Tag Archives: Rights


The arguments for free speech in current debates are almost exclusively based on a principal of utility. Simply put, free speech will result in benefits for society. Those acquainted with the academic discourse on free speech are likely to appeal to J.S. Mill’s utilitarian arguments which he summarises in four points. In brief, to suppress all beliefs in favour of one held to be the truth, presupposes infallible judgement. No one and no group is infallible. Thus the clash of many opinions is the way to the truth. That presupposes free speech. If people reason their way to true belief, they will not hold that belief by prejudging – not as a prejudice.

If arguments from pure utility are unconvincing for some, one can also mount a Burkean defence of free speech incorporating an idea of utility, but one drawn from man’s nature rather than resting solely on a principle of utility. There are two crucial passages in Burke that provide the basis. The first is in the Reflections:

[Without civil society] man could not by any possibility arrive at the perfection of which is nature is capable, nor even make a remote and faint approach to it… He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection – He will therefore the state – He willed its connection with the source and the original archetype of all perfection.

The second is in the Appeal:

The state of civil society… is a state of nature; and much more truly so than a savage incoherent mode of life. For man is by nature reasonable; and he is never perfectly in his natural state, but when he is placed where reason many be best cultivated, and most predominates.

These passages constitute Burke’s refutation of the state of nature arguments of Hobbes, Locke, Paine and others, but they can be extended to defend free speech within the limits of the natural law. The basic argument is that man as a being with moral consciousness and a perception of the natural law needs to be in community with other such beings in order for that consciousness and perception to operate. But it is not a question of mere operation. A being in community with others and with a consciousness of right and wrong naturally seeks what’s right and avoids what’s wrong.


Edmund Burke on Rights

Edmund Burke on Rights: Inherited, Not Inherent

By Owen Edwards|June 16th, 2020

On what basis are political constitutions actually formed and remain valid? Where do rights come from? Edmund Burke offers us an account different from that of many of our contemporaries.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – Preamble to the Declaration of Independence of the United States

And thereupon the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare. – Bill of Rights, 1689

Where do “rights” come from? Are they to be found tangled in DNA? Can they be discovered, so that as human wisdom increases we find more rights that people ought to possess? At what age does one have rights, and which rights? Is there a right to privacy? What about a right to choose your own pronoun?

Thomas Jefferson eloquently expressed one view—that it is self-evident that all men (women, persons) have certain unalienable rights. These are endowed by a Creator, yes—but they are self-evident, and exist separately from that Creator. An atheist can recognise those rights. (Kant argues the same.) Jefferson limited the enumerated rights to just three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—though how much is bound up in just those three!

Read the rest here…