Burlamaqui’s Views Natural Law

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 views natural law as something that is imposed on mankind by divine law. For him, all laws of nature and their corresponding obligations embody “the will of the Supreme Being” (Williams 96). He defines natural law as “a law that God imposes on all men,” and argues that men “can discover and understand” this law by carefully considering their own nature and condition using reason (Williams 94). As a result, for Burlamaqui, divine law is God’s will and natural law is God’s will that is imposed on mankind. According to Burlamaqui, God is a creative force who imposes rules and a code of conduct on humanity, and, in return, men, “through their natural constitution,” are obliged “to subordinate their actions to the will of this First Being” (Williams 94). Burlamaqui interprets divine law by stating that God “has given existence to everything through His will alone” and it is through his will that he is able to preserve, destroy, or change anything he wants (Williams 94). Furthermore, he argues that people can use reason to discover what God’s will and wishes are for mankind. In particular, he states that people are able to achieve “true knowledge of the specific laws and duties that God imposes on us through plain reason” (Williams 96). In other words, Burlamaqui is arguing that mankind is able to interpret God’s will or divine law using reason.

Stemming from his notions of divine law and the will of God are Burlamaqui’s views about natural rights. According to Burlamaqui, “natural right is the system, the totality or the corpus of these [natural] laws” (Williams 94). He groups rights into perfect and imperfect rights and argues that perfect rights are the ones that people can defend or exercise using force. He believes that force is justified against a person who infringes on another person’s property rights because “sociability is a mutual obligation” (Williams 99). Here, he defined sociability as a “benevolent disposition toward fellow man: “to do them every good that is within our power to do, to reconcile our happiness with that of others, and to always subordinate our private advantage to that of the general community” (Williams 98 – 99). Though Burlamaqui notes that God’s will, or divine law, imposes the natural law that prescribes sociability, he argues that sociability is a mutual obligation that can only be broken “through malice or injustice” (Williams 99). Thus, he is essentially arguing that people who break bonds of sociability are outside the social order, and they “cannot reasonably complain if those whom they offend cannot treat them as friends” (Williams 99-100). In other words, Burlamaqui argues that force and possibly deadly force are justified against a thief because the thief had broken the bond of sociability, and therefore does not deserve it and return.

In general, Burlamaqui’s entire argument is based on the premise that God is good and mankind can interpret God’s wishes using reason. Natural law is God’s will imposed on mankind as interpreted by reason, or in this case Burlamaqui’s reason and natural right is a system of natural laws. The system, just like the natural laws depend on mankind’s ability to use reason to interpret God’s will.

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Burlamaqui and 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)

Burlamaqui makes careful distinctions between two different types of rights, perfect and imperfect. 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). For Burlamaqui, these rights are essentially inalienable, and they can be exercised even if that means that the exercise requires force. An example of a perfect right is the children’s right to their father. In particular, Burlamaqui states that “a father cannot give up his rights to his children, nor leave them entirely to their own fate” (Williams 90).

Burlamaqui argues that perfect rights allow people to use reasonable force against those who threaten “our lives, our property or our freedom” (Williams 89). Burlamaqui grants people the right to use force to protect their lives, property, and freedom, but does not really specify the outline of these protections. Unlike perfect rights, imperfect rights are those that can be “legitimately given up” (Williams 90). An example is a creditor releasing a debtor of his debts, either completely or partially. Burlamaqui’s argument implies that people do not have right to defend their imperfect rights with force, meaning that men do not have the right to exercise their imperfect rights by taking the law into their own hands.

I do not find his careful distinctions between perfect and imperfect rights persuasive because they lack precision. Burlamaqui states that we have the perfect right to defend “our lives, our property, and our freedom” (Williams 89). The statement implies that an individual has the right to use force to defend his property, but it does not take into consideration the other person’s equal right to defend his own life in return. Burlamaqui writes off the other people’s rights because he considers them transgressors who are outside the social order. Using a broad definition of property, he seems to be arguing that it is justifiable for one person to take another person’s life if he steals from him. I disagree. I see life a much more valuable commodity than a television or a purse or even cash.

These distinctions are still applicable to the ethical domain we live in today. Our policies toward guns are representative of tensions between people who feel it is their perfect right to own an unlimited amount of weapons, and those who do not. Some people believe that the Second Amendment applies to all guns, and any restriction on gun ownership is an infringement on their rights to protect themselves.

These people seem to be in line with Burlamaqui’s school of thought. They view property, no matter the quantity or quality, as a perfect right; a right that gives them the freedom to kill someone if someone else tries to take it. Recently, there was a story in the news about a kid who put on a mask, pretended to be a burglar, and got shot and killed by his own father. Even if the kid was a real burglar, his father should not have the right to shot him for taking his property. I value life much more than that.  A individual has more of a right to live then someone else does to protect his property. In my view, Burlamaqui’s kind of thinking is a justification of barbarism and totalitarianism.

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.

Burlamaqui’s Relationship Between 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)

Why does Burlamaqui posit a necessary reciprocal relationship between rights and obligations? Begin by explaining how, in his view, these two moral faculties are related. Then move to the question of their necessary connection.

Burlamaqui 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). For him, a right is an individual’s ability to exercise his freedom within reasonable bounds: “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). For him, an obligation is a restriction that constrains one’s natural freedom so that another person can express their rights. Thus, for Burlamaqui, rights and obligations are necessarily connected because an obligation is “a restriction on natural freedom brought about by reason” (Williams 88). The relationship between a father and his children is an example of this necessary connection between a right and an obligation. A father has the right to raise his children and the children have the obligation to submit to their father’s guidance so that the father could fully exercise his rights to parenthood. In other words, Burlamaqui argues that the word right has no meaning without its necessary connection to the notion of obligation.

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