What of Rights?
When Rights Go Wrong, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. (audio)
Regarding the seeming failure of liberalism, Fr. Legge begins with a reference to Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed: a major cause is the Enlightenment’s focus on autonomy and the rights of the individual. “Is the Enlightenment idea of liberty the core theoretical problem for liberalism today?”
Regular readers here have walked with me while I have developed my views. Fundamentally, an underlying cultural foundation (and, in my opinion, a specific cultural foundation) is necessary in order for liberty as promised in the Enlightenment to hold. Yet the Enlightenment, while offering that promise of liberty, at the same time offered that the cultural foundation was not fundamental.
Fr. Legge offers his perspective, well-preceding the Enlightenment: we must grasp the true nature between law, justice, and individual rights and the common good. He begins with Thomas Aquinas and the reality that man is born into a social environment. We have the possibility of conflicts horizontally (between individuals), and vertically (between an individual and the common good). I know the phrase “common good” is troubling for many libertarians; just sit tight.
Beginning with Aquinas, he offers that justice is according to God’s plan; God’s will is secondary to this – He acts according to the order He conceived. Therefore, law is not an expression of God’s will, but of God’s reasoned plan. Hence, law is an expression of reason – even for God.
I know there is this question: can God act contrary to this reason? For Aquinas the answer is no, and anyway, why would He – or, more specifically, why would He have to do so? God was quite capable of creating an order that would not require Him to act in a manner that was contradictory or arbitrary when compared to this order.
Aquinas’s definition of law is offered:
An ordination of reason for the common good, made by one with authority and promulgated.
Proper human justice takes this into account, along with the right ordering in human acts – both horizontally and vertically. For this, there are three key elements: first, an ordering; second, according to reason, third, to the good. The key issue when it comes to the downfall of the liberal order since the is this question of “good.” What is the “good”? This will come later.
With this, Fr. Legge is ready to take up the question of rights: does Aquinas have a theory of individual rights? It is often thought, incorrectly, that he does not. But it is through Thomas where an issue often raised against the Enlightenment – the explosion of individual so-called rights – can be addressed.
Aquinas does speak of objective rights, ius, that an individual can assert. The Latin word can translate into rights, the just thing, fair, or w
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