Role of Reason in Burlamaqui’s Notion of Natural Right

What do you take to be the role of Reason in Burlamaqui’s notion of natural right? That is, what role does reason serve in his overall argument about natural right? How does his utilization of reason differ from the way Kant envisions the role of reason?

Burlamaqui defines a right as an obligation, and states that “right and obligation are two correlative terms… one of these ideas necessarily imply the other, and you cannot conceive of a right without conceiving of a corresponding obligation” (88). For him, a natural right is one that belongs “originally and essentially to man,” one that is inherent in man’s nature “by which he experiences the condition of being human, independently of any particular act on his part” (Burlamaqui 89). However, given that he views natural law as “a law that God imposes on all men,” Burlamaqui’s views of natural and acquired rights are linked to notions of religious morality. For example, “It is beyond doubt (and everybody is in agreement about this) that the efficient cause of the laws of nature, and of the obligation that they engender, is the will of the Supreme Being” (Burlamaqui 99). In other words, for Burlamaqui God is the “supreme rule of conduct in everything connected with society…” (Burlamaqui 99).

As a result, Reason does not play a large role in Burlamaqui’s notion of natural rights. For him, goodness is tied to being guided by God and religion. Therefore, individuals not guided by God and religion would then be evil or not good. Later in his essay, Burlamaqui states that “reason then tells us that creatures of the same rank, of the same species, one with the same faculties, have a general equal common rights so that they can live together, and share the same advantages we are thus obligated to regard ourselves as being naturally equal, and to treat each other as being so” (99). Though Burlamaqui links Reason to equality, his own definition is very exclusionary. In other words, the only people who he considers as being generally equal are those who are just like him (God fearing and good). Therefore, instead of making an argument for the natural rights of all men, he argues for the natural rights of certain (good) men.

Burlamaqui views God as a paternal figure, “a master who possesses inherently the sovereign right to command men, to prescribe rules of conduct for them, and to impose laws on them” (94). Since his entire view of society is based on man’s relationship with God, his views on natural rights and the rights of the state are also very patriarchal. This approach to the state is very different from the one that Kant and Mendelssohn put out. Both Kant and Mendelssohn undermine the powers of hierarchy and of the state in order to foster more freedoms in society. Thought Kant argues for the needs of guardians to guide souls within a society, he does not argue for a sovereign ruler who rules like God (essentially like a dictator).

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

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