Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bentham on Liberty

In his scathing critique of the Declaration of Rights, Jeremy Bentham evaluates whether the term "natural rights" has any true grounding in reality to begin with. Liberty, property, security and freedom are they general subcategories he investigates. He astutely notes that when writing laws (particularly those dealing with concepts of such magnitude), the selection of words and their agreed upon meaning is essential. When the Bill of Rights proclaims, "One has the right to bear arms," supposing one does not misconstrue (or are we misconstruing?) the verb bear for its noun meaning, the statement's clarity is difficult to refute. Arms-weapons; right-law-given privilege; One-the citizens. But apply this interpretation to the likes of "liberty" and the derivative value becomes far more convoluted.
While it deviates slightly from dictionary to the next, any investigation into the blanket definition of the word/concept "liberty" will lead to around nine definitions, some quite distinct from others. Therefore, must we assume that "liberty," as used in the Declaration of Human Rights, subsumes all definitions in its meaning? But it is difficult to accept this when reading definition number three: freedom from control, restriction, hampering conditions, etc... But these things in their highest since are the foundation of the social contract we sign upon entering society. Without these prohibitions on liberty, the functional cohesion of cities would be near impossible (I'm not going to gather the pluck to touch on whether that is a bad thing or not at the moment). Moreover, not only is this restriction of liberties an exception to the Declaration's intent, it encourages dissension in the ranks of liberty definitions, being not only in discord, but a necessary restriction of liberty.
Clearly, one cannot include all definitions of liberty within its transposition in the Declaration of Human Rights. But perhaps one specific definition encompasses the meaning. To ensure brevity, I mentally crossed out all definitions on the list which showed clear signs of extending beyond what the Declaration could have possibly intended by "liberty" (though If fully encourage you to analyze them). What I was left with was number three, freedom from foreign or external rule. While this seems like it could be an acceptable portion of the Declaration"s intent, it hardly contains the glamorous appeal emanating from the mind upon reading about this lofty endowment. This is because the "liberty" bestowed in the Declaration is an abstract one, permitting the choosing of a preferred definition, or the synthesis of any number of others. This ambiguity bestows upon political parties the power to whole-heartedly endorse liberty (or often its similarly ephemeral sibling, freedom, while bestowing discriminatingly restrictive opinions on what a differing groups God-given rights include. Naturally we are drawn to a confusing and inconclusive word, it leaves blank space for us to impregnate with whatever mental filler we prefer. This liberty clearly does not contain all actual definitions of liberty, nor does any single one fit the meaning liberty connotes. Does this mean that the Declaration's idea of liberty is a hand-picked basket of some of these distinct definitions? No. If the Declaration's liberty is not that of one particular definition, nor is it that of all, then it is not possible for the definition to extend completely across the plain of its own meaning(s). A word that cannot be effectively defined cannot be effectively applied, and a foundation of humanity cannot rest on grounds consisting in an airy mix of insignificant realities mated with an optimistically ignorant idealism.

Means in itself


1 comment:

  1. I agree that the term ‘liberty’ is an extremely important as well as an extremely ambiguous concept given our discussion of human rights. You seem to choose a definition of liberty as: “freedom from foreign or external rule” as the intentional definition of the Declaration of Rights. However, I would offer a more Kantian definition that defines liberty as a freedom of the will that allows an agent to give oneself the moral law. Which definition should we choose? I would argue that as philosophers, it is our job to not simply look up dictionary definitions of terms, but to offer justification for our own definition and critique the definitions of others. Your definition seems too narrow. Simply not being coerced into doing something does not mean you have a kind of liberty. We are always already constrained by the external rule of gravity, does this mean that we never have liberty? Given my more Kantian definition, our free choices are always somewhat constrained, but as long as we are constraining ourselves, we have a kind of self direction. Gravity constrains us, but we are still free to choice how we react to this constraint.


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