The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.