Thursday, November 3, 2022

The teleological foundations of human rights

My essay “The Teleological Foundations of Human Rights” appears in The Cambridge Handbook of Natural Law and Human Rights, edited by Tom Angier, Iain Benson, and Mark Retter and out this month.  Here’s the abstract:

Natural law theory in the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition is grounded in a metaphysics of essentialism and teleology, and in turn grounds a theory of natural rights. This chapter offers a brief exposition of the metaphysical ideas in question, explains how the A-T tradition takes a natural law moral system to follow from them, and also explains how in turn the existence of certain basic natural rights follows from natural law. It then explains how the teleological foundations of natural law entail not only that natural rights exist, but also that they are limited or qualified in certain crucial ways. The right to free speech is used as a case study to illustrate these points. Finally, the chapter explains the sense in which the natural rights doctrine generated by A-T natural law theory amounts to a theory of human rights, specifically.

Follow the link to check out the table of contents and excellent roster of contributors to the volume.


  1. Neat. This way of getting to human rights is one of the cooler parts of the view, i had never heard something similar before knowing A-T take.

    But i do wonder myself if using the language is a good thing, for it seems to lead to one thinking of more popular views of human rights, whose emphasis on autonomy tend to just take us quite far from thomism or most classical ethical views.

    1. It's not new, actually (but well-argued in Thomism):

      Catechism of the Catholic Church 1929: "The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him"
      CCC 1930: "Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it.". Edmunde Burke was very allergic to these principles.

      The article should be a great contribution to the handbook. Some of the other titles look very interesting too.

    2. I have heard and seen many people raise this as a caution against using the language of "rights" at all. While it makes sense to be wary precisely for the reason Talmid offers, I am not sure we have a good escape route that avoids speaking in terms of "rights" and indeed "natural rights". The problem is that even more basic to "rightS" is "the right" as in "the good" kind of action, opposed to the wrong kind of action, and we can't really eliminate right in that context. We might come up with a parallel word or phrase to use, I suppose, but even that wouldn't eradicate that "natural right" still has a valid meaning equal to that new phrase. And since the connection to natural law is critical, and since "natural law" isn't going anywhere as a term, I think we are pretty much stuck. We just have to insist on the distinctions.

    3. @Miguel Cervantes

      True, the cathecism does use the language. I tend to associate it with St. Pope John Paul II, but i supposed it started earlier.


      Yea, this is the problem. We do need to find a way out, but it feels like the natural rights folks won that one.

      The best i can think of is starting to focus, say, on talking on the wrongness of taking life or in the goodness of supporting human life instead of talking of a right to life,, but it sounds weird.

    4. The "language" certainly started long before. It's inseparable from the Christian idea of human personality as something towards which society is oriented. The article mentioned in this post is about this Christian concept of human rights. It's very clear in St, Thomas but less so in Aristotle, for whom natural law was not necessarily universal and timeless. The teleological approach is also lacking in Aristotle's purely secularist view. Chesterton was surely right when (referring to philosophies of the Far East and Asia) he said that nothing had been thought up there which the Mediterranean had not already thought of. Standing apart from all this, the Christian view - going back to the Patriarchs of the OT, is unique.

    5. Correct, my man. I was just referring to the way we say that someone has a natural right to this or that. I dont remember seeing this on Aquinas, for instance, even if the saint argued for what we would call natural rights.

    6. St. Thomas didn't need to. In his day, Burkean-type ideologies did not yet exist. They maintain that individual rights are established, not by nature, but by civil society. Since the eighteenth century, because of the spread of such ideas (and that of distorted liberal "natural law" ideologies), the Church had to speak more explicitly of rights based on nature.

