Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?: personalism and the foundations of human rights

Thomas D. Williams
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 358
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  • Book Info
    Who is my neighbor?
    Book Description:

    Who Is My Neighbor? makes an original, compelling case for human rights as moral entitlements grounded in the dignity of the human person.

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1666-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Mary Ann Glendon

    In 1998, while immersed in the history of the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I gave a lecture at Notre Dame University titled, “Foundations of Human Rights: The Unfinished Business.”¹ I deplored a fact I had only just discovered: that so little progress had been made on a project that the framers of that 1948 document had left for future generations, the task of demonstrating that universal human rights could be placed on a solid philosophical basis. With a postmodern deconstruction derby threatening to make nonsense of the Declaration, I expressed the hope that philosophers and theologians...

    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    Human rights language poses serious problems that require a reasoned response. The ubiquity of references to human rights in secular and ecclesiastical circles could give the impression that a common understanding exists regarding rights. Such an impression vanishes, however, when one listens closely. It seems that everyone—within the Catholic Church and without—talks about rights, but the more they talk, the less they agree.¹ In fact, many users of rights language do not even share enough common ground to have an argument, much less a dialogue or discussion. Some of the disagreements are superficial, but many go deep, so...

    • [PART ONE. Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      Many arguments end once terms are carefully defined. How many times do people ardently debate issues only to find that their differences boil down to equivocal terminology? How often do we assume that others share our perception of the terms and concepts we use, only to learn much later that such a common understanding never existed at all? A clarification of terms seems especially necessary to traverse the linguistic minefield of human rights. Not only does the abstract concept of rights lend itself to a variety of interpretations, but the term itself has suffered disfigurement in political and cultural debates...

      (pp. 3-13)

      IF ASKED TO LIST SPECIFIC human rights, most people raised nowadays in the Western tradition could easily come up with a considerable number. Answers would range from the right to life and liberty to the right to free speech and from the right to assembly and self-expression to reproductive rights. Yet if these same people were asked for a definition of rights, most would flounder. While nearly everyone has at least a rudimentary notion of rights, especially as regards their particular instantiations, the concept itself often remains nebulous and elusive. A good definition of rights, however, is of more than...

      (pp. 14-30)

      The difficulty of defining rights is further aggravated by the appendage of numerous adjectives to the noun “rights,” resulting in a broad range of “classes” of rights. Thus even a good definition of rights still does not tell the whole story. Rights often appear together with modifiers that alter their meaning, sometimes substantially. Human rights are not the same as civil rights, and positive rights are not the same as negative rights. In fact, the term positive rights means one thing when contrasted with negative rights and another thing altogether when contrasted with natural rights. Other adjectives—inviolable, objective, subjective,...

      (pp. 31-48)

      To the surprise of many—and the dismay of some—the Catholic Church has not only kept pace with the rest of society in its espousal of rights language, it has led the way in introducing such language into social dialogue and has stood out as a defender of human rights on the international scene.¹ Even in the midst of mounting misgivings about rights talk, especially among cultural and political conservatives, the Catholic Church has assumed a leading role in promoting human rights and adopts rights language in her teaching.

      The documents of the Second Vatican Council, notably Dignitatis Humanae...

    • [PART TWO. Introduction]
      (pp. 49-52)

      Though human rights are more accepted today than ever before, they are not without serious opponents. In the political arena some countries—China comes immediately to mind—refuse to subscribe to international rights accords for reasons of political expediency. Accepting the notion of universal human rights would lead to practical consequences and policy changes to which such countries are unwilling to submit. Other opponents resist for more theoretical reasons. Some simply do not agree that persons deserve the sorts of things proposed in human rights documents. A certain mindset considers the individual human person as subordinate to the collectivity and...

