Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies (1796), excerpt | Samuel Moyn | August 01, 2016

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Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies (1796), excerpt

Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies (1796)

The Declaration of Rights -- I mean the paper published under that name by the French National Assembly in 1791 -- assumes for its subject-matter a field of disquisition as unbounded in point of extent as it is important in its nature. But the more ample the extent given to any proposition or string of propositions, the more difficult it is to keep the import of it confined without deviation, within the bounds of truth and reason. If in the smallest corners of the field it ranges over, it fail of coinciding with the line of rigid rectitude, no sooner is the aberration pointed out, than (inasmuch as there is no medium between truth and falsehood) its pretensions to the appellation of truism are gone, and whoever looks upon it must recognise it to be false and erroneous, -- and if, as here, political conduct be the theme, so far as the error extends and fails of being detected, pernicious. …

The great enemies of public peace are the selfish and dissocial passions: -- necessary as they are -- the one to the very existence of each individual, the other to his security. On the part of these affections, a deficiency in point of strength is never to be apprehended: all that is to be apprehended in respect of them, is to be apprehended on the side of their excess. Society is held together only by the sacrifices that men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government. What has been the object, the perpetual and palpable object, of this declaration of pretended rights? To add as much force as possible to these passions, already but too strong, -- to burst the cords that hold them in, -- to say to the selfish passions, there - everywhere -- is your prey! -- to the angry passions, there - everywhere -- is your enemy.

Such is the morality of this celebrated manifesto, rendered famous by the same qualities that gave celebrity to the incendiary of the Ephesian temple.

The logic of it is of a piece with its morality: -- a perpetual vein of nonsense, flowing from a perpetual abuse of words, -- words having a variety of meanings, where words with single meanings were equally at hand -- the same words used in a variety of meanings in the same page, -- words used in meanings not their own, where proper words were equally at hand, -- words and propositions of the most unbounded signification, turned loose without any of those exceptions or modifications which are so necessary on every occasion to reduce their import within the compass, not only of right reason, but even of the design in hand, of whatever nature it may be; -- the same inaccuracy, the same inattention in the penning of this cluster of truths on which the fate of nations was to hang, as if it had been an oriental tale, or an allegory for a magazine: -- stale epigrams, instead of necessary distinctions, -- figurative expressions preferred to simple ones, -- sentimental conceits, as trite as they are unmeaning, preferred to apt and precise expressions, -- frippery ornament preferred to the majestic simplicity of good sound sense, -- and the acts of the senate loaded and disfigured by the tinsel of the playhouse. ...

Article II

The end in view of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

Sentence 1. The end in view of every political association, is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.

More confusion -- more nonsense, -- and the nonsense, as usual, dangerous nonsense. The words can scarcely be said to have a meaning: but if they have, or rather if they had a meaning, these would be the propositions either asserted or implied: --

  1. That there are such things as rights anterior to the establishment of governments: for natural, as applied to rights, if it mean anything, is meant to stand in opposition to legal -- to such rights as are acknowledged to owe their existence to government, and are consequently posterior in their date to the establishment of government.
  2. That these rights can not be abrogated by government: for can not is implied in the form of the word imprescriptible, and the sense it wears when so applied, is the cut-throat sense above explained.
  3. That the governments that exist derive their origin from formal associations or what are now called conventions: associations entered into by a partnership contract, with all the members for partners, -- entered into at a day prefixed, for a predetermined purpose, the formation of a new government where there was none before (for as to formal meetings holden under the controul of an existing government, they are evidently out of question here) in which it seems again to be implied in the way of inference, though a necessary and an unavoidable inference, that all governments (that is, self-called governments, knots of persons exercising the powers of government) that have had any other origin than an association of the above description, are illegal, that is, no governments at all; resistance to them and subversion of them, lawful and commendable; and so on.

Such are the notions implied in this first part of the article. How stands the truth of things? That there are no such things as natural rights -- no such things as rights anterior to the establishment of government -- no such things as natural rights opposed to, in contradistinction to, legal: that the expression is merely figurative; that when used, in the moment you attempt to give it a literal meaning it leads to error, and to that sort of error that leads to mischief -- to the extremity of mischief.

We know what it is for men to live without government -- and living without government, to live without rights: we know what it is for men to live without government, for we see instances of such a way of life -- we see it in many savage nations, or rather races of mankind; for instance, among the savages of New South Wales, whose way of living is so well known to us: no habit of obedience, and thence no government -- no government, and thence no laws -- no laws, and thence no such things as rights -- no security -- no property: --liberty, as against regular controul, the controul of laws and government --perfect; but as against all irregular controul, the mandates of stronger individuals, none. In this state, at a time earlier than the commencement of historv -- in this same state, judging from analogy, we the inhabitants of the part of the globe we call Europe, were; -- no government, consequently no rights: no rights, consequently no property -- no legal security -- no legal liberty: security not more than belongs to beasts -- forecast and sense of insecurity keener -- consequently in point of happiness below the level of the brutal race.

In proportion to the want of happiness resulting from the want of rights, a reason exists for wishing that there were such things as rights. But reasons for wishing there were such things as rights, are not rights; -- a reason for wishing that a certain right were established, is not that right -- want is not supply -- hunger is not bread.

That which has no existence cannot be destroyed -- that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonscnse, -- nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle. …

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August 01, 2016

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Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

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