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Society and Culture

Burke vs. Paine, Objective Truth, and Natural Right

Jared Lovell
October 23, 2019
A reflection on Edmund Burke's warning about the pursuit of a society built on abstract rights and the implications of Thomas Paine's particular and vague rhetoric of rights.
Society and Culture

Burke vs. Paine, Objective Truth, and Natural Right


Jared Lovell

October 23, 2019

A reflection on Edmund Burke's warning about the pursuit of a society built on abstract rights and the implications of Thomas Paine's particular and vague rhetoric of rights.

Over the past weekend, a rather contentious conversation broke out in a libertarian Facebook page on the topic of conservatism and objective truth. There seemed to be some individuals who were triggered by the word subjectivity in relation to conservatism and used this as an opportunity to make the quite ridiculous claim that conservatives do not believe in objective truth. I would suggest that such assertions require a willful, rather than a mere accidental, ignorance of the subject matter as even a surface reading of the tradition would quickly put to rest the idea that traditional conservatives are not post-modern subjectivists. (Shocker!)

To understand that there are limits upon the individual’s use of reason, to recognize that human beings are subjective creatures that have different experiences and desires, and to acknowledge the role of history and tradition in the forming how individuals view the world is not to deny objective truth. What I hope to do below is to illustrate the difference between how conservatives and liberals (and many libertarians) think about the role of reason in relation to natural right by comparing Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

Edmund Burke was arguably the most important Parliamentarian of the time and it was his writing that helped to frame the political debate between Right and Left that would reverberate throughout American history.[1]

Burke was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1729 to a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother. Though throughout his life he was a devoted Anglican churchman and a staunch defender of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, he sympathized with the plight of his native Ireland and worked tirelessly for reform in British policy towards Irish Roman Catholics.

Burke has become known as the father of modern conservatism for his restatement of classical conservative principles in the age of revolution. Burke’s most significant contribution to political philosophy is his articulation of natural and common law principle in terms that could be understood and found persuasive within a post-Enlightenment, commercial society. His most famous writing, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he warned of the fate that befall the Revolution, may be credited with preventing Britain from descending with France into a state of revolutionary chaos.

Fundamental to Burke’s political philosophy is his affirmation of the classical and Christian concept of natural law. Burke was an adamant reformer of British institutions and his appeals for reform are anchored implicitly, if not always explicitly, upon the ground of natural law principle, which he understood to be an objective standard of right and wrong rooted in creation. Burke’s hierarchical understanding of law was evident when in 1790, in opposition to William Pitt's Regency Bill, which attempted to infringe upon the authority of the Crown, he said, "The framers of it first proceeded to a violation of precedents, next to a violation of law, then to a violation of the constitution, and now they had arrived at a climax of violence; a violation of the law of nature."[2]

Natural law, for Burke, is the final authority as to the legitimacy of an action. In writing against the oppressive Popery Laws being imposed by Parliament upon Irish Catholics, Burke grounded his case firmly in natural law explicitly drawing a contrast with Hobbesian philosophy:

"It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, of all the peace and happiness of human society, than the position, that any body of men have a right to make what laws they please or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely, and independent of the quality of the subject-matter. No arguments of policy, reason of state, or preservation of the constitution can be pleaded in favor of such a practice.They may, indeed, impeach the frame of that constitution, but can never touch this immovable principle. This seems to be, indeed, the doctrine which Hobbes broached in the last century, and which was then so frequently and so ably refuted."[3]

Natural law is objective and prior to human will. It does not serve as a means of power by which the individual may achieve his ends, but stands firm regardless of whether or not it is perceived as beneficial. The legitimacy of all laws must be found in relation to the natural law: All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory, they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.[4]

The source of natural law is God’s will, for it was God who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law upon it.[5] Therefore, human laws should reflect the principles of natural law: “It is high time to fix the law in such manner as to resemble as it ought, the great Author of all law, in whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.”[6]

