Burlamaqui: rights and obligations

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Bur...

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), a Swiss jurist and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burlamaqui defines a right as an obligation. He states that a “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” (Williams 88). According to this view, rights and obligations are interrelated and joined. Burlamaqui argues that a right is an individual’s ability to exercise his freedom within certain reasonable bounds. In particular, he defines it as “the ability man has to use his natural freedom and his natural strength in a certain way, either with respect to himself or others, in as much as the exercise of his strength and freedom is approved by reason” (Williams 86). Therefore, for Burlamaqui, a right is something that an individual has the strength and freedom to do within certain reasonable parameters.

Burlamaqui groups right into two types, perfect and imperfect. He defines perfect rights as those that are required to be fulfilled entirely even if doing so requires force. In particular, a perfect right is one “whose implementation can be required to the letter, if necessary going as far as to use force to ensure that they are implemented, or to ensure that they continue to be observed, against those who might want to resist us, or cause us unease” (Williams 89). In other words, Burlamaqui gives people the right to use force to protect their lives, property, and freedom, but does not really specify the borders that define these protections. Burlamaqui defines imperfect rights as those that do not necessarily have to be defended, and states that these rights do not allow men to take law into their own hands (Williams 89).

For Burlamaqui, rights and obligations are necessarily connected because an obligation is “a restriction on natural freedom brought about by reason” (Williams 88). In other words, obligations are restrictions that constrain the natural freedoms of some people so that other people can express their rights. For Burlamaqui, reason and God are essentially the same thing. He argues that reason, or God’s will, constrains people to help those who are doing what is authorized by their reason because all people are under the “obligation to subordinate their actions to the will of this First Being” (Williams 94). Another example of the necessary connection between a right and an obligation is found in the relationship between a father and his children. A father has the right to raise his children and the children have the obligation to submit to his guidance (Williams 88). Children are obliged to submit to their father’s guidance so that the father could fully exercise his rights to parenthood. As a result, Burlamaqui argues that the concept of rights is meaningless without this corresponding relationship between the two notions.

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