The Modern Regime of Rights

In 1954, Thought published Heinrich Rommen’s important essay, “The Genealogy of Natural Rights.” Rommen pointed out that the real origin of rights was not located in an abstract “state of nature” theory, following Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Rather it is based in concrete negotiations in medieval cities. They specified exactly what was at issue. The “justum,” the “what was owed” on both sides, was spelled out. No one had a “right” to such rights. What was specified as “right” was clearly set down and agreed on. Rights were not subjective.

In her recent lecture at the Catholic University of America, the Norwegian scholar and writer, Janne Haaland Matlary (When Might Becomes Human Right, Gracewing), pointed out that, at least since about 1978, the discourse of world politics has shifted. Now it is dominated by what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk.” One can hardly read anything in the United Nations, the Vatican, or in western politics that is not “rights” based in its rhetoric.

At first sight, such a development appears to be “progress.” But when we look at the roots of “human rights,” “dignity,” “duties,” and “values,” we cannot but be concerned that these noble expressions have paradoxically become tools in the alienation of man from himself. They continue to mean what their modern formulators – Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Weber – intended them to mean. Only now they are carried to their logical conclusions in the public order.

In the natural-law tradition, Catholic sources tried to contain the explosive nature of “rights” as instruments promoting the growth and absolute control of the state. Their leading efforts – Maritain, Finnis, Hittinger, George, Grisez, Simon – often were brilliant. But they have been mostly ignored in the wider world because they upheld nature or logic as an objective standard of what is good. 

The modern regime of rights, however, now undermines any solid notion of national-state defined limits of rights as based in an objective order. The United Nations and such entities now look upon themselves, when possible, as definers and imposers of modern rights on “backward” nations who do not yet accept their notions of rights to abortion, euthanasia, scientific experimentation on human beings, homosexuality, war and peace. In the recent bombing of Libya, the president did not go to Congress and invoke war powers, but to the United Nations. Hardly anyone noticed. Or objected.


What is wrong with such noble sounding words as “rights,” “duties,” “values,” and “dignity?” Why has not our vaunted “dialogue” with their advocates worked? Catholic sources were generally satisfied with the original 1948 U. N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It seemed grounded in the old Aristotelian and natural-law soil that upheld an objective human nature. It had norms or standards to indicate what man was, how he was to act. Reason could and did discover the meaning of nature and its ends.

The modern regime of rights is not the one supposedly envisioned in the Charter. We hold no truths to be “self-evident.” The great Jacques Maritain, who was involved in the original formulation, recognized that no theoretical agreement existed among the nations on how to justify such rights. He proposed that all simply agree with them. They could justify them, after the fact, with their own philosophical or religious sources. He thought they needed justification, but as a practical matter, political agreement was the best we could do. This agreement was easier after World War II when violation of what it is to be human was more obvious.

The assumption behind the “rights-duty-dignity-values” understanding of the modern world is that no human nature exists. Nothing is given. Dignity means that we are free to project on ourselves and the world how we understand ourselves. We make ourselves. Values mean that no ultimate explanation is possible about God, the cosmos, or human life. We give ourselves our own values. Rights mean that we can demand that how we define ourselves be recognized by others. Duty signifies that others have an obligation to “respect” how we define ourselves, whatever it is.

Obviously, this interpretation is relativist and individualist. It can easily, however, by the same logic, become collective. Here ecology and globalization come in handy. Natural disasters, “failed” governments, poverty, and restrictions based on religion or traditional reason are “threats” to the international community. The common good is defined in terms of modern “rights.” They give rise to “humanitarian” intervention in all parts of the world, including in this country. Since we are “entitled” to our “rights,” we can empower the collectivity to set conditions and enforce corresponding conduct.

The modern regime of “human rights” increasingly portends the soft totalitarianism implicit in our culture since we substituted will for reason as the ground of our understanding of God, the world, and ourselves. The warning was already in Aquinas. We just did not notice.


*Image:  The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas (with Aristotle and Plato by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1480)

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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