Burke not only grounds his political philosophy in natural law theory, but explicitly rejects the state of nature construct of Hobbes and Locke for several reasons. First, the state of nature provides no insight into human nature. Burke places much importance upon history and historical experience in interpreting natural law because he sees it as the revelation of God’s Providence in the created order. All human action occurs within an historical context. Skipping over all of man’s known history in order to find the basis for human society in prehistoric man living in a state of nature is at best a speculative exercise.[7]

Second, Burke rejects the state of nature because of what it assumes to be true of human nature. Going back to Aristotle, Burke recognizes that man is a social animal. Man does not come into the world as an independent individual making rational calculations as to whether or not it would be in his best interests to enter into civil society. On the contrary, man is born into civil society completely helpless and dependent and already a member of any number of institutions that are not the result of his choices. Burke’s An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs is worth quoting at length on this point.

"Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burdensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things.
Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.”[8]

What Burke is saying is that there are certain human obligations that preexist contractual agreements and impose limits upon man’s choices. Man is not only the culmination of choices made before him, but his choices will also have effects upon those that succeed him. Thus, to the extent Burke recognizes a social contract, it is not a contract man enters into for the purpose of protecting natural rights as it was for Hobbes and Locke. It is rather a “partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”[9]

Thirdly, Burke rejects the state of nature because it creates a false dichotomy between nature and art.[10] For Hobbes and Locke, the institutions of civil society are artificial and exist apart from man’s nature. For Burke, civil society is natural. Man, a social being by nature, interacts with other human beings to create institutions that culminate in civil society. These institutions that emerge over time within society are extensions of the natural order, not aberrations from it.

The ancient philosophers and medieval scholastics spoke much of natural law and focused primarily on distinguishing the different forms of law and how they relate to each other. They speak of tyranny and injustice, but very little, on rights. As we have seen, the idea of individual natural rights is a modern concept that simply did not exist in the vocabulary of those preceding modernity. Burke, living in the age of Enlightenment, seeks to provide a definition for this new concept of rights that is consistent with natural theory and the English common law tradition, rather than deny the existence of rights altogether. Burke opposed absolute rights for the same reason he opposed absolute monarchy, both result in the exercise of arbitrary power. Just as there can be no legitimate human law that is unreasonable, “men have no right to what is not reasonable.”[11]

Furthermore, if natural rights are absolute, then natural and moral duties and obligations are only relative to these rights. Burke recognized that the ideology of the rights rhetoric of the French Revolution was aimed not merely at removing a monarch or changing the form of government, but rather the destruction of the church, the family, and any other societal institution which might prove to be a hindrance to the exercise of individual rights. They have “the rights of men.” Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament, and no compromise: any thing withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.[12]

For Burke then, rights are the advantages of society, and particularly for his readers, the benefits of long-standing English common law liberties. The rights of Englishmen include not only freedoms, but constraints upon passions.[13] The limits placed upon individuals by laws which protect life, liberty and property as well as the protections of procedural due process and equal application are among the benefits of living in civil society and are to be considered as rights.

Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution in his Reflections was not a popular political move, especially within his own Whig party, and provoked a wave of critical replies. The man who had advocated reform and toleration in Britain’s oppressive policies toward Irish Catholics, who had led the charge in prosecuting Warren Hastings for his mistreatment of Indians, and who had supported the America’s right to secede from the British empire was expected to be a supporter of the liberal cause of the French. Among his many critics, none was more popular than Thomas Paine who would serve as Burke’s main sparring partner in political debate. Thomas Paine proves to be the heir to Hobbes and Locke, adopting their liberal premises to draw even more radical conclusions and making explicit what those philosophers had left implicit within their texts.

Like Hobbes and Locke, Paine’s philosophy of government is rooted in the state of nature. In a telling 1789 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Paine writes:

"Suppose twenty persons, strangers to each other, to meet in a country not before inhabited. Each would be a Sovereign in his own natural right. His will would be his law, but his power, in many cases, inadequate to his right; and the consequence would be that each might be exposed, not only to each other, but to the other nineteen. It would then occur to them that their condition would be much improved if a way could be devised to exchange that quantity of danger into so much protection; so that each individual should possess the strength of the whole number."[14]

Society here is presented not as a natural extension of man’s nature, but the artificial construct of fully sovereign and independent human beings, endowed with natural rights and unconstrained by natural law. Law is not the result of right reason applied to creational norms, but the product of man’s will.

