Deconstructing Suella Braverman’s Philosophy of Human Rights

 Irfan Chowdhury is a PhD student at the University of Brighton, where he is researching the British Army’s war crimes in Iraq. He has previously had articles published in Mondoweiss, Bella Caledonia, Peace News, Iraq Now, The Palestine Chronicle, The Iranian and Roar News.

On 10 August 2022, Suella Braverman QC MP, who was appointed Home Secretary of the United Kingdom on 6 September 2022, gave a keynote speech to conservative thinktank Policy Exchange, titled: ‘Equalities and Rights: Conflict and the Need for Clarity’[1], in which she set out her conception of human rights. As I will outline, this conception is highly flawed and deeply dangerous because it attempts to provide a philosophical justification for the government’s anti-human rights agenda. Therefore, analysing and deconstructing the premises of Braverman’s arguments is of paramount importance, so that these arguments cannot be successfully relied upon by the government to justify its coming crackdowns on human rights.  Specifically, I will demonstrate the falsity of Braverman’s assertion that conservatism regards human rights as inherited, as opposed to natural, and will further illustrate how Braverman’s position that there are no natural rights is amoral and fundamentally contradicts itself.  I will cite John Locke and Adam Smith – proponents of ideas such as free markets and private property rights, which have become staples of conservative thought – in support of my arguments, as well as Noam Chomsky, who similarly argued in favour of natural rights in his 1971 debate with Michel Foucault. The arguments provided by Locke and Smith provide a philosophical grounding for the notion of natural rights – one that is rooted in what should be regarded as conservativism, as I shall illustrate – while Chomsky’s dissections of Foucault’s arguments (the latter having a surprisingly striking similarity to Braverman’s arguments) reveal the contradictions in Braverman’s speech.

Braverman states: “Conservatism contends that human rights are ‘inherited’ as opposed to ‘natural’, and tradition is the tool to ground the abstract in the concrete”[2]. This assertion is historically false; conservatism has traditionally contended the exact opposite. 17th Century philosopher John Locke, who provided detailed defences of limited government and private property rights[3], argued that human rights are fundamentally grounded in the intrinsic nature of human beings, which is ultimately derived from God, and exist independently of any state legislation or “Parliamentary Sovereignty” (which Braverman asserts is the foundation of all rights[4]). For example, in his Two Treatises of Government, Locke argues the following:

the first and strongest desire God planted in men, and wrought into the very principles of their nature, being that of self-preservation, that is the foundation of a right to the creatures for the particular support and use of each individual person himself[5].

 In other words, God made it so that the most powerful desire in each human being is self-preservation, which is where the right to provide for one’s own self comes from. Locke then goes on to argue:

But, next to this, God planted in men a strong desire also of propagating their kind, and continuing themselves in their posterity; and this gives children a title to share in the property of their parents, and a right to inherit their possessions. Men are not proprietors of what they have, merely for themselves; their children have a title to part of it, and have their kind of right joined with their parents in the possession, which comes to be wholly theirs, when death, having put an end to their parents’ use of it, hath taken them from their possessions; and this eve call inheritance men being by a like obligation bound to preserve what they have begotten, as to preserve themselves, their issue come to have a right in the goods they are possessed of[6].

Human beings also have a strong desire to have offspring and ensure the continuation of their offspring – a desire also implanted in them by God – and it is from this desire that children derive the right to inherit the property of their parents, upon their parents’ deaths.

Locke reinforces that these rights are ultimately derived from God by arguing God instilled in human beings an intrinsic nature which determines our rights, and that when these rights are enshrined in state legislation, this is merely evidence that the fact of these rights is universally acknowledged.  In other words, the legislation itself does not create the rights; it evidences that such rights are God-given:

That children have such a right (of inheritance) is plain from the laws of God; and that men are convinced that children have surely a right is evident from the law of the land; both which laws require parents to provide for their children[7].

Furthermore, Locke argues that purely by virtue of the fact that children are born helpless and unable to be self-sufficient, they have an inherent right not only to receive the bare minimum of sustenance, but to be given as many comforts as their parents can provide:

For children being by the course of nature born weak, and unable to provide for themselves, they have by the appointment of God himself, who hath thus ordered the course of nature, a right to be nourished and maintained by their parents; nay, a right not only to a bare subsistence, but to the conveniences and comforts of life, as far as the conditions of their parents can afford it[8].

