different experiences of cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit and to identify common properties in a range of experiences. In turn, those abilities make persons less prone to the push and pull of desires and more prone to feel uncomfortable when their evaluations are discordant. (An example of the latter is conflict between a desire to enforce traditional norms relating to religious observance and to advance norms of non-interference.)
  • Moral progress involves, among other things, shrinkage of the domain of mandatory morality to enable a domain of liberty and personal autonomy to be established, and for the ethics of respect to emerge. 

Nozick sums up:
 “if conscious self-awareness was selected for because it makes us capable of ethical behaviour, then ethics, even the very first layer of the ethics of respect, truly is what makes us human. A satisfying conclusion. And one with some normative force” (p 300).

Since the ethics of respect entails recognition of Lockean rights, Nozick’s naturalistic explanation implicitly recognises that such rights are natural.

It makes sense to believe that natural rights are inherent in the nature of humans. Individual humans have a natural right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing. Natural rights have normative significance as an outcome of a long evolutionary process involving development of moral intuitions, social norms and evaluative capabilities. That process explains why you and I have moral intuitions that we, and Mr Xi, should abide by the norms of liberty that maximize the opportunities available for all to flourish.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Why did the US Declaration of Independence specify an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness?

Given that the United States was founded by politicians, is there is any point trying to understand why any particular words were included in the Declaration of Independence? I think there is.
The politicians who drafted the Declaration in 1776 seem to have been more thoughtful and principled in their approach than many contemporary politicians engaged in similar constitutional issues e.g. Brexit. More importantly, even if we  think the founders were engaged in a self-interested bid for power, in preparing their Declaration they were seeking the support of American colonists, so it was in their interests to express sentiments that would attract widespread support within those communities.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of the Declaration, maintained later that “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind”:
“All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

A copy of an extract from Jefferson's draft:

The words relating to an unalienable right to pursuit of happiness were unchanged in the various drafts of the Declaration. Rather than pondering whether those words were borrowed from one source or another, it may be more illuminating to focus on why the ideas expressed by those words would have appealed to the intended audience of American colonists and their sympathisers.

The idea of individuals being “endowed by their creator” with “unalienable rights” would have appealed to numerous followers of John Locke among American colonists. Unalienable (or inalienable) rights continue to exist even when not recognized by governments; such natural rights cannot be taken away, sold, or given away. Locke’s view that the existence of a natural right to liberty provided justification for the overthrow a tyrannical government added philosophical support to the desire of colonists free themselves from British rule.

Was “pursuit of happiness” included merely as a rhetorical device? You and I might argue that a right to liberty implies a right for individuals to pursue happiness in whatever way they choose. However, some historians have suggested that in 18th century America there could have been a tendency for liberty to be interpreted in terms of the classical republican tradition of political participation, rather than in Lockean terms of freedom from violation of natural rights (see Darrin McMahon, Happiness, a history, p 324). In that context it seems to me that recognition of a natural right to pursue happiness might have been seen to offer additional protection e.g. in discouraging governments from attempting to control religious beliefs.

Darrin McMahon’s discussion of the meaning of “pursuit of happiness” in 18th century America aids understanding of why it would have been widely viewed as a natural right at that time. He notes that John Locke wrote of natural rights to “life, liberty and estate” rather than life, liberty and happiness. Nevertheless, Locke saw pursuit of happiness as an important feature of a divinely orchestrated natural world in which individuals seek pleasant sensations and have differing tastes. Locke’s view of happiness combined hedonism with goodness, the exercise of practical wisdom, and spirituality. He suggested that the “constant pursuit of true and solid happiness” … “which is our greatest good” … frees us “from any necessary determination of our will to any particular actions”. Locke saw heaven as offering the greatest of all pleasures.

McMahon also notes the important influence of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Francis Hutcheson, in 18th century America. As noted in the preceding article on this blog, Hutcheson argued that humans possess a moral sense. We can obtain happiness by doing good!

