rights talk


What would grim old Hobbes have to say about my attempts to dignify him by making him a cryptic teacher of human dignity? I frankly have my doubts—though, if he spoke the truth about the soul and the body, he is not now turning over in his grave. To be sure, the arguments I advance in the last five paragraphs are not those of Hobbes, and I doubt whether he would agree that the claim of natural rights already implies the presence of something dignified that rises above life’s material preconditions. Yet I also suspect that Hobbes would regard himself a true patron of human dignity, by helping to secure peace and justice, through his sound moral teaching.

Be this as it may, which is to say, leaving Hobbes in peace and claiming the argument for myself, I am now in part content. For I believe I can see in the natural right of self-preservation a foundational human dignity, one that points toward, as it safeguards, the higher dignity of realized humanity. Though I persist in believing that there is more dignity in human achievement than in human possibility, more dignity in noble self-sacrifice than in base self-aggrandizement or even mere self-assertion, more dignity in defending rights than in exercising or even claiming them, I am convinced that any doctrine of natural human rights rests on a prior presupposition of natural human dignity, and thus serves to support the basic dignity of human being as such.

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