Professor Mark Blitz speaks on the importance of natural rights and the cultivation of virtue to American democracy
Mark Blitz, Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, discussed the importance of conserving liberty in the United States during a visit to campus on Monday, March 23. Blitz’s lecture, sponsored by the constitutional studies minor, outlined the basis of natural rights and liberty while drawing out the link between liberty and virtuous character.
Blitz began by acknowledging, “If we want to preserve liberty, if we want to preserve freedom, politically, it is crucial to understand the liberty we actually wish to preserve.” He defined liberty as “the authority to direct oneself and not to be constrained in directing oneself. In America’s founding principles that liberty is held by, and belongs to, individuals. In addition, it is justly held by each of us equally. It is what we mean by natural equal rights.
“Equal natural right, therefore, is the equal authority we each have individually. It allows us to reflect, choose, proceed, and act in a functioning liberal democracy,” Blitz continued. “This is the liberty we centrally want to conserve.”
Blitz also explored the idea that rights are fundamental to human nature. “They are not arbitrary,” he stated. “We don’t create them, make them, or invent them. They are in some sense permanently there. To call rights natural is to say they are essential to us. Rights exist spontaneously—independent of our choice.”
As natural, these rights can be discerned by reason, and each person can be seen as the object of rights, Blitz argued. “This unavoidable individual authority—to agree or disagree for oneself—can be noticed in ourselves if we look. They are rationally visible. We, however, can only see them clearly if blinders are taken away,” he said.
Blitz elaborated that some common blinders are class preference, group preference, traditional ways, mysticism, and obedient and faithful religious views. A society fixated on tradition, Blitz acknowledged, was a major concern for Enlightenment thinkers.
Embracing liberty, as Blitz defined it, requires the loosening of the rigidity of blinders—of faith, obedience, and tradition. The rational observation of natural rights, he argued, is not simply a matter of opinions and choices.
Government authority stands with natural liberty when it advocates conserving liberalism and natural rights, according to Blitz. Securing and advancing liberty not only relies on public reform and constitutional rights, but also depends on good character and a virtuous citizenry.
“You cannot use your liberty effectively, and therefore cannot use it well, unless you have proper character. Without the proper character, you will not be able to protect, secure and conserve liberty,” Blitz stated.
Erin Doone, a student who attended the lecture, told the Rover, “[I] appreciated Blitz’s clear articulation of natural rights. The link between liberty and virtue, stripped from ‘blinders’, however was less clear.”
Doone wondered “how virtue of character could be promoted when local associations are undermined in a liberal democracy.”
Blitz articulated an understanding of responsibility that elevates modern liberty within the public sphere. “This virtue of character allows us to complete our jobs successfully. It is taking charge and seeing things through to a successful conclusion,” he said.
Effective self-reliance, a consequence of taking responsibility, “allows freedom to bring about successful results and allows us to rely on each other. It builds character, which is central to trust.”
Liberal democracy, Blitz argued, needs and often fosters a set of virtues critical to public and private affairs. “Unless we can preserve responsibility, we will not preserve liberty,” he said.
The founders of the United States, he explained, exercised this virtue in their writings. “The degree to which people protect the liberty of natural rights is beholden to conservativism today. This is rational and not fundamentally enlightened,” Blitz concluded.
Mary Salvi is a senior political science major. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.