 Locke argues that the right of children to inherit a share of their parents’ property is an extension of this, which is grounded in “nature” and thus constitutes a “natural right”:

Hence it comes, that when their parents leave the world, and so the care due to their children ceases, the effects of it are to extend as far as possibly they can, and the provisions they have made in their lifetime are understood to be intended, as nature requires they should, for their children, whom, after themselves, they are bound to provide for: though the dying parents, by express words, declare nothing about them, nature appoints the descent of their property to their children, who thus come to have a title, and natural right of inheritance to their fathers’ goods, which the rest of mankind cannot pretend to[9].

Locke is arguing that human beings have certain natural rights – among them, the right to provide for oneself, and to inherit property from one’s parents. These rights are fundamentally grounded in conservative ideas about human beings and human society; that the strongest desire in people is self-preservation, and that privately owned property is justly acquired and ought to be kept within the family unit, not shared with all humanity. This contradicts Braverman’s assertion that conservatism opposes the idea of human rights being natural, as Locke clearly considers natural rights to be human rights. He argues that these rights are fundamentally rooted in our intrinsic nature as human beings, as we are born with them, and that the ability to exercise these rights is thus a necessary part of human existence. I will now further demonstrate the falsity of Braverman’s assertion that conservatism opposes natural rights by citing Adam Smith, who argued similarly to Locke.

Smith, widely considered the founding philosopher of modern capitalism[10], was equally clear that human beings have certain natural rights that exist independently of any state legislation. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argues:

Among equals each individual is naturally, and antecedent to the institution of civil government, regarded as having a right both to defend himself from injuries, and to exact a certain degree of punishment for those which have been done to him. Every generous spectator not only approves of his conduct when he does this, but enters so far into his sentiments as often to be willing to assist him. When one man attacks, or robs, or attempts to murder, another, all the neighbours take the alarm, and think that they do right when they run, either to revenge the person who has been injured, or to defend him who is in danger of being so[11].

 Smith argues here that human beings have a right to defend themselves from physical harm, and to punish those who inflict it, and that this right exists “naturally, and antecedent to the institution of civil government”. Smith further argues that our moral ideas are fundamentally grounded in our intrinsic nature as human beings, and that general rules about our moral rights and obligations are not issued top-down, contrary to what Braverman asserts, but rather arise naturally from the intuitive moral sentiments that are invoked by people observing these interactions from the outside (the forthcoming passage from Smith further illustrates this). This directly contradicts Braverman’s position that “Parliament’s voice, through legislation, is the final word”[12] with regard to rights, and that rights are something that states must “intend to grant”[13] to citizens. Smith is clear that the rules determining rights and obligations exist naturally, and that knowledge of them is acquired through the moral sentiments that human beings experience when observing human behaviour; they are not drawn up by a parliamentary body:

An amiable action, a respectable action, a horrid action, are all of them actions which naturally excite for the person who performs them, the love, the respect, or the horror of the spectator. The general rules which determine what actions are, and what are not, the objects of each of those sentiments, can be formed no other way than by observing what actions actually and in fact excite them. When these general rules, indeed, have been formed, when they are universally acknowledged and established, by the concurring sentiments of mankind, we frequently appeal to them as to the standards of judgement, in debating concerning the degree of praise or blame that is due to certain actions of a complicated and dubious nature. They are upon these occasions commonly cited as the ultimate foundations of what is just and unjust in human conduct; and this circumstance seems to have misled several very eminent authors, to draw up their systems in such a manner as if they had supposed that the original judgements of mankind with regard to right and wrong were formed like the decisions of a court of judicatory, by considering first the general rule, and then, secondly, whether the particular action under consideration fell properly within its comprehension[14].

Thus, Braverman’s assertion that “Conservatism contends that human rights are ‘inherited’ as opposed to ‘natural’”, and that tradition is the tool to ground the abstract in the concrete”, is simply false. John Locke and Adam Smith – among the most prominent advocates of free markets, limited government and private property rights – explicitly argued the contrary. While Locke and Smith are typically classed as ‘classical liberals’, their ideas about natural rights and the importance of protecting private property and limiting the power of the state are very much in keeping with the conservative tradition. Conservative journalist Peter Oborne has stated:

The Conservativism I understand is about public duty, generosity, the instinct to conserve what is good in our society; the importance of the rule of law and of institutions; suspicion of leaps in the dark. I am thinking of the Conservatism of [Edmund] Burke, Lord Salisbury, Oakeshott[15].