Carli Conklin has suggested the English jurist, William Blackstone (1723 - 1780) as the source of another influential view about pursuit of happiness in 18th century America (‘The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness’, Washington University Jurisprudence Review, 7/2, 2015). The founders strongly disagreed with Blackstone’s belief that the British parliament remained a supreme authority over the colonies. However, they agreed with him about natural law and the pursuit of happiness, and may have seen advantage in drawing on those views to highlight an inconsistency in his position.

In his Introduction to Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone argues that individual pursuit of happiness is the foundation of natural law:
 “For [the Creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it can not but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, He has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.”

The views of Benjamin Franklin about pursuit of happiness seem to draw together many threads of thinking on this topic in 18th century America. Carli Conklin quotes his views as follows:
‘Benjamin Franklin stated “[t]he desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it” and although men may attempt to achieve happiness in different ways, the reality is that “[i]t is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.” Therefore, according to Franklin, if we pursue happiness through passion instead of reason, we achieve only an “inferior” and “imperfect” happiness, because “[t]here is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct.” Indeed, Franklin argued “the Science of Virtue is of more worth, and of more consequence to [man’s] Happiness than all the rest [of the sciences] put together.” Furthermore, Franklin stated, “I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy”.’

The US Declaration of Independence specified pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right because the founders knew that sentiment would attract widespread support among American colonists and their sympathisers. “Pursuit of happiness” was more than an attractive rhetorical device in a context where an inalienable right to liberty might have been interpreted in civic republican, rather than Lockean terms. 
Given the meaning of the pursuit of happiness in 18th century America - influenced by Locke, Hutcheson, Blackstone and Franklin, among others – it is easy to understand why it would have been widely recognised as a natural right. 
Pursuit of happiness was widely perceived in terms that have a great deal in common with the activity of human flourishing, as perceived by Aristotle and his followers. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Where did Adam Smith's 'system of natural liberty' come from?

In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723 -1790) famously wrote that when all systems of government
preferment or restraint for particular “species of industry” are removed, “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord”.

He went on to explain what this system of natural liberty entails:
‘Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring forth both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty [for which] no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society’. (WN, IV.ix.51).

Smith’s use of the value-laden term, ‘natural liberty’, seems to have been intended to convey that it is good for everyone to be free to pursue their individual interests, even in the absence of more tangible mutual benefits. That ethical connotation is even stronger in other passages in Wealth of Nations (WN) where Smith refers to violations of natural liberty as unjust.

Jerry Muller suggests that “the display” of the ‘system of natural liberty’ contributes to the great persuasive power of the WN, but might “lead many readers to overlook the complexity of Smith’s conception of the moral life and to conclude that liberty, in itself, was always a good thing” (The Mind and the Market, 2002, p 83).

In my view, it is likely that Smith would have been pleased to have readers accept his vision of natural liberty and limited government as unambiguously good. I think he would have wanted people to recognise that it was an unjust infringement of natural liberty for the powers of government to be used to assist some economic groups at the expense of others.

Nevertheless, as Nicholas Phillipson highlights in his biography, Smith’s political prescriptions for market liberalisation were pragmatic. He recognised the need for a gradual approach to the removal of obstructions to avoid provoking dangerous opposition from opposing interests (Adam Smith, An enlightened life, 2010, p 230-31).

The authors of the introduction to the 1976 edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments suggest that Smith’s reference to “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty” in WN reflects the influence on him of the Stoic concept of natural harmony. (The editors D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie acknowledge help from Walter Eckstein in writing the introduction.)

Smith’s reference to natural liberty could also reflect the influence of more recent philosophers, including Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746), who taught Smith moral philosophy at Glasgow university. Hutcheson’s philosophical interests included the nature of virtue, the meaning of sociability and natural rights. His teaching and writings were deeply respected in radical Whig circles in Britain and the American colonies.