      (pp. 53-64)

      AMONG THE PHILOSOPHERS who reject wholly or in part the concept of human rights, perhaps none does so in as bold and thoroughgoing a manner as the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (1929–). For this reason, as well as for his status as a believing Catholic, MacIntyre makes a good representative for those who oppose rights on behalf of philosophy in the classical and Christian tradition. MacIntyre’s objections fall into three basic arguments:¹ an argument by default, whereby MacIntyre asserts that no compelling explanation of human rights has yet been made; an argument that rights are unintelligible without local social...

      (pp. 65-81)

      A SECOND REPRESENTATIVE of the reaction against rights language is Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (1950–), political philosopher from Oxford, England. While MacIntyre attempts to show the philosophical nonexistence of rights, O’Donovan adopts a different approach. She argues that the concept of rights is inseparable from its origins in an Enlightenment, Liberal philosophy that is simply incompatible with Christian theology.

      In March 1996, O’Donovan presented a provocative paper entitled “The Concept of Rights in Christian Moral Discourse” at a two-day colloquium on Christian approaches to natural law sponsored by the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center as part of its Evangelical...

      (pp. 82-104)

      A THIRD ARGUMENT against rights comes from Ernest L. Fortin (1923– 2002), a Straussian who for years taught Catholic theology and political theory at Boston College, where he also codirected the Institute for the Study of Politics and Religion. As a theologian and political philosopher, Fortin saw “a number of tensions inherent in the Church’s current position on social matters,” many of which are linked directly with the Church’s endorsement of human rights.¹

      As a classicist, Fortin was particularly concerned by the innovation of rights theory vis-à-vis traditional ethical theory. In his many essays on the topic, he argues that...

    • [PART THREE. Introduction]
      (pp. 105-107)

      A solid theory of human rights demands more than the ability to parry contrary arguments. After the pars destruens comes the more essential pars construens. And since sound moral theory depends on a sound philosophical anthropology, rights theory will stand or fall with its understanding of the human person. With these points in mind, personalism appears as a particularly well-suited candidate for the role of building up a cogent human rights ethics.

      Several steps are involved in this process. First, an adequate grasp of personalistic theory is necessary in order to understand why Thomistic personalism, rooted in the metaphysics and...

      (pp. 108-124)

      THE TITLE “personalism” can legitimately be applied to any school of thought or intellectual movement that focuses on the reality of the person (human, angelic, divine) and on his unique dignity, insisting on the radical distinction between persons and all other beings (nonpersons).¹ As a philosophical school, personalism draws its foundations from human reason and experience, though historically personalism has nearly always been attached to Biblical theism.²

      Maritain hastens to point out that personalism represents a big tent under which many different lines of thought take refuge. Far from being a single school, personalism splits into multiform manifestations, each with...

      (pp. 125-145)

      PERSONALISM is not in the first place a theory of the person or a theoretical science of the person. It focuses rather on the person as subject and object of activity and thus deals fundamentally with practical and ethical questions. Nonetheless, since every ethical theory depends on its underlying suppositions about the person, a proper anthropology is essential.

      Thomistic personalism elaborates on the constitutive elements of Thomas’s understanding of the person and draws from them the key insight that will make possible a satisfactory grounding of human rights, namely, that persons are unique not only as rational subjects of action...

      (pp. 146-164)

      WHEN THE OBJECT of one’s action is a person, an ethical structure enters into play that is absent when the object of one’s action is a thing. Thus without ignoring the immanence of human action and its effects on the character of the moral agent, personalists lay special emphasis on the transitive nature of human acts and the dignity of the one being acted upon, i.e., the reason why this ethical dimension emerges. The fundamental question personalists ask in this regard is: How is the human person to be treated?

      The question of human rights is, in the final analysis,...

    • 10. THE TWO LOVES
      (pp. 165-181)

      WOJTYŁA DIVIDES ALL FREE HUMAN ACTION into using (incorporating other realities into one’s own ends) and loving (affirming others as an end in themselves). He furthermore defines love as treating others as an end and never as a mere means. The truth of these two claims is not immediately self-evident. If the psychological sciences have taught us anything, it is that human behavior is an extremely complex and knotty business. Can all transitive human action really be broken into use and love? Second, in the many definitions of love on the market, treating others as an end seldom appears. By...

