It is only from a notion of the human, common to all men, that the concept of person can be dissolved into the idea of individual.
The relevance of the concept of person lies in its ability to describe functional relationships with its environment: sui juris or alieni juris, noble, patrician, commoner, serf or lord, father, minor, capable, incapable, etc. In pre-modern times, according to each function, a normative system exclusive to caste, position or estate, known as “privilege”, corresponded.
Rather, Modernity dissolves fixed personal relationships into an undifferentiated diagram of spheres of individual autonomy. Each human being ceases to be a person attached to a certain fixed function in the social fabric and, by the mere fact of being human, is the holder of his sphere of individual autonomy, equal to that of any other human being.
The legal system ceases to govern particular relationships between people to become a structure empty of intentions and purposes, which only determines procedures and delimits equal and predictable fields of interaction and clear methods for the resolution of disputes among the holders of the different spheres of individual autonomy.
The principle ceases to be that of difference to become that of equality. The difference becomes the exception, to be justified on a functional basis that results in a public benefit.
However, in the non-political sphere, that of civil society, the difference does not disappear, but is expressed in each of the individual exceptionalities, within each respective sphere of individual autonomy, while it is accidental and irrelevant to the legal-political system.
There are certain special situations framed within specific legal regimes, such as minority and intra-family relations, which enshrine assistance obligations, usufruct rights and a system of representation and guardianship.
Consequently, the role of the public sphere within civil society is defined by the procedure to be followed to settle the conflicts that could arise from the collision of the different spheres of individual autonomy.
From the moment in which each human being is an autonomous individual, the legitimate exercise of power in relation to the population does not consist in giving specific orders to subjects but in administering a set of procedures whose specific purpose is to serve as a means for different individuals settle their disputes peacefully.
Of course, in Modernity and in liberal democracies relations of command and political obedience subsist, but within the governmental structures themselves, which in turn incorporated procedural rules that limit discretion in the exercise of power and establish functions and hierarchies that define competencies and delimit individual responsibilities.
However, both modern government structures and the legal consecration of a social structure composed of equal individuals in dignity and respect are not the result of an invention but the consequence of a historical evolution whose becoming does not cease and whose hindrances persist in the field of the aforementioned civil society.
That the differences between people are exclusively functional and that such functions report a benefit to all the individuals involved, in such a way that none of them is used exclusively as a means, but is seen as an end in itself, is an imperative for the public sphere, but only a programmatic aspiration in the field of civil society.
In turn, that each person deserves equal consideration and respect is a discovery in the true sense of the word. Quentin Skinner in “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought” recounts the role played in the Late Middle Ages by the discussion that every person was endowed with an immortal soul, deserving of salvation, for the subsequent conceptualization that every human being is worthy also of legal protection regarding their fundamental interests, such as their life, their personal freedom, or their possessions.
Regarding the natural law doctrine of human rights, which states that human beings enjoy a certain set of guarantees and rights against the state and against other people, it is usually dismissed as metaphysical.
However, such statement can be understood more clearly if it is related to its historical evolution: the different freedoms already existed but assigned to different people according to their caste or status, who had an immediate and specific interest in their protection.
To cite an example, in the Partidas of Alfonso X of Castille, we find every detail of social life regulated: some had the right to bear arms but not to work, since they had to be available to the king in his court to eventually go to war; others had the right to exercise a certain trade or profession, excluding those who did not belong to their corporation, but they were not free to change their activity, neither in terms of their subject matter nor their geography. In the pre-modern world, the holders of freedoms had a specific interest in defending them, but their ownership depended on circumstances that, in the vast majority of cases, were out of their control and, in others, obsolete in terms of their functionality.
Given that this legal-political system had very little plasticity to adapt to changes in the surrounding circumstances, it was generally inefficient, stagnant, and unstable and, therefore, conflicts manifested themselves in recurrent revolts.
Modernity consisted in the universalization of liberties. This means that freedoms – or immunities against power – that already existed and whose entitlement was limited to reasons of belonging to certain castes or estates, to the exclusion in many cases of one another, began to be extended to all human beings by the mere fact of being such.
That is to say, there is nothing metaphysical in the natural law doctrine of human rights. It actually consists of the universalization of rights that already existed and were recognized.
The novelty that this brought is that each human being ceased to be considered as a person in relation to his family, his social status or his caste, to be considered as an autonomous individual and equal in rights to any other, holder of rights that he was actively interested in exercising as well as others whose content he hardly had any news or specific interest.
In turn, men exchanged differentiated rights that protected certain personal interests in exchange for new abstract freedoms, the same for each of the remaining individuals. As a result, each person gained potential spheres of action and saw specific regions of power restricted.
The nobleman gained a freedom to work and trade that he may or may not have an interest in exercising, but he lost the power he had over his serfs or was displaced by commoner bureaucrats in government functions. The shoemaker gained the freedom to emigrate to other cities or to change his trade to that of a blacksmith, in which he may or may not be interested, but he also received competition in his own town from other new shoemakers who emigrated from other latitudes, who effectively exercised such rights.
Such transformations and their discontents can be verified in the conservative authors of the beginnings of the Contemporary age, as is the case of Charles Dickens, among others.
That is why the universalization of fundamental rights -for the English tradition- or natural rights -for the American conception- constitutes both a discovery of intellectual research on historical evolution and a political program.
Whether such an extension is desirable and to what extent it should be continued or reversed largely defines political positioning from right to left. For this reason, historical evolution is not a legitimizing device in itself, but a process of discovery of various forms of social and political organization that is subject to a critical evaluation regarding which institutions and practices to incorporate, preserve, resist or modify.