WILL BRADLEY AND N55 EXCHANGING
Based on an e-mail interview that turned into a discussion
about persons and rights in October 2002.
Will Bradley is a writer living in Glasgow.
When we talk about art in a rational way, we implicitly talk about persons
and their meaningful behaviour with other persons and things in concrete
situations. One cannot talk about art in a meaningful way without referring
to these factors. This apparently trivial knowledge can be of decisive
Art theory is concerned with different views and is characterised by a
division of art phenomena into different generations, directions, epochs,
etc. These descriptions are very often misleading and oppressive because
they are often based on invented categories, subjective opinions, and
because they promote certain views in order to serve specialised interests
such as the economic interests of gallerists, the wish of art historians
to gain influence, etc. Instead of attempting at defining what art is,
or what its new direction ought to be, we talk of logical relations and
factors that one can choose to take into conscious consideration. If one
does this, one can see different implications.
When we talk about art, we must always talk about: persons and their meaningful
behaviour with other persons and things in concrete situations. The factors
mentioned here: persons, things etc. are part of logical relations that
constitute necessary conditions for description. Logical relations are
the most basic and most overlooked phenomenon we know. Logical relations
means that what we can talk rationally about can only exist, be identified
or referred to through its relations to other things. Logic is necessary
relations between different factors and factors are what exist by the
force of those relations. The decisive thing about logical relations is
that they can not be reasoned. Nevertheless, they do constitute conditions
necessary for any description, because they can not be denied without
rejecting the factors that are part of the relations.
For example, one necessary relation is the relation between persons and
bodies. It makes no sense to refer to a person without referring to a
body. If we for example say: here we have a person, but he or she does
not have a body, it does not make sense. Furthermore, there are necessary
relations between persons and the rights of persons. Persons should be
treated as persons and therefore as having rights. If we deny this assertion
it goes wrong: here is a person, but this person should not be treated
as a person, or: here is a person, who should be treated as a person,
but not as having rights. Therefore we can only talk about persons in
a way that makes sense if we know that persons have rights.
Concentrations of power do not always respect the rights of persons. If
one denies this fact one gets: concentrations of power always respect
the rights of persons. This does not correspond with our experiences.
Concentrations of power characterize our society. Concentrations of power
force persons to concentrate on participating in competition and power
games, in order to create a social position for themselves. Concurrently
with the concentrations of power dominating our conscious mind and being
decisive to our situations, the significance of our fellow humans diminishes.
And our own significance becomes the significance we have for concentrations
of power, the growth of concentrations of power, and the conflicts of
concentrations of power.
It is clear that persons should be consciously aware of the rights of
persons and therefore must seek to organize the smallest concentrations
of power possible. It is obvious that artists too must be conscious of
persons, the rights of persons and the influence of concentrations of
power and thus must be concerned with politics. It is obvious that also
artists must first and foremost be concerned with creating consciousness
about what we know, and with attempts to live and behave in correspondence
with what we know, and with trying to organize in as small concentrations
of power as possible. In this way we have a case where the fundamental
ethical norm and thus ethics become decisive for aesthetics. A case where
politics becomes decisive to the performance of art. Aesthetics must first
and foremost be an examination of, and the science about, possibilities
to exist with as small concentrations of power as possible and organize
ourselves in a way so that we respect each others' rights. In a way that
makes room for persons and that which has significance to them in their
This opens up a way of thinking about art which does not represent a new
trend or a new direction, but discloses some basic relations which are
and have always been present whenever one talks of art phenomena.
This is not an attempt to describe precisely what art is, on the contrary,
it is an attempt to show that any phenomenon related to art can be described
in an infinite number of ways, none of which can be exhaustive, and one
can therefore never say precisely what it is. But one does have the possibility
to point out certain logical relations and factors which one has to respect
if one wants to talk of art in a way that makes sense and without consideration
to subjective opinions, power games, and social conventions.
Furthermore, we can show that what characterizes a situation that has
to do with art is that there is a consciousness that this situation has
to do with art. If we say: "here is a situation that has to do with
art, but nobody is conscious that this situation has to do with art,"
it makes no sense.