While consistent with Hobbes and Locke, Paine pushes further the premise of the state of nature. The role of political society for Paine is to promote choice. While Hobbes argued society was needed to escape the state of war, and Locke argued that society existed for the sake of protecting property rights, Paine argues that society exists to promote freedom and human choice. The individual’s only obligation in political society is to respect the choices of others and the only purpose of political society is to allow each individual to accomplish what he has a right, but lacks the ability, to accomplish on his own.[15]

Absent the fixed standard of natural law and guided only by absolute natural rights, Paine must reckon with the exercise of arbitrary power. When individual wills conflict, which will prevails?

Hobbes chose to place supreme authority in the hands of Leviathan as a more desirable option than living in a state of war. For Paine, supreme authority lies in individual consent. Consent may be withdrawn at any point in which society is not deemed to be sufficiently promoting individual choice. What one man may believe to be freedom in one generation may be another man’s tyranny in a future generation.

Thus, each generation has the power to “begin the world over again.”[16]

While Locke’s system at least provided more stability in that man could be bound by decisions of previous generations, Paine’s view was that every person in each generation must decide for himself as to the legitimacy of the social order into which he was born.

Thomas Paine’s thought over the course of his literary career provides the perfect example of the artificial division between negative and positive natural rights. In trying to free the individual from all natural obligations arising from birth, Paine realigns all of the individual’s loyalties and obligations to the state. Paine quickly realizes that returning human beings to the absolute freedom of the state of nature does not automatically result in greater choice. The natural reality of poverty proves to be a damper on mankind’s ability live as he chooses.

For Paine, however, poverty and inequality cannot possibly result from nature. The only explanation is that society has distorted the equal access man has to the fruit of the earth in the state of nature. Says Paine, “The rugged face of society, checkered with the extremes of affluence and want, proves that some extraordinary violence has been committed upon it, and calls for redress.”[17]

Thus, the state must step in to redistribute wealth to ensure that everyone is provided for so that all have an equal opportunity to pursue their individual interests. This redistribution is not a matter of charity, but of right and justice. Government must be empowered to rectify the injustices perpetrated by civil society. Since freedom of choice is the ultimate aim of politics, the negative right to be left alone to pursue one’s own happiness quickly morphs into a positive right to remove any obstacles or social obligations that stand in the way of that right.



[2] EDMUND BURKE, THE SPEECHES OF THE RT. HON. EDMUND BURKE III, 414 (Longman,Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown 1816) as quoted in PETER J. STANLIS, EDMUND BURKE AND THE NATURAL LAW 54 (Univ. of Mich 1958).

[3] EDMUND BURKE, TRACT ON THE POPERY LAWS (1765), reprinted in THE BEST OF BURKE: SELECTED WRITINGS AND SPEECHES OF EDMUND BURKE 255, 257 (Peter Stanlis ed., Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1963).

[4] Ibid, 258.

[5] Ibid, 257.

[6] BURKE, SPEECHES I,88 as quoted in STANLIS,supra note 43, at 54.




[10] STANLIS, at 130.


[12] Ibid. at 71.

[13] Ibid. at 72-73.

[14] THOMAS PAINE, LIFE AND WRITINGS OF THOMAS PAINE 2:1 (Daniel Wheeler ed.,Vincent Parke & Co, 1915), quoted in LEVIN,supra note 42at 93.

[15] LEVIN, 96.

[16] THOMAS PAINE, COMMON SENSE, http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/1776-paine-common-sense-pamphlet

[17] PAINE, WRITINGS 9: 262, quoted in LEVIN, supra note 42, at 122 (emphasis mine)

About the author

Jared Lovell lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. He actively works to corrupt the youth as a history and economics teacher at Memoria Press Online Academy and as an ESL teacher to Chinese students.

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