Edmund Burke was almost certainly influenced by Locke in his prioritisation of civil interests[16], and he explicitly referred to natural law and natural rights when advancing his arguments[17]. Furthermore, conservative economists lionise Adam Smith and his writings on market societies[18]. In fact, Braverman’s position that there is no natural law from which human rights are derived, and that human rights are not inherent in human beings, is more closely associated with a certain far-left tradition, as exemplified by French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, among others. In his famous debate with Noam Chomsky in 1971, on the topic of revolutionary struggle and how the notion of ‘justice’ fits into it, Foucault argued that the concept of justice has simply “been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power”[19] (invented by Parliament, as Braverman would have it).  In other words, there is no objective standard of justice intrinsic in nature by which one can determine that certain acts are just or unjust. Thus, according to Foucault,

the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it… And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice[20].

Foucault believes that the concept of justice is not grounded in any natural law, but simply arises in a class-based society to justify the ruling class’s own power, or alternatively to justify the struggle waged by the proletariat to acquire power. Braverman’s position that there are no human rights outside of what Parliament ordains, based on her own conception of British ‘tradition’, can only be justified on the grounds that there are no objective moral facts; thus, you don’t have an inherent right as a human being not to be tortured or killed, because there is no objective moral law that states this. You only have this right insofar as Parliament grants you this right (“Parliament’s voice, through legislation, is the final word”). Foucault concurs with this; there is no morality, there is only power, which is why he argues that there are no moral barriers to the proletariat acting as they wish when acquiring and exercising power:

[T]he proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power… One makes war to win, not because it is just. When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this[21].

Instead of Parliament’s voice being the final word, Foucault argues that the proletariat’s voice is the final word, but nevertheless the underpinning philosophy for both Braverman and Foucault is the same: there is no objective morality, so human beings do not have any natural rights, and thus power determines how people should be treated. On the contrary, Noam Chomsky argued in his debate with Foucault that there are objective moral facts, and that existing human-made legislation has been partly created in an attempt to embody and enshrine the moral values that are intrinsic to human beings:

I think there is some sort of an absolute basis – if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out – ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded. I think it’s too hasty to characterise our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real… to a very large extent existing law represents certain human values, which are decent human values; and existing law, correctly interpreted, permits much of what the state commands you not to do[22].

Thus, contrary to what Braverman and Foucault contend, parliamentary legislation that enshrines certain rights into law is not itself the invention of these rights, but merely a protection of rights that naturally inhere in human beings, which arise from fundamental human values such as justice, love, kindness, sympathy and the like. Chomsky further points out that no one would advocate revolutionary struggle by the proletariat against the ruling class unless they considered this struggle to be just:

But it is in terms of justice; it’s because the end [of revolutionary struggle] that will be achieved is claimed as a just one. No Leninist or whatever you like would dare to say “We, the proletariat, have a right to take power, and then throw everyone else into crematoria.” If that were the consequence of the proletariat taking power, of course it would not be appropriate. The idea is – and for the reasons I mentioned I’m sceptical about it – that a period of violent dictatorship, or perhaps violent and bloody dictatorship, is justified because it will mean the submergence and termination of class oppression, a proper end to achieve in human life; it is because of that final qualification that the whole enterprise might be justified [emphasis added]. Whether it is or not is another issue[23].

Thus, those such as Foucault who advocate revolutionary struggle must believe that there is such a thing as justice that exists outside of the determinations of a particular power structure, or they would not pick the side that they have in the class war.

