Key Thinkers on Rights, Liberty and Equality

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Karl Marx

(4 – Equality): “From each according to their ability to each according to their need”

John Locke

(4 – Natural Rights): Believed that natural rights were:

  • A liberty right to equal liberty that permits one to dispose of one’s person and possessions as one chooses

  • A claim right not be harmed in one’s life, health, liberty, or possessions that generate corresponding duties for others not to cause such harms

  • Because these rights are morally enforceable, they generate further liberty rights or self-defence and punishment against transgressors

(4 – Toleration): Locke believed that the state was there to protect life, liberty and property and had no right to get involved in ‘the care of men’s souls’. He believed in human rationality and that truth could only emerge if there were free competition amongst beliefs and ideas. Religious belief to him, was always a matter of personal faith and should never be imposed. In public affairs, there could be a case made to limit toleration.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

(4 – Liberty): Rousseau distinguishes between individual freedom consisting of a person’s ability to do what they want only restricted by their strength and desires and what he perceived as a more virtuous form, civil liberty, which was gained through participation in the law-making process in a civil society – “civil liberty is the obedience to laws one proscribes to oneself”

Thomas Jefferson

(4 – Natural Rights):

  • “A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their chief magistrate”

  • “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty.”

John Stuart Mill (J.S. Mill)

(4 – Liberal Rights and Liberty): Liberal rights tend to be based on the equal right of every person to his of her own person and proceed from a foundation of radical equality. From this idea, J.S. Mill developed the ‘harm principle’. This is where the actions of others should not be limited unless they are harming another.

(4 – Tolerance): He believed that toleration was a vital concern for both society and the individual. He believed there was a case for toleration because he viewed individuals as having the right to have their own personal autonomy and the freedom to exercise control over their own lives. He was concerned that democracy and the ‘despotism of custom’ would threaten this autonomy.

(4 – Social Justice): “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge”

Thomas Hobbes

(4 – Negative Liberty): “A free man is he that is not hindered to do what he hath…

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