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The Decline of Natural Right


Jeremy Waldron


New York University School of Law; University of Oxford

June 9, 2009

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF NINETEENTH CENTURY PHILOSOPHY, Allen Wood and Songsuk Susan Hahn, eds., Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming
NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-38

Abstract:     
What happened to the doctrine of natural right in the nineteenth century? We know that it flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We know that something like it - the doctrine of human rights and new forms of social contract theory - flourished again in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to flourish in the twenty-first. In between there was a period of decline and hibernation - uneven, to be sure, and never complete - but a period in which to invoke natural right was always to invite intellectual ridicule and accusations of political irresponsibility. Thus article asks: How far can the decline of natural right in the nineteenth century be attributed to the reaction against the revolution in France? How far it was the effect of independent streams of thought, like positivism and historicism? Why was radical thought so ambivalent about natural right throughout the nineteenth century, and why was socialist thought in particular inclined to turn its back on it? As a framework for thought, natural right suffered a radical decline in the social and political sciences. But things were not so clear in jurisprudence, and natural right lived on to a much riper old age in the writings of some prominent economists. So we have to ask: What is it about this theory that allowed it to survive in these environments, when so much of the rest of intellectual endeavor in the nineteenth century was toxic or inhospitable to it. Finally, I shall ask how far American thought represents an exception to all of this. Why and to what extent did the doctrine survive as a way of thinking in the United States, long after it had lost its credibility elsewhere.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 31

Keywords: anti-clericalism, Bentham, Burke, conservatism, George, historicism, human rights, Hume, Jefferson, jurisprudence, Kant, liberalism, Locke, Marx, Mill, natural right, nationalism, natural rights, relativism, revolution, Savigny, social contract, socialism, Spencer, United States, universalism

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Date posted: June 12, 2009 ; Last revised: August 4, 2009

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Waldron, Jeremy, The Decline of Natural Right (June 9, 2009). THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF NINETEENTH CENTURY PHILOSOPHY, Allen Wood and Songsuk Susan Hahn, eds., Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming; NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-38. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1416966

Contact Information

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
University of Oxford ( email )
Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom
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