    7. This is the right approach, however, from what I've read so far it's overcomplicated by Aristotle and Aquinas. The Greek model for human rights is not universal but tied to the idea of AUTOCHTHONY and would JUSTIFY chattel slavery.
      Paul addressed AUTOCHTHONY directly in his Mars hill discourse in Acts 17 countering the dispute concerning birth from a particular area to one BLOOD, in law a common human consanguinity which having the evidence of mixed races or ethnicities is evidence of common humanity due therefore common equity (dikaiosune, see Aristotle BOOK 5 NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS).
      He then established the common observation that in one theos all live and move and have being which relates back to the first observation that they had many gods each of which protected certain classes of rights when given obeisance. The unknown one Theos being the god upon whom even the other gods demiurgos we're dependent.
      Then he established the ideal judge who could advocate the natural rights of those in the image of the invisible Theos who is not in the image or location chosen by men but has established equity in the image of God in the god man in whom are all actual subjective rights obvious by natural law made objective because HE will judge in that equity, justice, righteousness, dikaiosune, mishpat and God has given proof of this by raising him from the dead signifying he is eternal and has the power over life and death for all in his image.
      Paul draws this human rights argument directly from the old testament description of messiah the Christ not Greek philosophy he has simply explained it so that greeks could understand it. This is the same structure used in the prologue to John's Gospel, beginning with IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE LOGOS, the logos became flesh, that becoming flesh gave us equity and the authority to claim the title of an inheritance of rights i.e THE SONS OF GOD, our duty then, his law is to love and protect the legitimate rights of others as we love and protect our own rights, knowing these rights came from God by grace and the truth concerning the fact of the matter that is the Christ.
      I don't see how philosophy can improve on this although it may help to understand it, but it doesn't improve upon but rather is corrected by the new testament based on the two great commandments with respect to God's rights and our rights in common as neighbors and the explanation in the prophets such as ISAIAH who goes into great detail on the subject of equity of rights in the human image of God YHVHJESUS.

    8. @Miguel

      That does make sense. It is true that on Europe at the saint time no one would disagree with the idea of natural rights, not even the gnostics, i suppose.

      Boy, thinks have gotten worse!


      That is a neat thinking. Locke style arguments are a interesting theistic view of natural law but the neighbors connection we have thanks to Our God is a more christian basis of the view.

      It even reminds me of the stoics. Marcus Aurelius talked about something similar. Of course, the hebrews started things way earlier.

      *i think that Epicurus was born a bit latter

  2. Do nice people go to Heaven?

    Let's imagine a nice Catholic. He prays, he keeps all of the ten commandments, obeys all church directives, gives alms to the poor, and does regular missionary activity providing Bibles and building schools in Africa. He dies and goes to Heaven, where people admire just how nice he is. But he looks around and sees actually good people, people with special abilities and excellence, and he realizes how unworthy he is of Heaven, and he cannot abide in their presence. So he exits Heaven and never returns.

    Now, being nice is certainly better than being evil... but it doesn't get you much. How does one become good instead of nice?

    1. Huh?

      I don't know where your conception of heaven comes from, but it's certainly not the one the Church ascribes to. You don't go to heaven by being "good" in any sense of the word. Nobody merits heaven because no matter how good we are, it pales in comparison to God's goodness. You go to heaven by cooperating with God's gift of grace in your life, with the principle way of doing that by being, as you describe, "a nice Catholic."

      The principle joy of heaven is the beatific vision, which is to say the happiness you get in heaven comes from the fact that you are in communion with God. The scenario where you described a "nice Catholic" turning away from heaven because they are not "good" enough just simply would not happen.

    2. Courage. The Way by St. Jose Maria Escriva is a good daily meditation for men looking to be tougher. They’re each one sentence long so it’s not a big time commitment either. When someone is nice to a fault, it’s usually based in fear and lack of confidence in what the Lord has given you. I’m going through this same struggle right now and I’m glad to be able to share what I’ve learned. God bless.

    3. @Journey 516 Fr. Josémaria's opus dei is very similar to the Jewish belief of tikkun haolam

      "Judaism is not for good people, it is good for people." - Rabbi Abby Jacobson

      Even though I'm Catholic, my soul has greatly benefited from studying Judaism.

    4. But Judaism isn't for "people". It's for the Jews, theoretically. At least I haven't noticed any proselytism by this religion.

