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

Denis Diderot

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 …

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.”