Smith’s ideal of everyone being free to pursue their own interests in their own way seems to echo Hutcheson’s explanation of the right to natural liberty in terms of pursuit of happiness:
“As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness, and many tender affections toward others in some nearer relations of life, and granted to each one some understanding and active powers, with a natural impulse to exercise them for the purposes of these natural affections; 'tis plain each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labour, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods, while no more public interest necessarily requires his labours, or requires that his actions should be under the direction of others. This right we call natural liberty.”

Smith and his followers would want to redraft that a little to define the meaning of what is hurtful to others in terms of fair play, or respect for their rights. There is also the question of how to define the “public interest” that apparently has priority over private interests.

 Hutchison goes on to assert:
“Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil of cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others, without necessity for some more general good. Those who judge well about their own innocent interests will use their liberty virtuously and honourably; such as have less wisdom will employ it in meaner pursuits, and perhaps in what may be justly censured as vicious.”

Smith doubted that everyone is born with such moral instincts. He argued that individuals gained the perspective of an impartial spectator to judge their own actions via a socialisation process.

Hutcheson argues that people resent infringements of liberty:
“the sense of natural liberty is so strong, and the loss of it so deeply resented by human nature, that it would generally create more misery to deprive men of it because of their imprudence, than what is to be feared from their imprudent use of it."

Hutcheson doesn’t see any problem with persuasion:
“Let men instruct, teach, and convince their fellows as far as they can about the proper use of their natural powers, or persuade them to submit voluntarily to some wise plans of civil power where their important interests shall be secured.”

Francis Hutcheson sums up:
“This right of natural liberty is not only suggested by the selfish parts of our constitution, but by many generous affections, and by our moral sense, which represents our own voluntary actions as the grand dignity and perfection of our nature.”

(The quoted passages by Francis Hutcheson are from A System of Moral Philosophy, published posthumously in 1755, pp 293-5.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

How did beliefs about individual rights travel from Cicero to Locke?

This rather long post follows on from one in which I asked how we got from natural law to natural rights. In case you are wondering, the “we” referred to are people who currently have relatively broad scope to exercise natural rights to liberty. 

I concluded the preceding post by suggesting that many of the ingredients of John Locke’s view of liberty and natural rights, enunciated in the 17th century, were already present in Cicero’s account of natural law from the 1st century BC.

This post is about the ways in which beliefs about individual rights were transmitted, or evolved, over time. When people think about the transmission or evolution of beliefs and shared values it is common to have in mind a process in which books and other media are maintained or rediscovered, and thinkers reject or build on the premises of the reasoning of those who came before.

However, transmission and evolution of beliefs about individual rights can also occur as people observe the spontaneous evolution of rules of just conduct and social norms. It is possible for such evolution to occur spontaneously as “the result of human action but not human design” (to use an expression coined by Adam Ferguson, but much loved by Friedrich Hayek). Evolution of the English common law is often cited as an example of that process.

How much can be explained in terms of the spontaneous evolution of rules?

Hayek began his discussion on the classical and medieval tradition of the evolution of law by noting that even in the height of democracy in ancient Athens it was not possible to alter the rules of just conduct by a simple decree of the assembly. A change could only be brought about through a complicated procedure involving a specially elected body (Law, Legislation and Liberty (LLL), V1, p82). He also notes that classical Roman civil law was almost entirely the product of law-finding by jurists rather than legislation. (See the preceding post for Cicero’s quoting of Cato in support of that view. Hayek included that quote in Constitution of Liberty, p57). The famous law code of the Emperor Justinian was largely a collection of past laws and extracts of the opinions of Roman jurists.

Hayek argues that in the early medieval period, for about 1,000 years, law was again regarded as something to be discovered, not made. He quotes Fritz Kern:
There is in the Middle Ages, no such thing as the ‘first application of a legal rule’. Law is old; new law is a contradiction in terms; for either new law is derived explicitly or implicitly from the old, or it conflicts with the old, in which case it is not lawful” (LLL, V1 p 83).