    5. @Infinite _Growth

      Even the biggest saint did not merit Heaven, but that is okay, for Our Lord offer is one were all you have to do is accept it. By accepting it you become a temple of the Holy Spirit and so pretty much slowly start to act like a good catholic, but it is not the good acts, it is Our Lord union with you.

      Someday i said how it seems like i never do anything good and how bad iam to receive this offer, and the answer i got was "that is good, but do not focus on that too much". What this means is that we must never forget that we do not merit Heaven, but we also should not bother to much for it, for we can accept the gift, it is your Judge that offers it.

    6. @Talmid Almost nobody merits salvation... except for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

      But Judaism isn't for "people". It's for the Jews, theoretically. At least I haven't noticed any proselytism by this religion.

      This is a common myth among Christians, that Judaism was some kind of clannish horder of salvation until J-sus came and brought it to everyone. Judaism does not, never has, and never will teach that only Jews can receive salvation. Non-Jews can receive salvation, but they have a different set of commandments to follow (Noachide code). And G-d asks a lot less from a non-Jew so that's why they strongly discourage conversion.

    7. But he looks around and sees actually good people, people with special abilities and excellence, and he realizes how unworthy he is of Heaven,

      In addition to the replies above, I want to focus on this notion. First, "special abilities" never was any aspect of being "qualified" for heaven. Take, for example, St. Peter. If you examine his behavior in the Gospels and Acts, you find a guy - a mere fisherman - who constantly puts his foot in his mouth, who berates God, and who runs away from a friend in great need. Eventually, he did clean up his act, but - as with all the saints - he attributed this to favors he was granted out of God's overflowing gifts, not out of his own merit.

      "and excelllence". Again the ONLY excellence that technically qualifies is the love of God by which you act rightly in all your acts, and this is (again) always due to God's beneficent favor, not our own merit. All we can claim is to have remained in cooperation with said grace, rather than repudiating it. St. Francis said that greater good would be found in a man merely picking a piece of straw out of the road, if done with perfect love of God, than in a great many great sacrifices suffered with imperfect love.

      What you are confusing in "excellences" is the acts of HEROIC virtues by which the Church locates and confirms canonized saints, with the actual excellence needed, perfect love. But the life of a nun in a contemplative cloister, who spends her entire life just FOLLOWING THE RULE with perfect charity, (and without any call by God to endure situations demanding heroic virtue), has just as much claim on being in heaven as some highly acclaimed saint who performed many wonders and miracles with love of God, or a saint who bore great visible sufferings for love of God. The Church never expects to canonize all those who go to heaven: she uses the test of heroic virtue as an empirical source of evidence for the required love of God, but she does not deny the same love might persist in many who do not demonstrate it VISIBLY in great events.

      And if you die in the state of grace but highly imperfect in your love of God, your time in Purgatory will correct that, and you will get to heaven with perfect love of God - just like the acclaimed and cannonized saints.

  3. Can someone recommend a more beginner level essay on this topic? Infest this might be too meaty and am a little wary of purchasing it

    1. Perhaps Ed "Classical natural law theory, property rights and taxation", would be a good reading.

  4. Is there any other way we could have access to this essay? Because nobody is going to pay 200 dollars for the book.

    1. I wonder if asking for the book from your library (either as its own copy, or through Inter Library Loan), would cause some libraries to buy the book? And if so, should we ALL go out and ask for the book from our library, to increase demand?

      Or would that just prove to the publishers that they are charging a reasonable price for the book?

      Without demanding an accounting of whether the publishers paid the individual authors for their contributions (which I heavily doubt), it seems quite implausible that they are not planning on a hefty, hefty profit at that rate, even even if you assume extremely limited sales being only to universities and large libraries. I am not strongly inclined to participate in that kind of racket.

  5. I’m not convinced of the difference between what you call an objective right (i.e., the object, aim, or end of justice or just acts or inaction) and a subjective right (i.e., the subject by which one would expect a just act or inaction by virtue of the right or obligation). Both would seem to involve the line where right, and its correlative duty, is drawn, a line drawn by human reason. Please advise.