Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jacques Maritain and Natural Law: Orchestrating Natural Human Rights

THERE IS A WATERSHED DISTINCTION between natural law and its ontological immutability, on the one hand, and human knowledge of it, on the other. With respect to the latter, though not the former, there may be "progress and relativity." Lack of knowledge of the natural law, however, can be overcome. But there can be another problem associated with man's knowledge of the immutable natural law in addition to lack of knowledge. Even if one learns of a right afforded by natural law, there is "especially a tendency to inflate and make absolute, limitless, unrestricted in every respect, the rights of which we are aware, thus blinding ourselves to any other right which would counterbalance them." Man is somewhat like a myopic patient at an optometrist who demands corrective lenses so as to see better far away, but in his insistence and zeal to improve his vision he over-corrects, and so walks out hyperopic, unable to see things close by. Man sometimes sees the forest, and not the trees. Sometimes he sees the trees and not the forest. He has trouble seeing both the forest and the trees, but the truth embraces both parts and the whole. Modern man, at least he of "liberal-individualistic" bent, sees only the trees of individualism, and fails to see the forest of life in common. Those with "communistic" or "socialistic" tendencies, see only forest, and fail to see the individual trees. Someone with a "personalist" view, such as Pope John Paul II or Jacques Maritain, will endeavor to embrace both marvelous truths: that the forest is made of individual trees, and the individual trees make up a forest, and it is important to preserve and protect both.

Thus, in practice, we find man struggling, especially during revolutionary periods, between "old" rights and "new" rights, which usually are fights between those who see forest and those who see trees. So, for example, during the American labor struggles in the 20th century, the "old" rights of private property, the "sacred" right of contract were over-exaggerated, and "new" rights of association and a living, just wage under-exaggerated. It is quite arguable, that during the height of labor's power, the opposite was the case: labor's "old" rights evolved into compulsory union membership, and these have impinged upon the freedom of association and the right to work without being forced to join a union. In Soviet Russia, the "old" rights of the laborer suppressed and eclipsed the right to private ownership of property, which upon the fall of communism became the "new" right. Similarly, "new" rights of affirmative action overcame the discriminative "old" rights of racist or sexist foundation which prevented the authentic social and economic development of black Americans or women. And yet now, ironically and equally viciously, the "old" rights of affirmative action or abortion may have resulted in reverse discrimination against white males and the unborn equally as vicious as (and in the case of abortion, more vicious than) the old. Man, it seems, is perennially off-balance.

In this see-saw of rights struggle, Maritain saw in his day the "most urgent problems" arising in the areas of "the rights of the primordial society which is family society," and the "rights of the human being as he is engaged in the function of labor."*

The problem, of course, is that none of these natural human rights--even those that are "absolute"--are unconditional, or limitless, or infinite. It is a horrible, if fundamental mistake, to attribute to any one particular human right unconditionality, absoluteness, and limitlessness that should only be given to a divine attribute. It is wrong to divinize any one human right, and certainly a travesty to divinize a seeming, but not real, human "right."** Such divinization is nothing less than a form of idolatry. Moreover, natural human rights must not be analyzed singly only, but aggregately also, since one human right might find its limit when it touches upon and infringes another human right. Individual human rights have therefore no more claim to right than social or economic human rights. The rights of the individual have no more claim to right than the right of the common good. All have equal claim of right, and their claims must be balanced in a sort of orchestration or harmonious ensemble of rights.

That the various rights ascribed to the human being limit each other, particularly that the economic and social rights, the rights of man as a person involved in the life of the community, cannot be given room in human history without restricting, to some extent, the freedoms and rights of man as an individual person, is only normal.

Maritain, 73. In the balancing of these ensemble of human rights there is much room for diversity and varied judgment, and the goal is not some particular mathematical model, but more a sort of harmonious blend or synthesis. This is the charge of the political leadership, the statesman:
What creates irreducible differences and antagonisms among men is the determination of the degree of such restriction [on various individual, economic, or social human rights], and more generally the determination of the scale of values that governs the exercise and concrete organization of these various rights. Here we are confronted with the clash between incompatible political philosophies. Because here we are no longer dealing with the simple recognition of the diverse categories of human rights, but with the principle of dynamic unification in accordance with which they are carried into effect; we are dealing with the tonality, the specific key, by virtue of which different music is placed on this same keyboard, either in harmony or in discord with human dignity.
Maritain, 73. The prudential judgments in arranging these rights will be affected by one's values. One therefore would expect that a man or a society with a "liberal-individualistic" bent would arrange or orchestrate these rights in a markedly different way than one who envisions a "communistic," for example, or a "personalistic," as another example, type of society. So even if one subscribes to the notion of natural human rights (and there is some question on whether a materialist liberal or a materialist communist can), one's socio-politico-philosophical pre-dispositions or predelictions (what Maritain calls one's "hierarchy of values") could result in an ensemble of these rights that is off tune, and in some cases even anti-human.

Maritain rejects the "liberal-individualistic" and "communist" model both. He plants himself squarely in the "personalist" camp. Lex Christianorum joins him there.

[T]he advocates of a personalistic type of society see the mark of human dignity first and foremost in the power to make these same goods of nature serve the common conquest of intrinsically human, moral, and spiritual goods and of man's freedom of [legitimate] autonomy.

Maritain, 74.
*One should recall that these statements come from Maritain's Man and the State published in the early 1950s. He clearly did not foresee (who could?) the assault in developed Western societies on conjugal rights and on the right of life itself as societies acquiesced to the hyper-developed and over-exaggerated rights of the "sexual revolution" in the 1960s and 1970s and its claim to the right to artificially contraceptive sex which morphed into the clamor for the right to naturally contraceptive sex of the homosexual at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.
**Examples of the latter would be a "right" to freedom of expression as to pornography, a "right" to contraceptive or homosexual or other perverse sex, a "right" to an abortion or to euthanasia, or a "right" to scientific research involving human embryonic stem cells. These are apparent, seeming, non-existent "rights" because they involve intrinsically immoral acts that cannot be the bearer of any claim of right any more than a vacuum can support flame.

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