Larry Siedentop describes how the Christian church created canon law in the 12th century by sifting through Roman law to establish which rules were compatible with Christian beliefs. Canon law covered aspects of private and criminal law including usury as well as marriage, adultery and divorce. Siedentop comments:
Little wonder that at times civil lawyers felt their domain was under threat” (Inventing the Individual, p 212).

Hayek notes that from the 13th century onwards, law making on the European continent gradually came to be regarded as an act of the will of the ruler. He suggests that was associated with the rise of absolute monarchy. England managed to preserve the medieval ‘liberties’, because of “a deeply entrenched tradition of common law” under which jurists “had developed conceptions somewhat similar to those of the natural law tradition” (LLL, V1, p 84-5). Hayek mentions the contribution of Edward Coke in defending the common law tradition against King James I and Francis Bacon, that of Mathew Hale in opposition to Thomas Hobbes.

That account almost takes us to John Locke. In his discussion of natural rights, Locke does not seem to have acknowledged the relevance to his views of the common law of England. However, as noted by Stephen Shepherd, Locke left evidence that he had read Coke and that he was influenced by near contemporaries, who had learned the law from Coke and the common lawyers. Shepherd also points out that Locke’s account of property rights has parallels in the common law (‘The Common Law and the Constitution’, American Society of Legal History, November 2005).

Spontaneous evolution via legal processes can explain how many ideas about natural rights evolved and persisted, but has limited capacity to explain recognition of natural rights of people who haven’t had standing in the courts. Judges can only discover individual rights in respect of cases that are brought before them. For example, the famous case (Somerset v Stewart) in which Lord Mansfield found slavery to be unsupported by the common law of England was decided in 1772 (many years after Locke died). The case was heard because Somerset's three godparents, from his baptism as a Christian in England, made application to the court on his behalf. Lord Mansfield narrowly limited his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against their will, and said they could not.

A more fundamental limitation of spontaneous evolution of natural rights arose because in medieval times the common law was constrained by the influence of church authorities. For example, English common lawyers conceded jurisdiction to the church courts in relation to usury, defined then as "whatsoever is taken for a loan beyond the principal". The common law courts did not protect the rights of individuals to engage in mutually beneficial arrangements to borrow and lend money.

In order to understand the evolution of rules in relation to matters such as usury it is necessary to consider the evolution of reasoning about natural law.

How was Locke influenced by the evolution of reasoning about natural law?

Locke attributes the view that all are created equal “with no-one being subjected to or subordinate to anyone else” to Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an influential theologian in the Church of England:
The judicious Richard· Hooker regards this natural equality of men as so obvious and unquestionable that he bases on it men’s obligation to love one another, on which he builds their duties towards each other, from which, in turn, he derives the great maxims of justice and charity”.

Such views are, of course, central to Christianity. By mentioning Richard Hooker, however, Locke was indicating that he wanted to link his views to the symbolism of natural law which, as Linda Raeder has observed, was “a well-developed tradition of Western moral and political discourse”:
“The symbol was first advanced by the ancient Greeks, impressively elaborated by the Roman Stoics (most notably the Roman orator Cicero [106-43 B.C.]), and later incorporated into the Christian tradition as the “unwritten” law embedded in the heart of man and similar constructs. During the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the “Angelic Doctor,” provided Christian civilization with a philosophical elaboration of the natural law that remains a characteristic element of Roman Catholic teaching to the present day” (The Nature and Purpose of Government, A Lockean View, 2017, p25).

As Larry Siedentop has pointed out, some leaders of the early Christian church recognised freedom of religion. Tertullian (c 155 – c 240) argued that “it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions” (Inventing the Individual, 2015, p 78). Unfortunately, many of the church leaders who followed did not recognise such basic human rights.

Augustine (354 – 430) acknowledged the ethical significance of free will, and tried to strike a balance between fatalism and the belief that individuals could achieve salvation by their own efforts. He emphasised that it is important for individual Christians to develop a moral perspective, or conscience, and argued that it was the task of the church to try to create and tend consciences. Augustine’s emphasis on the importance of conscience set the scene for theologians who came much later to recognise freedom of conscience.

