Voices November 13, 2018
Natural law takes us beyond ‘dogmatism of rights’
On the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, French President Emmanuel Macron solemnly warned of the dangers posed by today’s political trends towards populism and authoritarianism.
“The old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos and of death,” he said in Paris, speaking to a gathering of world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe.
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he argued.
“In saying, ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.”
Macron warned that this amoral nationalism poses a real threat to peace. Nationalist foreign policy’s “fascination for withdrawal, violence, or domination would be a mistake for which future generations would rightly find us responsible.”
It is significant that many appeals for nationalism make use of the language of rights. Populist and authoritarian political leaders like to speak of a nation’s right to promote its national interest at the expense of others.
Border security, for example, is taken by nationalists to be a right
Border security, for example, is taken by nationalists to be a right to be affirmed at the expense of migrants suffering from humanitarian crises brought on by war and poverty.
But French philosophers, as well as French politicians, are challenging us to rethink the limited way we conceive of rights in contemporary politics.
French political philosopher Pierre Manent’s new book, La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme, was published in France this year. The English translation is likely to appear next year from University of Notre Dame Press.
Manent’s latest work continues to examine, from a distinctively Catholic point of view, how we may better conceive of politics as serving “the common good.”
Based on lectures Manent gave in 2017 at the Institut Catholique de Paris, Manent’s Christian Aristotelianism considers how the traditional Catholic notion of natural law has become overshadowed by the focus in modern politics on “human rights.”
The concluding sixth lecture has already been published in English translation by the journal Modern Age as “Natural Law and Human Motives.”
Aristotle teaches we can act for the pleasant, the useful, or the noble
Aristotle teaches there are three main types of human motives: we can act for the pleasant, the useful, or the noble. Manent argues that since these three motives are “objective components of human nature, we have them in common as human beings.”
On the basis of our shared human nature, we are able to “understand each other.” Therefore, “we are capable of judging one another.” Not only that, “we cannot avoid judging one another.”
Macron, for example, can thereby judge that while nationalism may be expedient or useful for a nation, it is nonetheless an ignoble and amoral foreign policy.
“The pleasant and the useful are notable for their stability and objectivity,” observes Manent. “According to a famous remark of Aristotle’s, we cannot cause sexual intercourse to be unpleasant, nor a knife’s cut to be pleasant. As for the useful, we cannot make it the case that forgetting to declare our tax liabilities would not be quite useful, or that others’ failure to honour their debts to us would not be very disadvantageous.”
However, people can be quite skeptical about the noble. For this reason, it seems politically more secure to focus on demands about “human rights,” which aim at securing things everyone agrees are pleasant or useful.
Politics should still address the noble dimension of moral action
And yet politics should still address the noble dimension of moral action. Wherever this is lacking in a political regime, that society “cannot be considered in conformity with natural law,” says Manent.
“Natural law is the law or the practical principles that human beings do not make,” explains Manent. Because its threefold impetus to the pleasant, the useful, and the noble is always part of human nature, it must always “motivate, illuminate, and guide man-made laws.”
Its political function is thus indispensable: “If there were not an authority or a resource like natural law, there could not be a human law in the proper sense, since human beings would not have a way to evaluate what they choose to call law.”
Manent asks the rhetorical question: “What could be more satisfying to the acting human being than to have produced, in the given circumstances, the action that imparts what is due to the pleasant, the useful, and the noble?”
And yet, our satisfaction is frustrated by contemporary politics, which lowers our sights with “the dogmatism of rights.”
This dogmatism of rights, he explains, has reduced “the grammar of human life” to a stunted political concern with “enjoyment or suffering,” expressed only as claims about rights or their violations.
We would do right to heed the noble voices reminding us of our higher calling.