Burlamaqui and mankind

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’s basic philosophy states that men bond through justice and kindness because these bonds make society stable, calm and prosperous. Furthermore, because these virtues are good, they must be imposed on mankind by God. Burlamaqui’s entire argument about society, mankind, and rights is based on God. He argues that God’s “wisdom is no less than His power” and that “reason teaches us that God is an essentially good Being” (Williams 94 – 95). He makes the assumption that God is infinitely powerful and wise, and, therefore, unable to do harm. Burlamaqui goes as far as to say that “nothing inclines Him to do so [cause harm]” (Williams 95).

The essential parts that constitute human nature are “compassion, gentleness, and efficient, generosity” and “all feelings and all acts of justice and kindness” (Williams 100). These virtues are duties that God has imposed on humanity because it was “necessary to His purpose” and “in accordance to His will” (Williams 100). For Burlamaqui, the appropriate (divinely intended) end or fulfillment of human nature is to “achieve the happy purpose” for which God has created it (Williams 98). In other words, to purpose of mankind on earth is to serve God’s purpose.

The most important assumption to Burlmaqui’s argument is that God is all powerful and all good. Burlamaqui views humans as creatures who are born perfect, thanks to God, but then made imperfect by their own choices that move them away from God. In particular, Burlamaqui uses this assumption to argue that it is mankind, and mankind alone, that is responsible for all cruelty and injustice that take place in the world.

Assuming that God is all powerful and all good, Burlamaqui argues that those men who move away from God must be weak and ignorant because they are not using reason to interpret God’s will for them appropriately. Using his reason, Burlamaqui interprets God’s will and states that sociability, or benevolent disposition towards fellow men, does indeed coincide with the will of God. In particular, he states that “the Creator has implanted” this love into us (Williams 98-99).

Burlamaqui argues that though God’s will, or divine law, imposes natural law that prescribes sociability, sociability is a mutual obligation. Burlamaqui argues that once the bonds of mutual obligation are broken “through malice or injustice,” people “cannot reasonably complain if those whom they offend cannot treat them as friends” (Williams 99-100). In other words, Burlamaqui’s argument states that men who move away from God break the bonds of sociability. Burlamaqui places these individuals outside of social order and no longer considers them creatures of the same species, faculties, or rank. Since these individuals are no longer people of the same rank with others within the society, Burlamaqui does not consider these people eligible for freedoms of property, life, freedom, or equality.

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Burlamaqui’s Perfect and Imperfect Rights

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

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

Give an example of the difference between what Burlamaqui calls perfect rights and imperfect rights. He posits an important difference but does not provide a specific example.

For Burlamaqui, “perfect rights are those 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” (89). Perfect rights are those rights which are essentially inalienable, ones that we can protect to the death. For Burlamaqui, these rights allow people to use reasonable force against those who threaten “our lives, our property or our freedom” (89). In other words, Burlamaqui seems to be saying that people have the perfect right to protect themselves and their property from any harm. I am not sure, however, what that means exactly. Does that mean that I can shoot and kill a man who grabs my purse on the street? What exactly is his definition of reasonable force? Unfortunately, we are still struggling with these questions today in America. What particularly worries me about his definition is his use of the word “unease” (89). Unease seems to be such a minor discomfort, a discomfort that I’m not sure should give me the right to infringe on someone else’s perfect rights.

An imperfect right is on that can be “legitimately given up” (Burlamaqui 90). His example of this right is a creditor releasing a debtor of his debts, either completely or partially. Burlamaqui states that “a father cannot give up his rights to his children, nor leave them entirely to their own fate” (90). Therefore, the children’s right to their father is an example of a perfect right.

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

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.