Posts tagged with: rights

magna4James V. Schall, SJ, reflects on the importance of the Magna Carta – perhaps the best-known historical document in the world – at The Catholic News Report.

What was this famous legal document really like? What did it do? Some, like Oliver Cromwell, thought it was useless. Others did not think it particularly unique, since there were already hundreds of such charters throughout Europe. Others saw it as the basis of political responsibility, by limiting kingly rule. Still others considered it as the beginnings of natural “rights,” a doctrine, as Hobbes would later show, of most perplexing memory. The document is revealing to read. It is filled with medieval law issues and phrases. Yet it contains a thread of principle on which many nations—Canada, Australia, South Africa, the United States, India, and other former Commonwealth countries—have retained.


rights-are-not-gitsIn his recent announcement that he was running for president, Sen. Ted Cruz’s said “our rights don’t come from man, they come from God Almighty.”

That raised some eyebrows in our secular culture. For example, Meredith Shiner, a Yahoo reporter, tweeted:”Bizarre to talk about how rights are God-made and not man-made in your speech announcing a POTUS bid? When Constitution was man-made?”

The idea that the “unalienable Rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence don’t come from God is considered obvious to many secularists. But if our rights don’t come from God, where do they come from? The obvious answer is “the State.” And as Matt Lewis points out, that means the state can take them away:

rightstalkAre you sick to death of hearing about the recent Hobby Lobby contraceptive mandate kerfuffle? Me too. Yes, it’s one of the most important religious liberty cases in decades. But the constant debates about the case on blogs, newspapers, TV, radio, and social media, has left even those of us concerned about freedom beaten and exhausted. Besides, what is left to discuss? Is there really anything new that can be said?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be “yes, there is.”

Earlier this week Megan McArdle wrote one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on the issue (and I’ve read enough about it to make my eyes bleed). McArdle outlines three points that frame the debate and lead us into bitter disagreements:

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

Earlier this month I attended the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” in Amsterdam.

One of the papers presented was from Jan Jorrit Hasselaar, who discussed the inclusion of non-human entities into democratic deliberation in his talk, “Sustainable Development as a Social Question.” I got the impression (this is my analogy, not Hasselaar’s) that there was some need for a kind of tribune (for plants instead of plebeians), who would speak up for the interests of those who could not speak for themselves.

The framing of the issue of the dignity of animals, plants, and the natural environment more broadly connected the integration of these interests into our public discourse as analogous to the civil rights revolutions concerning race and sex in the West over the previous century. The following video makes an argument in similar terms:


20120528-091603.jpgLast week I wondered about the student protests here in Quebec and the logic of the welfare state. In some conversations on these topics, I was challenged to consider the social meaning of phenomena like this (e.g. public protests of one kind or another). I’ll have some more to say about that later this week, I think, but for now, I think that it is true that from a certain point of view, regardless of the merits of an individual case or instance, the right to assemble, associate, protest, and campaign for a particular viewpoint is one of the curious strengths of modern democracies.

It’s a point especially worth considering on Memorial Day in the United States. The Transom (a fine publication that is well-worth its subscription price) passed along comments from this past February, delivered by Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to the Gold Star parents. The whole thing is worth reading on and reflecting on in full. But these lines stuck out to me in particular:

And you know that any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen — the defense of country — they welcomed it.

Our kids were the best of the best of their generation, and in their unselfishness put every American ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and our people owe a debt they can never fully pay. Their reward for service is the legacy they left behind: selfless valor, the Country we live in, and the freedoms so many take for granted.

What are the freedoms we so often take for granted? They include the right to peaceful demonstration (a key word here being peaceful). This is a right that is respected and fought for by those who may not share the sentiments of those who demonstrate or protest. This is a feature of public space in much of the developed world that is unique to modern democracies: the rights of minority viewpoints to make their case in a public forum.

Indeed, a very common sentiment you’ll hear from military service members is something like this: “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll fight and defend your right to disagree.”

From this perspective, then, even something as morally odious as the demonstrations of the Westboro Baptist Church, and certainly more mundane demonstrations like those of disaffected students, are unintended testimonies to the sacrifices of those that have served, suffered, and died in military service. In the case of Westboro, the very soldiers that the protesters use as an occasion for grandstanding have sacrificed to protect the protesters’ right to be so greatly mistaken.

This, I think, is something worth remembering this Memorial Day.

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).