So, if there is a consciousness that something has to do with art, we
have no way of denying in a meaningful way that it has something to do
This also means that there is absolutely no reason why art should restrict
itself to being only certain things or certain kinds of behaviour. The
important thing is therefore not what art is, but what art does, and in
which ways aesthetic practice relates to ethics, to other kinds of practice
and to the world. When we say that art is related to persons and thus
to ethics, this means there is an obligation for artists to consider the
ethics of their involvements and their assertions. And that everyone else
related to this practice also must consider whether and how they respect
the rights of persons.
The things and systems N55 make can be seen as diverse attempts to exist
with as small concentrations of power as possible through respecting the
diversity of persons and the situations they are in. Sharing knowledge,
finding methods of exchange not based on profits and private ownership,
avoiding overspecialisation, concentrating on general levels of language
and knowledge, are all ways of organising smaller concentrations of power.
Instead of proposing single solutions, insisting on multiple ways of working,
while connecting up with other persons who are working in different ways
to organise smaller concentrations of power.
Your statement raises a lot of questions. One is about the idea of human
rights, which I would argue is not a matter of objective knowledge but
of freedoms won through struggle and debate. Even the idea of “persons”
as a general category had to be created as secular ideologies took over
from religious ones in the west. For example, one of the first people
to publicly articulate the concept of the "human race" - the
idea that the different races of humanity were in fact one - Colonel Edward
Marcus Despard was hung and drawn and quartered in London in 1803 for
his part in a planned Republican uprising. Bentham wrote "Right is
a child of law; from real laws come real rights, but from imaginary law,
from 'laws of nature,' come imaginary rights..." and though I don't
believe that formal laws are necessary, the point is that a right that
is not understood and mutually respected is not a "natural law"
but an idea that must be put into action.
At the so-called Putney debates in England in 1647, the question of human
rights was explicitly at stake. Factions representing the peasantry, the
army rank and file, and popular "democratic" movements including
the Diggers and the Levellers argued that these rights existed. Commissary-General
Ireton, for the new republican government, disagreed, and his argument
"for my part I account that the great foundation of justice, that
we should keep covenant one with another [...] Covenants freely made,
freely entered into, must be kept one with another. Take away that, I
do not know what ground there is of anything you can call any man's right.
I would very fain know what you gentlemen, or any other, do account the
right you have to anything in England - anything of estate, land or goods,
that you have, what ground, what right you have to it. What right hath
any man to anything if you lay not down that principle, that we are to
keep covenant? If you will resort only to the Law of Nature by the Law
of Nature you have no more right to this land, or anything else, than
But Ireton went on to subtly twist the argument, claiming that the law
of the land was a binding "covenant", though it was clearly
not "freely made", or "freely entered into":
"[...] we are under a contract, we are under an agreement, and that
agreement is what a man has for matter of land that he hath received by
a traduction from his ancestors, which according to the law does fall
upon him to be his right. That agreement is that he shall enjoy, he shall
have the property of, the use of, the disposing of the land, with submission
to that general authority which is agreed upon amongst us for the preserving
of peace, and for the supporting of this law. This I take to be the foundation
of all right for matter of land. [...] And therefore when I hear men speak
of laying aside all engagements to consider only that wild or vast notion
of what in every man's conception is just or unjust, I am afraid and do
tremble at the boundless and endless consequences of it."
One of the Levellers' basic principles was that any government or law
was meaningless without the "agreement of the people", and that
no man or woman has "any authority, dominion or magisterial power,
one over or above another. Neither have they or can they exercise any
but merely by institution or donation, that is to say by mutual agreement
or consent for the good benefit and comfort each of other".
