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Diderot argues that the laws must be based upon natural rights and be made for all and not for one (1755)

The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot (1713-1784), wrote a provocative article on “Natural Rights” (1755) in which he argued that by reasoning about the human condition a set of universally valid principles could be derived which were applicable to Kings, aristocrats, and ordinary people alike:

If you therefore meditate carefully on the foregoing, you will remain convinced: (i) that the man who listens only to his particular will is the enemy of the human race; (ii) that the general will in each individual is a pure act of understanding that reasons in the silence of the passions about what man can demand of his fellow man and about what his fellow man can rightfully demand of him; (iii) that this consideration of the general will of the species as well as the common desire is the rule of conduct relating one individual to another in the same society, one individual to the society of which he is a member, and the society of which he is a member to other societies; … (v) that the laws must be made for all and not for one …

(4) I perceive first of all one thing that seems to me acknowledged by the good and the evil person, that we must apply reason in all matters, because man is not only an animal but an animal who reasons; that there are consequently, in regard to the question under discussion, ways to discover the truth; that the person who refuses to search for it renounces his human condition and must be treated by the rest of his species as a wild beast; and that the truth once discovered, whoever refuses to conform to it is mad or evil practicing a morality of malevolence. …

(6) But if we take away from the individual the right of deciding about the nature of right and wrong, where shall we place this great question? Where? Before the entire human race; for only they may decide the issue, since the good of all is the only passion they have, particular wills are suspect; they can be good or evil, but the general will is always good: it is never wrong, it never will be wrong. If animals were on an approximate level with us, if there were certain means of communication between them and us, if they were able to convey clearly their feelings and thoughts and know ours with the same clarity: in a word, if they were able to vote in a general assembly, it would be necessary to summon them there, and the cause of natural rights would no longer be pleaded before humanity but before the animal kingdom [animalité]. But animals are separated from us by invariable and eternal barriers; and it is a question here of a category of knowledge and ideas peculiar to mankind which emanate from its dignity and which constitute it. …

(9) If you therefore meditate carefully on the foregoing, you will remain convinced: (i) that the man who listens only to his particular will is the enemy of the human race; (ii) that the general will in each individual is a pure act of understanding that reasons in the silence of the passions about what man can demand of his fellow man and about what his fellow man can rightfully demand of him; (iii) that this consideration of the general will of the species as well as the common desire is the rule of conduct relating one individual to another in the same society, one individual to the society of which he is a member, and the society of which he is a member to other societies; (iv) that the submission to the general will is the bond of all societies, without excluding those formed by crime (alas! virtue is so beautiful that thieves respect its image in the very center of their dens!); (v) that the laws must be made for all and not for one, otherwise this solitary being would resemble the violent reasoner whom we have stifled in section 5; (vi) that since of the two wills, the one general and the other particular, the general will never falls into error, it is not difficult to see on which one, for the happiness of the human race, the legislatures ought to depend, and what veneration we owe the august mortals whose particular wills reunite both the authority and the infallibility of the general will; (vii) that if one were to assume the notion of the species being in perpetual flux, the nature of natural rights would not change, since it would always be related to the general will and to the common desire of the entire species; (viii) that equity is to justice as cause is to its effect, or that justice cannot be anything else than declared equity; (ix) that all these inferences are evident to the person who reasons, and that the person who does not wish to reason, renouncing his human condition, must be treated as an unnatural being.

About this Quotation:

As the editor of the volume Encyclopedic Liberty notes, this article was controversial in its time and continues to be interpreted in different ways. Praised by the friendly Journal encyclopédique (February 15, 1756), it was attacked by Abraham Chaumeix in his Préjugés légitimes, II, 78–80, for attempting to free human beings of their obligations to God and country, leaving them with merely a vague duty to the “human species.” “You are a citizen of the world, and a patriot of nowhere. You have to do nothing, conceive of nothing, meditate on nothing except the temporal interests of yourself and other men,” he sums up Diderot’s pernicious doctrine. Some later commentators have seen Diderot’s “general will” in the light of Rousseau’s, but others see it as more like Adam Smith’s universal principle of sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Another point to note is Diderot’s argument about what to do with the person he called “the violent reasoner”, the person who refuses to acknowledge any limit to their personal will, who listens only to “the voice of nature” and not to “the voice of reason.” Diderot says that “we must apply reason in all matters, because man is not only an animal but an animal who reasons” and therefore “that the person who refuses to search for (truth) renounces his human condition and must be treated by the rest of his species as a wild beast” and as “an unnatural being.”

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