The end of Jurisprudence, viz. the Protection of Rights.—Importance of the Inquiry, as involving Human Happiness.—Confusion in the vulgar uses of the word Right.—Use of the term Right, in the Science of Jurisprudence.—The principal ideas involved in the Jurisprudential sense of the word Right.—All Rights respect Objects desired; and desired as means to an end.—The Objects of Rights are twofold, viz. either Persons or Things.—Rights, when closely inspected, mean Powers—legalized Powers.—Powers over Persons, and Powers over Things.—Every Right imports a corresponding Obligation.—No Creation of Good, by Rights, without the Creation of Evil.

THE object and end of the science which is distinguished by the name of Jurisprudence, is the protection of rights.

The business of the present discourse is, therefore, to ascertain the means which are best calculated for the attainment of that end.

What we desire to accomplish is, The protection of rights: What we have to inquire is, The means by which protection may be afforded.

That rights have hitherto been very ill protected, even in the most enlightened countries, is matter of universal acknowledgment and complaint. That men are susceptible of happiness, only in proportion as rights are protected, is a proposition, which, taken generally, it is unnecessary to prove. The importance of the inquiry, therefore, is evident.

It is requisite, as a preliminary, to fix, with some precision, what we denote by the expression rights. There is much confusion in the use of this term. That disorderly mass, the Roman law, changes the meaning of the word in stating its division of the subject, Jura Personarum, and Jura Rerum. In the first of these phrases, the word Jura means a title to enjoy; in the second, it must of necessity mean something else, because things cannot enjoy. Lawyers, whose nature it is to trudge, one after another, in the track which has been made for them, and to whose eyes, that which is, and that which ought to be, have seldom any mark of distinction, have translated the jargon into English, as well as into other modern languages.

This is not all the confusion which has been incurred in the use of the word right. It is sometimes employed in a very general way, to denote whatever ought to be; and in that sense is opposed to wrong. There are also persons—but these are philosophers, pushing on their abstractions—who go beyond the sense in which it is made to denote generally whatever ought to be, and who make it stand for the foundation of whatever ought to be. These philosophers say, that there is a right and a wrong, original, fundamental; and that things ought to be, or ought not to be, according as they do, or do not, conform to that standard. If asked, whence we derive a knowledge of this right and wrong in the abstract, which is the foundation and standard of what we call right and wrong in the concrete, they speak dogmatically, and convey no clear ideas.[1] In short, writers of this stamp give us to understand, that we must take this standard, like many other things which they have occasion for, upon their word. After all their explanations are given, this, we find, is what alone we are required, or rather commanded, to trust to. The standard exists,—Why? Because they say it exists; and it is at our peril if we refuse to admit the assertion. They assume a right, like other despots, to inflict punishment, for contumacy, or contempt of court. To be sure, hard words are the only instruments of tyranny which they have it in their power to employ. They employ them, accordingly; and there is scarcely an epithet, calculated to denote a vicious state of the intellectual, or moral part, of the human mind, which they do not employ to excite an unfavourable opinion of those who refuse subscription to their articles of faith.

With right, however, in this acceptation, we have at present, no farther concern than to distinguish it clearly from that sense in which the word is employed in the science of jurisprudence. To conceive more exactly the sense in which it is employed in that science, it is necessary to revert to what we established, in the article Government, with regard to the end or object of the social union, for to that, every thing which is done in subservience to the social union, must of course bear a reference.

In that article it appeared, that, as every man desires to have for himself as many good things as possible, and as there is not a sufficiency of good things for all, the strong, if left to themselves, would take from the weak every thing, or at least as much as they pleased; that the weak, therefore, who are the greater number, have an interest in conspiring to protect themselves against the strong. It also appeared, that almost all the things, which man denominates good, are the fruit of human labour; and that the natural motive to labour is the enjoyment of its fruits.

That the object, then, of the social union, may be obtained; in other words, that the weak may not be deprived of their share of good things, it is necessary to fix, by some determination, what shall belong to each, and to make choice of certain marks by which the share of each may be distinguished. This is the origin of right. It is created by this sort of determination, which determination is either the act of the whole society, or of some part of the society which possesses the power of determining for the whole. Right, therefore, is factitious, and the creature of will. It exists, only because the society, or those who wield the powers of the society, will that it should exist; and before it was so willed, it had no existence.

It is easy to see what is the standard, in conformity with which the rights in question ought to be constituted; meaning by ought, that which perfect benevolence would desire. It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But whether rights are constituted, that is, whether the shares of good things are allotted to each, according to this standard, or not according to this standard, the allotment is still the act of the ruling power of the community; and the rights, about which the science of jurisprudence treats, have this alone for the cause of their existence.

