Posts tagged with: Natural and legal rights

Today at Ethika Politika, I critique David Bentley Hart’s recent (non-)response to the critics of his attack on natural law in public discourse last month, appearing in the most recent issue of First Things. My article, “Hart’s (Non-)Response to His Critics: Trying to Have It Both Ways?” is a response to Hart’s recent article, “Si Fueris Romae.”

While Hart’s most recent article may seem unrelated, it starts to sound remarkably similar to his article on natural law from last month about half way through. It is this convergence between the two that I examine and critique.

Ultimately, Hart seems to be trying to “have it both ways” when it comes to natural law. I find this to be particularly evident from his conclusion, in which he criticizes US policy toward China, writing,

Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

While at Ethika Politika I critique his reliance upon the concept of natural rights even while claiming that only our “cultural context … makes it intelligible,” there is another point to consider here. Putting aside the inconsistency of his principles, would his recommendation — more restricted “fiscal or trade policy” — really have the effect that he hopes? (more…)

If inalienable rights are, as many people seem to believe, rights which the government cannot take away, does it follow that government can then take away rights that are alienable?

As James Rogers explains, it is no less wrong for the government to take away an “alienable” right than it is for the government to take away an “inalienable” right. The difference between the two isn’t that one can be taken away while the other cannot but that an inalienable right cannot be given away by the person who has it:

The Declaration borrows the word from property law. An “alienable” right over property means that the property can be sold or given away by the owner. Property that is “inalienable” cannot be transferred by the owner. The dramatic backdrop in several of Jane Austen’s novels, notably including Pride and Prejudice, comes from property that is inalienable. The estate in the story has been “entailed” to the first-born male of each generation. While Mr. Bennett has use of the property during his lifetime, because he has no son, the property will go automatically to Mr. Collins on his death. Mr. Bennett cannot sell the land permanently (although he can rent the land out during his lifetime), and he cannot give it away to his wife, daughters, or to anyone else. Ownership of the estate in inalienable; this inalienability limits what Mr. Bennett can do with the estate.

Rogers goes on to make the important point that there are certain rights that individuals aren’t free to give away because, according to Jesus and John Locke, we are owned by God and not self-owned beings. Read the rest of Rogers excellent essay here.

Does the Vatican think water should be ‘free’?” asked Kishore Jayabalan in his post examining the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s latest document on water. Although he is now the director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute’s Rome office, Jayabalan formerly worked for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control.

In his post, Jayabalan referenced the analysis of George McGraw, the Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, a human rights and development NGO headquartered in Los Angeles. Mr. McGraw asked if we’d be interested in providing a counter-argument from a conservative perspective, so we’ve decided to publish his response below:

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A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).