A transcription of the Putney Debates is online at
The other side of the debate is beautifully expressed in Gerrard Winstanley's
“The True Leveller's Standard Advanced” (1649), online at
Ireton's view prevailed and, insofar as it sanctioned land enclosure
and the expansion of private property, laid the beginnings of the legal
foundations which enabled capitalism to became the dominant economic principle
From another angle altogether, an interesting discussion of Islamic notions
of human rights is at
and Thoreau's classic civil disobedience is at
That persons have rights is not something that was invented or created,
but a logical relation that was discovered. If you say: here is a person,
but this person ought not to be treated as a person, or: here is a person
who ought to be treated as a person, but not as having rights, it does
not make sense.
But this in no way implies that we don't have to fight to make sure that
persons' rights are respected by other persons.
The discussions you mention seem to concern the problem of whether rights
are something that exist only by law and social conventions, or whether
they are part of our understanding of persons. If one only accepts the
first version, rights are dependent on social conventions, can be granted
and removed. While if you accept the latter, persons have rights even
if these rights are removed by law.
At this second point, your struggles and debates enter the picture. Because,
one could ask, why would people go through these struggles and debates
if there weren't anything to fight for?
Often, the rights described in law have been exclusive and linked to only
certain groups of people or to certain things, for example the right to
As a consequence, one must remember that laws, conventions, and concentrations
of power at any given time do not necessarily respect the rights of persons.
I'd like to connect your idea of intrinsic rights to Locke's "natural
law", a development both of English 17th century religious radical
thought and of the ideas of people like Pufendorf. Locke's writing also
influenced an early 18th century Scottish philosopher, Frances Hutcheson
("The System of Moral Philosophy") whose thinking was perhaps
closer to yours - Hutcheson believed that moral reasoning is a natural
human faculty, and that human beings derive pleasure from acting virtuously.
He also challenged Locke on the idea of universal rights - Hutcheson did
not recognise any distinction based on gender, and his lectures were "an
attack on all forms of slavery as well as denial of any right to govern
solely on superior abilities or riches".
What's interesting is the way that rights move from being "god-given"
to being "self-evident" during the 18th century. 17th century
radical texts (like Lilburne's "The Freeman's Freedom Vindicated")
had no option but to invoke God to back up the rights of man. In order
to talk about human rights, the common category of "humanity"
had first to be invented - the idea that "all men are created equal",
which must precede the concept of human rights, couldn't be constructed
within the ancient religious frameworks. Though it forms part of Christian
teaching, in practice unbelievers, in Christianity and many other religions,
were next to worthless. As late as 1696 a man called Thomas Aikenhead
was executed in Scotland for suggesting that the bible wasn't the literal
word of God.
So I wonder if our discussion - and disagreement - has its root in this
idea of "humanity". That it makes no sense to talk about "human
beings" without rights because the category "humanity"
- as against, for example "God's creatures" subject to divine
law - is a post-religious, radical construction. For example, if you accept
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, humans were preceded
by many other species, more or less similar. If rights are de facto granted
to humans, then why not to other species? And, if you grant that, at what
point do you revoke those rights? The point of monkeys, or of fish, or
plants, or bacteria? To define that point is to define the reasoned basis
of the rights you grant - for example Hutcheson's idea that moral reasoning
is a natural human faculty, and so rights begin with humans. Or the argument
that rights begin with any creature that has the capacity to feel pain.
In all this you have to remember that I am in no way arguing against the
existence or vital importance of these rights. I simply believe that they
are easier to describe and defend as the product of human reasoning and
action than as some pre-existing external concept similar to divine law.
As an aside, I came across this:
a very early debate about an attempt by Franciscan monks to relinquish
all rights over material things, and their refutation by the pope on the
grounds that they must, at least, have "dominion" over the food
they eat. Here, perhaps, is the kind of irrefutable relationship you are
describing, though how far it could be extended I am not sure.
When you find yourself in a concrete situation, has it any significance
how you treat others? If it does, then we have a word for you that describes
this: rights. We'd like to comment on what you said about rights moving
from being god-given to being self-evident. This demonstrates that different
language is used to describe the same phenomenon, which is a basic characteristic
of language and situations.
