Auguste Comte and the Source of Rights

Auguste Comte is considered to be the founder of sociology and had big impacts on the development of the law and the concept of the rights.

Comte argues that “rights” cannot be subject to debate. They can be regarded as a privilege granted to the will of a being; a privilege that can also be construed as a virtue that allows people to do what they want. According to Comte, rights are not created as a result of a social analysis, or based on a scientific data; because, scientific experiments cannot prove the existence of rights. In this regard, if we base our approach to rights on science, then we can observe that, within the realm of science and observation, people cannot be viewed as right owners, instead, they can only have duties. Accordingly, Comte argues that rights must be coming from a greater being which is beyond the possible limits of science and intellectual efforts; which is the divine authority. Because the rights are coming from a divine authority, Comte thinks that they should not be used within the context of politics, as the political interpretation of rights would be contradicting with the essence of rights. Within the political realm, people cannot be approached with regard to their rights, people can only have duties within the context of politics.

It can be argued that Comte’s approach to rights could portray the social reality and represent the political position of people of his time; however, he is heavily criticized that his approach would not correspond to the modern understanding of rights. As the civilization and technology advances, rights of people are also gaining new dimensions and turning into more intricate privileges. If we disregard lawmakers’ functionality in addressing people’s needs through regulating the rights based on the needs of our time, then we would have to rely on the very basic forms of rights that would not suffice for today’s social needs.

Comte thought about this possibility and argued that rights could be granted to the people by governments; however, these rights would only guarantee that a person’s duty to do something will not be hindered by someone else. In other words, these rights would be another form of duties imposed on people. Accordingly, people would not need more sophisticated rights in an advanced civilization, and the only artificial rights would actually be a way to make sure that duties are performed without an obstacle in society.

Although Comte’s approach to rights are heavily criticized by scholars, we can try to understand his philosophy within the current status of society. Especially since the invention of the Internet, people have been easily reaching to other people from very distant parts of the world. It goes without saying that this innovation allowed people to understand each other much better than before, and by letting people see different cultures, it also extended people’s horizons. However, this also led to a clash in people’s minds regarding their values and understanding of how society works. And furthermore, when this contact moved beyond an electronic connection to a society where these people from different cultures and background live together, the perplexity in people’s mind might have risen to another level. At this point, lawmakers, by studying the dynamics of this multicultural society, achieved to create an environment where everybody enjoys its rights. However, at this point, we can see that lawmakers could do this not by granting additional rights to the people, but by regulating the existing rights and ensuring that nobody hinders another person’s access to his or her own rights.

In the light of Comte’s arguments, regulating rights in the modern society may be construed as adjusting rights, not generating new rights, so that everybody can use his or her rights. While Comte’s approach to rights may seem outdated, it may still provide some guidance to understand the dynamics of the modern society and the role of laws in regulating rights.   

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