Likewise, Braverman must believe that human rights are natural and have an objective basis, or else she would not praise Parliament for enacting legislation that protects human rights. For example, Braverman states in her speech: “We now, rightly, have a right to compassionate leave, paternity leave, maternity leave and shared parental leave”[24]. The key word here is rightly. On what basis does Braverman contend that Parliament ‘rightly’ passed legislation to protect these rights that she lists? She cannot contend on the one hand that rights are not natural, and are solely determined by Parliament as rooted in her own conception of British ‘tradition’, and on the other hand contend that there is some objective moral basis upon which it can be determined that it is right for Parliament to enshrine certain rights into law. If she truly believes that human beings do not have any natural rights, and that Parliament is the arbiter of morality, then it would simply be a tautology to say that Parliament ‘rightly’ passes this or that legislation, because according to this conception, anything that Parliament does is right by definition. If, on the other hand, Braverman means that there is something specifically and objectively right about Parliament acting to protect the right to compassionate leave, maternity leave and so on, then she must believe that there is an objective moral basis existing outside of Parliament that determines the rights that people have. In turn, Parliament acted “rightly” in this case because it enshrined these predetermined rights into law. Otherwise, there would be no objective basis for contending that “We now, rightly, have a right to compassionate leave, paternity leave, maternity leave and shared parental leave”. There must be an objective moral law that determines the rightness of us being able to take time off work in these circumstances; in which case, it is from this moral law – not Parliament or tradition – that rights are derived.

In conclusion, Braverman’s contention that rights are not natural, but are rather inherited, and are determined by Parliament as rooted in British tradition, is ultimately grounded in moral relativism, as the underlying belief (also advanced by Foucault) is that there is no objective morality from which rights can be justified. This is a philosophical position that has nothing to do with traditional conservative thought – contrary to Braverman’s assertions – and which Braverman cannot actually believe, as she implicitly assumes that morality is objective and thus that rights are natural when she discusses the virtue in Parliament protecting certain rights. What is Braverman actually arguing, in this case? She provides some insight into this when she approvingly quotes Lord Hoffman while defending absolute Parliamentary Sovereignty:

Parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can, if it chooses, legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights… The constraints upon it exercised by Parliament are ultimately political, not legal. The principle of legality means that Parliament must squarely confront what it is doing and accept the political cost[25].

This is a stark acknowledgement that there are, indeed, “fundamental principles of human rights”, but that Parliament can violate them if it deems fit. The only barrier to this is “political cost”, i.e., if Parliamentarians would suffer politically as a result. Braverman goes on to reassure us that this does not mean rights will be stripped away ad hoc, because the fact that human rights legislation “is not legally enforceable does not diminish its importance”[26]. But if it is solely left to Parliamentarians to decide what rights we should have, and they make these decisions on the basis of “political cost”, and they have free rein to “legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights”, then this places our rights in severe jeopardy; particularly for those who are already vulnerable or marginalised. Braverman’s unsound philosophical arguments are a poor attempt to justify the fact that this government simply wants to be able to violate human rights, which naturally inhere in us all simply by virtue of the fact that we are human beings; this is true of refugees who face deportation to Rwanda, overseas victims of abuses by the British Army, and the one quarter of children in this country who live in poverty, among others. It is important that we do not allow Braverman and her colleagues to get away with attempting to justify the unjustifiable.

[1] S. Braverman, ‘Keynote Speech by Rt Hon Suella Braverman QC MP – Equalities and Rights: Conflict and the Need for Clarity’, Policy Exchange (10 August 2022), . (Accessed 16 September 2022).

[2] Ibid.

[3] A. Tuckness, ‘Locke’s Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), . (Accessed 19 September 2022).

[4] Braverman, ‘Keynote Speech’.

[5] J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, (London: Thomas Tegg; W. Sharpe and Son; G. Offor; G. and J. Robinson; J. Evans and Co., 1823), 60.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A. Hayes, ‘Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations”’, Investopedia (8 June 2022), . (Accessed 19 September 2022).

[11] A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: Cadell & Davies, F. C. & J. Rivington, and Longman, Hurst, Reem, Orme, & Brown, 1812), 135.

[12] Braverman, ‘Keynote Speech’.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 272-273.

[15] P. Oborne, ‘Boris Johnson wants to destroy the Britain I love. I cannot vote Conservative’, The Guardian (11 December 2019).  (Accessed 21 September 2022).

[16] I. Harris, ‘Edmund Burke’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), (Accessed 21 September 2022).

[17] Ibid.

[18] G. M. Liu, ‘How Adam Smith became a (surprising) hero to conservative economists’, Aeon (10 June 2019),  (Accessed 21 September 2022).

[19] N. Chomsky and M. Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice versus Power’, (1971), (Accessed 19 September 2022).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Braverman, ‘Keynote Speech’.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

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