That "persons have rights" is a discovery of a fundamental relation
between the words rights and persons. The words are the most precise description
we can find of phenomena that one can not grasp entirely in any description.
Your argumentation is following dominant paths in western history. In
this dominant history, it even had to be discovered that women belonged
to the category "humanity". But we have no reason to assume
that there were no instances around, where women were actually treated
as persons, by their fellow humans. This misunderstanding has prevailed
mainly where religious and ideological misunderstandings prevailed. It's
likely that many persons laughed at these speculations of whether women
were persons just as they laughed at speculations whether the world ceased
to exist once one closed one' s eyes.
We are not intending to insert the argument that persons have rights into
a political-philosophical academic discussion that has roots back to the
16th century and more. We want to remove the discussion from this reign
and instead defend what every person that knows a language implicitly
knows: that persons have bodies and that persons have rights. And that
one starts babbling once one tries to deny these relations.
It is not a fight on words, but pointing out logical relations that go
deeper than language and that can neither be denied nor reasoned.
This is where this kind of thinking distinguishes itself from academic
thinking and that is probably why academics are the ones who have the
hardest time accepting these things. Probably because they are trained
in scepticist disciplines that encode them to disregard any argument that
has not the required level of sophistication and references to academic
writing. However we argue that it is not sophistication, but understanding
of the crudest and most basic relations that are of significance. And
one of these is that persons have rights, not as a god-given eternal principle,
but as a basic property of language and reality.
In this regard, it doesn't matter how many rights are violated each year.
We don't talk of specified rights, but a more indeterminate "right".
The word "rights" is being exploited by western powers to impose
their values on others, and have ever since they stumbled upon the word.
Or rights to certain things such as property.
This is not what we are talking about. We are not even talking about the
various struggles for securing rights legally, however important they
However, it is interesting to see how, during history, oppressed people
have used similar arguments. Whether they called their rights god-given
or self-evident, it describes a relation which one cannot deny. If something
is self-evident, it can neither be rejected nor given another reason for.
Religious people call the things they have no other explanation for, god-given.
God is a word some people use to describe what is outside language. Other
people prefer not calling that anything at all. Which brings us to your
bringing up Darwin. Darwin found ways of explaining the fact of an astonishing
variety of species which one had previously attributed to divine and instantaneous
We have no way of saying what goes on in the head of a larva. We don't
know if larvae have discussions of rights between them. We have reasons
to assume they don't. We can impose our ideas of rights on other species,
like saying animals have rights. Perhaps someone will discover an undeniable
relation between animals and animals' rights or some other word describing
the same relation. However, we want to concentrate the discussion on persons'
rights since this is a very urgent thing. And probably, persons being
a dominant species, respecting their rights will have positive influence
on other species too.
So although we don't know larvae brains we do know human language and
human brains. There are certain things we can say and certain things we
can't say. If you say, Mr. Peterson is a person, but he has no rights,
he may still be Mr. Peterson, but it is very hard to imagine him as a
person in the way that we understand "persons". It changes the
notion of him and changes my possibilities of action towards him, and
reduces him to something I can treat randomly. And again, here we are
not talking of a political situation where the government deprives him
and others of legal rights.
This is about a basic relation existing between persons: the word "should"
or "ought to" is almost always present. How one ought and ought
not to act towards others is a decisive element in any situation. Our
point is that one cannot find guidance in ideological or religiously prescribed
models for action. One has to do the most difficult thing, try to understand
how some properties of language and the world constitute conditions for
description, things one can't deny rationally, and which one therefore
has to accept. In short, start thinking for oneself.
You make a good, clear point when you say "When you find yourself
in a concrete situation, has it any significance how you treat others?"
and link this to the concept of rights. But I'm aware that already, by
talking about the "concept" of rights, I've moved away from
the relationship you are describing. Because, although I can't deny that
the way I treat others has significance for me, this does not automatically
imply the existence of their - or my - rights. The way I treat a glass
of water, or a stone, may have significance for me, but does not mean
that those things have rights. Of course, if this is the last glass of
water on the desert island where we all live, or a stone that I'm about
to throw through your bedroom window, then it certainly implies an important
social relationship. But, even then, a social relationship is not the
same as a right. Whether I "should", or perhaps "ought
not", drink the water or throw the stone, is my decision. Morals
or ethics are only involved as far I have any concept of such things.
