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For Bentham, rights and duties were two sides of the same coin, and both possibilities are equivalents from the logical point of view, but not so from the human or political.Logically, a right is nothing but a duty considered from the standpoint of the subject who is benefited by it; conversely, a duty is nothing but a right looked at from the subject who must satisfy it.
European liberalism abominated the Revolution, as in the exclamation obsessively repeated by Hölderlin, with his mind already gone but still an unshakeable defender of freedom: “I do not want to be a Jacobin!
”Bentham’s epigrammatic objection to natural rights, the results of their effects in revolutionary France, was summed up in the title of the work in which he condemned them: anarchic fallacies, falsities warped with the desire to deceive and with terrible consequences, anarchy. In the first place, they are reasons in line with the empirical attitude at the base of Benthamite theory.
The metaphysical either does not exist, or we cannot perceive it, which comes to the same thing.
Natural rights are “nonsense upon stilts”, as Bentham would call them, or, as the phrase has been translated into Spanish, in a version more in accord with our political-religious liturgy, “nonsense under the pallium”, absurdities that have been put into an eminent position for the people to admire, and to be amazed by them, without being able to distinguish their quality, real or phantasmagorical.
Essentially, human and natural rights share the claim to precede positive law, its foundation (base for legitimating criticism or praise of it) and unavailable to it.
To understand Bentham’s criticisms of natural rights, in the version of the French and American revolutionaries, it is important to know if that criticism is applicable to human rights, which in turn is important, since the analytical, positivist and utilitarian criticism of natural rights (all of which Bentham’s contribution involved) was rigorous and not to be taken lightly.The story I want to tell is that of the attempt made by Bentham to eliminate what today we call human rights from political-legal argumentation, an attempt that responded to weighty reasons, and of John Stuart Mill’s revival of this concept, a revival made with commitment and intellectual daring.The story is transcendent because it shows us the dangers that legal positivism detected in iusnaturalism, lest these dangers reappear; and, on the other hand, because the theoretical status that Mill gave to human rights still prevails, broadly speaking, in our days, a status that puts them as one the fundaments of the political and social order of the free world.These reasons arose from the contemplation of the events, contemporaneous with Bentham, that happened during the American, and even more during the French, revolutions.Bentham sympathised with the American Revolution because it appeared more as a struggle for colonial emancipation than as a civil war or a revolution, and thus it had to appeal more to the anti-imperialist convictions of a liberal.Edmund Burke reacted violently to the Revolution from its first moments, both for its bloody excesses and its policy of economic confiscation, as well as for the universal and timeless abstraction of the rights it proclaimed.The bloodstained spectacle of the heads of the king’s guards carried in triumph on pikes from Versailles to Paris caused a shudder of repulsion as electrifying as the confiscation of the properties of the church, the clergy and the nobles as a way of paying off the crushing national debt.In legal-political theory, in Bentham’s time, human rights were not spoken of. This expression fell out of use, to be replaced by “human rights”, still employed today, precisely to try to overcome the criticism led by Bentham. Those rights of man, as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are the lexical predecessor of our human rights. Human rights, then, are the result of a metamorphosis suffered by natural rights.Human rights are not the same as natural rights, but they originate from and owe some of their characteristics to them.That all this was done to defend some metaphysical rights merely confirmed the evil ways to which rationalist passion led when free from the counterweight of experience and common sense.(published in 1790), but he dedicated the rest of his life to combating Jacobinism, a combat which ended by uniting all the initial utilitarian critics, Bentham among them, appalled by the bloodcurdling spectacle offered by all France, and above all, by Paris: maddened crowds cheering on to their death carts full of people, a democracy reduced to a parliament led by demagogues devouring each other, the refinement of techniques of totalitarian control of the population through political and police terror, which would later be Lenin’s inspiration: the law of the strongest under the banner of Reason.