In this complicated term, it is obvious that there is involved, on the one hand, the idea of the person to whom a share is allotted, and on the other hand, an idea of the things which are allotted. The one is the owner of the right, the person to whom it belongs; the other is the object of the right, namely, the person or thing over which certain powers are given.

All rights of course are rights to objects of human desire,—of nothing else need shares be allotted. All objects which men desire, are desired, either as the end, or as means. The pleasurable state of the mind is the end; consisting of the feelings of the mind. It would be absurd, however, to speak of giving a man a right to the feelings of his own mind. The objects of desire, therefore, which are the objects of right, are not the pleasurable feelings themselves, which are desired as the end, but the objects which are desired as the means to that end.

Objects of desire, as means to that end, may be divided into the class of persons and the class of things. Both may be the object of rights. In framing our language, therefore, we may say, that all rights are the rights of persons; but they may be rights to, either persons, or things.

All that men desire, either with persons or things, is to render them subservient to the end, for which they are desired as means. They are so rendered by certain powers over them. All rights, then, when the term is closely investigated, are found to mean powers; powers with respect to persons, and powers with respect to things. What any one means when he says that a thing is his property, is, that he has the power of using it in a certain way.

It is no part of the present inquiry to ascertain what rights ought to be constituted, or what rights perfect benevolence would choose to see constituted. That belongs to the question how government should be constituted; in other words, how the powers which are necessary for the general protection ought to be distributed, and the advantages of the union to be shared. At present our sole endeavour is to ascertain the most effectual means which the governing power of the state can employ for protecting the rights, whatever they are, which it has seen meet to create.

Rights, it must be remembered, always import obligations. This is a point of view, which, in the consideration of rights, has not, in general, attracted sufficient attention. If one man obtains a right to the services of another man, an obligation is, at the same time, laid upon this other to render those services. If a right is conferred upon one man to use and dispose of a horse, an obligation is laid upon other men to abstain from using him. It thus appears, that it is wholly impossible to create a right, without at the same time creating an obligation.

The consequences of this law of nature are in the highest degree important. Every right is a benefit; a command to a certain extent over the objects of desire. Every obligation is a burthen; an interdiction from the objects of desire. The one is in itself a good; the other is in itself an evil. It would be desirable to increase the good as much as possible. But, by increasing the good, it necessarily happens that we increase the evil. And, if there be a certain point at which the evil begins to increase faster than the good, beyond that point all creation of rights is hostile to human welfare.

The end in view is a command over the objects of desire. If no rights are established, there is a general scramble, and every man seizes what he can. A man gets so much, and he is interdicted by the scramble from all the rest. If rights are established, he also gets so much, and is interdicted by his obligations from the rest. If what he obtains by his rights exceeds what he would have obtained by the scramble, he is a gainer by the obligations which he sustains.

If it is proposed to create rights in favour of all the members of a community, the limits are strict. You cannot give all your advantages to every one; you must share them out. If you do not give equal rights to all, you can only give more than an equal share to some, by diminishing the share of others, of whom, while you diminish the rights, you increase the obligations. This is the course which bad governments pursue; they increase the rights of the few, and diminish the rights of the many, till, in the case of governments virtually despotic, it is all right on the one side, all obligation on the other.

It may be necessary to say a word, to prevent misconstruction of the term "equal rights." Rights may truly be considered as equal, when all the sorts of obligation under which a man lies with respect to other men, they are placed under with respect to him: if all the abstinence which he is obliged to practise with respect to their property, they are obliged to practise with respect to his; if all the rules by which he is bound not to interfere with their actions bind them equally not to interfere with his. It is evident, that inequality of fortune is not excluded by equality of rights. It is also evident, that, from equality of rights must always be excepted those who are entrusted with the powers of the community for the purposes of government. They have peculiar rights, and the rest of the community are under corresponding obligations. It is equally evident, that those must be excepted who are not sui juris, as children in non-age, who must be under the guidance of others. Of two such classes of persons the relation to one another, that is, their reciprocal rights and obligations, need to be regulated by particular rules.

It is presumed that these illustrations will suffice to fix, in the minds of our readers, the exact meaning which is intended, in the present discourse, to be attached to the word rights. The sequel is to be occupied in discovering the means which are most proper to be employed for affording protection to those rights.

Note edit

  1. See the writings of Kant and his followers, passim; see also Degerando, and others of his school, in various parts of their works.