In the 9th century, Eriugena, an Irishman, known by his contemporaries as John the
Scot, produced a vigorous defence of free will against those who claimed the authority of Augustine for their view that “predestination applies both to good and bad” (Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History, 2006, pp 110 – 112).

Research by Brian Tierney (discussed in Larry Siedentop’s book, pp 245-9) found the idea of natural rights to be present in 12th century canon law. Important contributions, including those of Rufinus, Odo of Dover and Hugguccio, led to a range of individual rights – overlapping those recognised by jurists in ancient Rome - being defended in terms of natural justice.
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) gave some recognition to freedom of conscience. He acknowledged that under some circumstances a person is justified in acting in accordance with an erring conscience, even if this entails disobeying the state. Nevertheless, he defended persecution of religious heretics.

Aquinas made an important contribution to liberty in recognising that laws exist primarily to enforce the rules of justice, rather than to make human beings virtuous (George H Smith, The System of Liberty, 2013 p 91).

Arguably, Aquinas’ most important contribution to liberty came indirectly via his Christianisation of the teachings of Aristotle. Aquinas argued that individuals can attain some happiness in this world through their natural capacity for contemplation of (religious) truth. Darrin McMahon suggests:
Aquinas’s opening up of a space in which ‘some partial happiness can be achieved in this life’ continued a process of restoring agency to the individual that had received impetus from the work of Eriugena and others during the Carolingian Renaissance” (op. cit. pp 129 – 131).

In the 13th century, John Duns Scotus argued that “an act is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy unless it proceeds from the free will” and, in the 14 the century, William of Ockham associated reason with individual experience and choice, and saw ‘right reason’ as obligated by principles of equality and reciprocity. (I wrote about Duns Scotus and Ockham in my review of Siedentop’s book.)

In the 16th century, the late Spanish scholastics made important contributions to recognition of natural rights. Murray Rothbard highlighted the role of Francisco de Vitoria (c 1450 – 1514) who denounced the conquest and enslavement of the Indians of the New World (Economic Thought Before AdamSmith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, V1, p 102). Rothbard also notes that some of those who followed Vitoria in the Salamanca school, made important contributions in defining circumstances in which the charging interest on loans was acceptable. Juan de Mariana (1536 – 1624) was the forebear of John Locke’s theory of popular consent. He held that in transferring their original political power from a state of nature to a king, the people reserved important rights, including rights concerning taxation, vetoing laws and reclaiming political power (Rothbard, op cit, pp 117-119).
A recent book by Ángel Fernández Álvarez points out the striking similarities between Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689) and Mariana’s On the King and the Royal Institution (1599). Fernández points to evidence that Locke had read Mariana’s books and that he and Mariana had the same position on the origin of property in work as well as the similar views on natural rights mentioned above.

What about Spinoza?
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher whose views were influential, but difficult for his contemporaries to cite. In the 17th century, being accused of being a Spinozist was apparently as hazardous for an author’s claim to have views worthy of consideration as being accused to be an atheist. Spinoza held that there is only a single substance, which may be called either God or Nature, raising the issue of whether he was a pantheist, an atheist, or a "God-intoxicated man".(Anthony Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy, p 550, 552).

The similarity between many of the views of John Locke and Spinoza has been noted by Wim Klever (Locke’s Disguised Spinozism). Spinoza argued:
“Inward worship of God and piety in itself are within the sphere of everyone's private rights, and cannot be alienated.”
Spinoza held that such “opinions fall within a man's natural right, which he cannot abdicate even with his own consent” (George H Smith, The System of Liberty, 2013, p91).

Beliefs and values supporting natural rights of individuals to life, property and liberty seem to have travelled from Cicero to Locke through both the spontaneous evolution of rules and evolution of reasoning about the natural law. Those different transmission processes interacted. There were periods when reasoning about natural law held back recognition of individual rights to participate in mutually beneficial activities e.g. lending and borrowing. Eventually, however, reasoning about natural law reinforced and extended individual rights recognised under common law.