In September 2017 I attended the 14th Annual Conference of the Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT) at the University of Manchester. As the title of the conference suggests, it was a political theory conference, but the nature of the philosophy discussions was broad ranging: I was in a legal theory stream, ‘Change of Law in a Democratic State: Normative Foundations and Factual Processes.’ Indeed, even within our specific theoretical stream, there was a real variation in the papers presented. For example, Dr Elvira Basevich had travelled to Manchester from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, in the United States, and was talking about the American sociologist, WEB Du Bois, 1868-1963. Du Bois is relatively unknown outside of America. Elvira was assessing du Bois’s critique of democracy and dissent in the ‘Jim Crow era’. (The ‘Jim Crow era’ was roughly a period after the American Civil War, 1865-1877, when there was some semblance of federal protection for former slaves.)
Being a human rights lawyer, I particularly enjoyed the presentation given by Dr Stephen Riley of the University of Leicester: ‘Human Rights: Change not Rationalisation.’ Stephen reminded us that, presently, human rights are under attack. Rather than before, when the burden of proof was on the state to justify rights’ infringements, human rights are now on the ‘backfoot’ eg. the challenges of nationalism, mass migration etc. But rather than ‘rationalising’ rights, we need to reflect on societal change to meet these contemporary challenges. We must keep faith with rights; changes to institutions to cope with these challenges are much more preferable.
My paper was on social contract theory, particularly the social contract theory of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679. Being a human rights lawyer, but also someone with a particular research interest in security and counter-terrorism, I am interested in the balance between the rights of the individual and the degree to which the state must interfere with these individual rights to provide security and protect the people from acts of terrorism. Thomas Hobbes sought for human rights to be sacrificed, in a social contract between individuals, for the purpose of vesting absolute power in the sovereign, gifted with the power of protection. So this ‘Hobbist’ theory of the state is very relevant to us today, particularly in protecting us from the Islamist ideology of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But Hobbes is rejected by many for conferring too much power on the state in this bargain of protection, since the ‘Hobbist’ sovereign is, itself, a threat to the security of the individual. In my paper, I sought to show that ‘Hobbist’ social contract theory is much more liberal than most people think and therefore is highly relevant to today’s discussions about the proper balance between human rights and security.
Dr Ian Turner