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Francis Hutcheson on the difference between “perfect” and “imperfect” rights (1725)

The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) distinguished between “perfect rights” (like the right to life and liberty) which were so essential that one was permitted to use violence to protect, and “imperfect rights” which were not:

The Rights call’d perfect, are of such necessity to the publick Good, that the universal Violation of them would make human Life intolerable; and it actually makes those miserable, whose Rights are thus violated. On the contrary, to fulfil these Rights in every Instance, tends to the publick Good, either directly, or by promoting the innocent Advantage of a Part. Hence it plainly follows, “That to allow a violent Defence, or Prosecution of such Rights, before Civil Government be constituted, cannot in any particular Case be more detrimental to the Publick, than the Violation of them with Impunity.” And as to the general Consequences, the universal use of Force in a State of Nature, in pursuance of perfect Rights, seems exceedingly advantageous to the Whole, by making every one dread any Attempts against the perfect Rights of others.

The Rights call’d perfect, are of such necessity to the publick Good, that the universal Violation of them would make human Life intolerable; and it actually makes those miserable, whose Rights are thus violated. On the contrary, to fulfil these Rights in every Instance, tends to the publick Good, either directly, or by promoting the innocent Advantage of a Part. Hence it plainly follows, “That to allow a violent Defence, or Prosecution of such Rights, before Civil Government be constituted, cannot in any particular Case be more detrimental to the Publick, than the Violation of them with Impunity.” And as to the general Consequences, the universal use of Force in a State of Nature, in pursuance of perfect Rights, seems exceedingly advantageous to the Whole, by making every one dread any Attempts against the perfect Rights of others.

This is the moral Effect which attends proper Injury, or a Violation of the perfect Rights of others, viz. A Right to War, and all Violence which is necessary to oblige the Injurious to repair the Damage, and give Security against such Offences for the future. This is the sole Foundation of the Rights of punishing Criminals, and of violent Prosecutions of our Rights, in a State of Nature. And these Rights, belonging originally to the Persons injur’d, or their voluntary, or invited Assistants, according to the Judgment of indifferent Arbitrators, in a State of Nature, being by the Consent of the Persons injur’d, transferr’d to the Magistrate in a Civil State, are the true Foundation of his Right of Punishment.a∥ Instances of perfect Rights are those to our Lives; to the Fruits of our Labours; to demand Performance of Contracts upon valuable Considerations, from Men capable of performing them; to direct our own Actions either for publick, or innocent private Good, before we have submitted them to the Direction of others in any measure: and many others of like nature.

Imperfect Rights are such as, when universally violated, would not necessarily make Men miserable. These Rights tend to the improvement and increase of positive Good in any Society, but are not absolutely necessary to prevent universal Misery. The Violation of them, only disappoints Men of the Happiness expected from the Humanity or Gratitude of others; but does not deprive Men of any Good which they had before. From this Description it appears, “That a violent Prosecution of such Rights, would generally occasion greater Evil than the Violation of them.” Besides, the allowing of Force in such Cases, would deprive Men of the greatest Pleasure in Actions of Kindness, Humanity, Gratitude; which would cease to appear amiable, when Men could be constrain’d to perform them. Instances of imperfect Rights are those which the poor have to the Charity of the Wealthy; which all Men have to Offices of no trouble or expence to the Performer; which Benefactors have to returns of Gratitude, and such like.

About this Quotation:

The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) taught Adam Smith as a student and his ideas on natural rights were very influential not only on Smith but on many others who were part of the Scottish Enlightenment. A fundamental idea which Smith also adopted was the distinction between what he called “perfect rights” and “imperfect rights.” The former were “of such necessity” to the survival of society that both the individual and the judiciary were entitled to use force against others in order to protect these rights. Perfect rights included the right to life, chastity, unblemished character, liberty, and of private judgement (especially religious thought). Imperfect rights were duties that a person ought to perform but which others should not use violence to compel, such as the obligation to give charity to a beggar, since in doing so “ greater evils would ensue in society from making them matters of compulsion, than from leaving them free to each one’s honour and conscience to comply with them or not.” Hutcheson believed that “perfect rights” were so important that when they were violated the individual had the right of “waging war” against the perpetrator who destroyed or damaged our or our neighbor’s goods, using “any necessary or suitable violence” to do so.

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