Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Question 1: Our society is defined as a "society of rights and freedoms", in which everyone can see legally recognized every will to obtain something (it is enough to desire something for it to be considered a right). Yet there has never been a more illiberal society than ours, in which it is enough to think that this approach to right and law is wrong to undergo trials or to be dismissed. Why?
RPG: It is a mistake to define our society as merely “a society of rights and freedoms.” And it is nothing short of absurd to imagine that desiring something generates a right to it. The identification of true human rights and honorable liberties requires disciplined reflection on the nature, dignity, and goods of the human person and, relatedly, on the requirements of justice and the common good. That kind of reflection will reject the voluntarist theory of rights. It will conceive rights as protecting basic aspects of the well-being and fulfillment—the flourishing—of human persons. It will ground the right (and “rights”) in the good (and goods), rather than supposing that the right (and specific rights) can somehow be identified and rationally affirmed apart from reflection on the fundamental goods of human nature that rights, properly understood, protect.
When we understand and approach correctly the relationship between rights and human goods, we avoid falling into the illiberalism that is the fruit of the voluntarist conception of rights (and ethics generally) that is dominant today among secularist progressive elites. For example, when we understand the right of free speech as protecting the values of truth-seeking and democracy, we will have a greater respect for that right and a keener sense of its importance than is common today among the cognoscenti. On this point, I would invite readers to see this statement I have released together with my friend and teaching partner Professor Cornel West: https://jmp.princeton.edu/statement
Question 2: Why does the fact of recognizing certain rights based on the will and that, therefore, have nothing to do with the natural law, automatically produce the discrimination of the rights to life, to the freedom of expression of faith of other people?
RPG: The voluntarist conception of rights is intellectually indefensible, indeed hopeless. It justifies nothing, but can provide a rationalization for anything. Where anything can be rationalized, the interests of those holding power will be served by dressing up their arbitrary exercises of will—even the most oppressive—in the language of ethics. Where, as in modern western societies, what Professor Mary Ann Glendon calls “rights-talk” enjoys special prestige, illiberal policies and activities (such as exposing unborn babies to the lethal violence of abortion and criminalizing the expression of dissent from unjust or otherwise morally unsound policies) will be defended in that language. What my great friend Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says of the gross evil of anti-Semitism can be said any form of grave injustice: It will always be rationalized by its perpetrators in the language of the dominant discourse of the day.
Question 3: We celebrate the declaration of human rights, whose language has also been assumed by the Church, but how come that since the Enlightenment proclaimed them, the right of life, social solidarity, the idea of the common good and the family weakened so much?
RPG: It is a long and complex story—one that we must be careful to avoid oversimplifying. The best, most comprehensive account I know is in a forthcoming book by the American legal scholar Stephen Smith entitled Pagans and Christians in the City. I myself had the honor of providing a Foreword for Professor Smith’s book. He charts the collapse of formerly Christian cultures into modern forms of paganism as they gradually lost their sense of the transcendent and began searching for meaning—and, indeed, the sacred—in purely worldly (immanent) things. Emotivism, expressive individualism, “me-generation” ideas about sexuality and the recreational use of drugs, what the late Christopher Lasch labeled “the culture of narcissism,” are all consequences (as well as partial and further causes) of the loss of the sense of the transcendent. In the new religion of immanentism, such things as abortion, divorce, and promiscuity are defended as if they were sacraments because seeking personal “fulfillment” (i.e. gratification, the satisfaction of desire), especially in sex, has been sacralized. In this context, the family weakens along with all other social bonds. The idea of unchosen moral obligations—an idea upon which true solidarity critically depends—becomes unintelligible and is perceived as arbitrary imposition.
Question 4: What are the rights most in danger in the West and what effects does a world in which the natural law is violated produce?
RPG: The right to life of the unborn child, the newborn child, the cognitively impaired or physically disabled individual, the frail elderly person—these are all in jeopardy. Similarly, religious freedom and the rights of conscience (together with the related right to freedom of thought and expression) are in peril, as are the rights of children to a morally healthy upbringing and the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Where will replaces reason, where disciplined inquiry into the goods of human nature and the dignity of the human person is cast aside in favor of the identification of wants or desires with reasons and even “rights,” the only question will be who has the power to impose his arbitrary will on others. The efforts of those on the left to impose their ideology will inevitably produce a backlash from the right. Civil discourse and respectful engagement between the disputants becomes impossible—and soon is not even regarded as desirable. Neither side seeks truth, but only victory—“by any means necessary.” We descend into a Nietzschean nightmare.
Question 5: Many are persuaded that it is no longer necessary to talk about natural law. They claim that the world can no longer understand this language, since nature is now misunderstood by modern reason. Do you think that the new generations are able to start from this or that the approach towards them should be different, and for example start from the goodness of the Creator to then understand the goodness of his law?
RPG: Having taught thousands of intellectually gifted young men and women at Princeton and Harvard over a period of more than thirty-three years, I can tell you that there is a great hunger for authentic reason. We must not misunderstand or underestimate our young people! They are fully capable of reasoning about human nature, the human good, human dignity, and human destiny. They simply need to be invited and encouraged to do it. And they need a certain amount of guidance. Happily, we need not rely exclusively on ourselves to provide that guidance. The great teachers of mankind, from Plato and Aristotle, to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to Rev. Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Mahatma Gandhi are there to help us and our sons and daughters. And there are many other great thinkers—from East and West alike—who are available to assist. We begin the process of education simply be exposing our students to these teachers and intellectual role models. Many of my students first learn about the concept of natural law from reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It teaches them that there must be a “higher law,” a law of reason itself, above the merely human (or positive) law, if unjust laws (such as laws rooted in racism) are to be identified as unjust and condemned as such. Many first encounter the critique of the contraceptive mentality and population control by reading Gandhi. Many are first exposed to the philosophical defense of chastity by reading Anscombe. Those who read John Finnis’s work, especially when complemented by the writings of the Greek philosophers, Roman jurists, and medieval theologians, come to appreciate the intellectual power—and contemporary relevance—of natural-law theory. So, based on my own long experience as a teacher, I scoff at the idea that “the world can no longer understand” the language of natural law. Now, this does not mean that other approaches to instruction in ethics and political philosophy have no place or usefulness. On the contrary, I encourage theological approaches, for example, so long as they are not proposed as the only way to teach ethics, or the only way that students today can be reached. To propose that we must make a definitive choice between natural-law theory and theological approaches to morality and moral questions is to commit the fallacy of proposing false alternatives.