I would also argue that language is, at least as we are using it here,
inextricably tangled up with the social relations and ideologies involved
in its development and use, and that the relationship between the words
"rights" and "persons" may be historical and strong,
but it is not "fundamental". There was a time when these concepts
and words did not exist. There's good evidence that the very earliest
human societies cared for the sick, honoured the dead, shared their resources
and generally behaved as though they valued one another's lives, but that
is simply a social relationship in action - the European colonisation
of Africa was another, and no valid universal conclusion can be drawn
As you correctly point out, the concept of "rights" has also
been used by those in power to defend ideological constructions such as
the "right to property", and if I am to argue for the concept
of "rights" as moral or ethical imperatives that are then defended
or achieved through struggle and debate, this is certainly something that
needs to be addressed. The standard, and I think flawed, argument here
is that, to begin with, the "right to property" cannot exist
without the prior recognition of certain other rights - the right to life,
the right to equality before the law etc. Another, and maybe stronger,
argument requires that rights, as a concept, be restricted to individuals
- to "persons". This is perhaps closer to your position, and
means that rights can only be defined in terms of the "freedom from"
something. The freedom from oppression, or discrimination, or unjust imprisonment,
or censorship for example. This exposes the contradiction inherent in
the "right to property", which cannot be formulated as a universal
principle without either limitation or conflict.
Paradoxically, a similar argument can be built on the premise that there
is no such thing as a "right", that nobody has any "right"
to anything. This establishes a fundamental equality. If you have no right
to take my life, that is perhaps the same thing as my right not to be
killed by you, and so on.
I would argue that an "indeterminate idea of a right" is more
open to exploitation - more easily used by those with power against those
without - than the idea of rights as moral or ethical imperatives defended
or achieved through struggle and debate. I do agree that the starting
point for such debate is simply a concrete situation in which social relationships
exist, but the statement that "Mr. Peterson is a person, but he has
no rights" is only problematic if you believe that there is something
that all persons have in common that invalidates it.
One extra idea that needs to be added to this situation in order that
human rights follow from it as an undeniable consequence is that of the
worth of a human life. That one male life is worth the same as one female
life. That a Palestinian life is worth the same as an Israeli life. That
an Iraqi life is worth the same as an American life. That the lives of
the rich are worth the same as the lives of the poor. That a Glasgow life
is worth the same as a London life. That a Namibian life is worth the
same as a Danish life.
This is what I mean when I say that the category of "humanity"
had to be created in Western thinking. This idea may appear "self-evident",
but it has to be argued for and defended at every turn, now as much as
at any point in the past.
Going back - and I know you have already distanced yourself from these
arguments - to the events of the so-called English Revolution that I brought
up earlier, it is interesting that the more radical factions - the Levellers
in particular - opposed the execution of the King. They did not believe
they had the right to take his life, and realised that, by sparing him,
they would have advanced their principles. But they lost the argument.
We have many things in common and, as I have said, I am trying to make
a case for, not against, the idea of universal human rights. However,
I still question whether, if there are "logical relations that go
deeper than language", these relations can be talked about or made
the basis of a philosophical position. And I am not sure that talking
about "things one can't deny rationally, and which one therefore
has to accept" leaves enough space to "start thinking for oneself".
But, as a way of articulating a belief, I can't argue with it, and, as
I am generally in agreement with the belief itself, I wouldn't want to.
One last point - perhaps it should have been my first and only point -
is this: if there is an undeniable truth in the statement that "persons
have rights", if persons do, in fact, have rights a priori, but those
rights are not respected or even recognised, then do you feel any responsibility
to try and change that situation? And if you do, then you need to describe
those rights, and argue and campaign for them. Perhaps, in other words,
our positions are pragmatically very similar.
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