      (pp. 182-203)

      THE FOREGOING EXPOSITION, especially as regards Wojtyła’s personalistic principle, offers the elements needed to determine the fundamental content of the “special regard” to which human persons are entitled by reason of their dignity. Human dignity gives rise to a primordial right from which other rights flow.¹ Each and every human being is to be treated as a person, that is, loved as an end and never merely used as a means. In this sense, love—to be treated as an acting subject with a transcendental purpose and never as a mere means—constitutes the content of the regard due to...

      (pp. 204-216)

      PHILOSOPHY DOES NOT have the final word on natural rights. A personalistic analysis of human rights takes place fundamentally on the level of natural law, since natural rights as such are comprehensible as principles of justice.¹ Nonetheless, divine revelation adds much to the discussion and both confirms and exceeds what human reason alone can grasp. Christian personalism—Thomistic personalism in particular—benefits greatly from revelation for its understanding of the human person and his vocation to communion with God and is thereby able to offer even surer footing for human rights than can be provided by a personalism that relies...

    • [PART FOUR. Introduction]
      (pp. 217-218)

      The firm theoretical grounding of human rights provided by Thomistic personalism harmonizes perfectly with traditional natural law theory, as many authors affirm.¹ The frequent accusations made to the contrary—such as those by William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, who views an emphasis on natural rights as a “drift toward secularization” since rights themselves constitute “a secularization of natural law”²—stem either from an insufficient understanding of Thomistic personalism (already remedied in Part III), or from an insufficient grasp of classical natural law theory. An accurate and robust vision of that theory, in fact, has been one...

    • 13. NATURAL LAW
      (pp. 219-255)

      THE FACT OF HUMAN FREE WILL—which entails the power to act or refrain from acting, to deliberate, evaluate, and choose among different courses of action—necessitates criteria from which to judge alternatives and arrive at practical decisions. Unlike irrational animals, the human person does not act out of necessity but may exercise free choice. When he acts, man naturally pursues some form of sensible or intelligible good.¹ At the same time, his evaluation of alternative actions goes beyond the categories of what is possible, useful, or pleasurable to include the moral categories of what is “right” and what is...

      (pp. 256-282)

      THE CARDINAL VIRTUE OF JUSTICE holds the primary place in the matrix of natural law precepts.¹ Human reason is capable of discerning that certain things are naturally due to other human beings by a quality of their humanity termed dignity. To understand how natural rights square with natural law theory, and especially with the classical understanding of natural justice, the concept of justice and particularly the central notion of “due” (debitum) must be in harmony with the idea of subjective rights as a moral power to demand one’s due.

      Several steps are involved in showing this harmony. Thinkers throughout history...

      (pp. 283-300)

      ESTABLISHING THE CENTRAL POSITION of natural justice within the global framework of the natural law is vital for locating natural rights within classical ethical theory. It is the essential tie of rights to natural justice that will guarantee the place of natural rights within natural law theory and thus verify the compatibility of rights with traditional ethics.

      Among those of the classical tradition who accept the concept of natural rights, there is nearly universal agreement that rights form part of the virtue of justice.¹ Intuitively, since the virtue of justice orders all interpersonal relations, and rights are ethical principles dealing...

      (pp. 302-320)

      The personalist approach affirms that every human person, regardless of intelligence, talents, social class, skin color, religious affiliation, or other distinguishing characteristics, has a right to be loved. Basic natural rights, beginning with the right to be loved for one’s own sake, are predicated universally of all human beings. The radical difference between persons and nonpersons leaves no room for distinctions among persons on this level, since “personhood” does not admit of degrees : either one is, or is not, a person. No one is “more” a person than anyone else. For this reason, all human beings are essentially equal...

    (pp. 321-334)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 335-342)