Rights and Justice

St. Thomas makes rights the object of justice, and they are recognizable as rights in our own sense (e.g. they are divided into natural and legal rights, and slaves as slaves do not have any). One important difference is that, by locating them in the context of justice, rights are properly had by others. It is certainly true that I have rights, but when I say this I am considering them so far as they can make someone else just.  To consider rights as my own leaves them recognizable as rights, but it prescinds from the context that could make me a good, virtuous, happy person.

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3 Comments

  1. CJ Wolfe said,

    December 17, 2012 at 9:18 am

    The position by Aquinas that you’ve stated here is still enough to ground rights ontologically and therefore Marxist-type Thomists such as Alasdair MacIntyre are wrong when they say that rights are the ontological equivalent of “Unicorns and Witches.” Right may just be a particular expression of the Thomistic concept of justice, but they still exist,

    • December 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Bringing in MacIntyre takes the discussion beyond my own competence, but I do have experience with a sort of Neo-Thomist who denies there are any such things as rights. The position goes too far – what STA calls ius or iura are the primary object of justice, and they are perfectly recognizable as what we call rights. That said, when we insist that the primary possessor of rights is the self as opposed to the other, then rights become a principle of self-interest, not of justice. Self-interest is good, but it’s not a virtue; it’s just a given of human nature (though speaking of enlightened self-interest might link it up to prudence). So tying rights to the self as opposed to the other moves them from being principles of virtue to being aspects of self-interest. One could see why some would take this as an essential change.

  2. Hmmm said,

    December 21, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I’m confused- wouldn’t your position be more in line with the school of Neo-Thomism than something more in the MacIntyre’s view?

    And what would you say to the hard Augustinian, Pascal?

    “On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it…

    “Certainly, had he known it, he would not have established this maxim, the most general of all that obtain among men, that each should follow the custom of his own country. The glory of true equity would have brought all nations under subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of this unchanging justice. We would have seen it set up in all the States on earth and in all times; whereas we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession; right has its epochs; the entry of Saturn into the Lion marks to us the origin of such and such a crime. A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.
    Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law.”

    and again:

    “Nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself; all changes with time. Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just obeys a justice which is imaginary and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more. He who will examine its motive will find it so feeble and so trifling that, if he be not accustomed to contemplate the wonders of human imagination, he will marvel that one century has gained for it so much pomp and reverence. The art of opposition and of revolution is to unsettle established customs, sounding them even to their source, to point out their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, get back to the natural and fundamental laws of the State, which an unjust custom has abolished. It is a game certain to result in the loss of all; nothing will be just on the balance. Yet people readily lend their ear to such arguments. They shake off the yoke as soon as they recognise it; and the great profit by their ruin and by that of these curious investigators of accepted customs.”


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