In this episode of Marksism, the editors discuss recent content about natural law, natural rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how the US should respond to Saudi Arabia’s crimes.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, looking at three articles in Providence this week. We’re starting out with a piece by Dan Strand on the UN Declaration of Human Rights, arguing, or recalling, that the declaration resulted in part from the work of French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who somewhat successfully was able to merge the Catholic natural law tradition with the Protestant natural rights tradition, evidently with the full backing of Eleanor Roosevelt who presided over the project, and with the collaboration of Lebanese thinker Charles Malik who stressed the importance of religious freedom in the declaration. I had never heard the history of the UN declaration recalled in this way as a merger of Catholic natural law and Protestant natural rights, and I’m not even quite sure what the fine distinctions are between the two traditions. So, on that topic I will turn to scholar Marc LiVecche for some elaboration. Marc.
LiVecche: You can probably turn it over to Mark Melton for further elaboration, because yeah, that history, I’m not a student of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but that history is somewhat unknown to me as well. As to the distinction between natural rights and natural law, I would venture to guess, but I suspect that in this context, this is going to be correct that the distinction is the one that we’ll see Nigel Biggar making when I defend him against some of his critiques. Natural law being a source of natural morality, it’s participation in the divine all in the character of God, and from that, one can begin to discern that therefore human beings have certain rights that are owed to them. They deserve to be treated certain ways, because natural human dignity that’s rooted in some sort of natural morality, that would be the distinction that I assume is being pointed to there. One’s general system of morality, one or concrete, specific duties that are owed to people because they have some sort of inherent right to those duties being given.
Tooley: Natural rights are more specific than natural law is what you’re saying?
Tooley: Mark Melton, any added points?
Melton: I mean, on the philosophy stuff, I’m not really a student of philosophy, I know more about foreign policy, but one of the other articles we ran about the UDHR was by Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, and that one was kind of an interesting look at the dynamic between Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt putting her into this position where she could drive the UDHR at the UN. And one of the reasons why I kind of ran this article this week is because in 1946, Christianity & Crisis was kind of running articles about the UN, and so I felt like it was a good fit to put these articles in now. And some of those articles from Christianity & Crisis, and also with my conversation with Joe Loconte a couple of weeks ago about the “Iron Curtain” speech with Winston Churchill talking about the Iron Curtain. So, in these conversations you have, I didn’t quite realize at this time in history that Harry Truman was trying to and was positioning America into a spot where we could be competing with the Soviet Union, and that Americans were not ready for it. And Eleanor Roosevelt I didn’t realize was not a cold warrior in the sense that Harry Truman was at this particular moment. But because of the way the Russians were acting at the UN, which is something that Spalding mentioned, when they were basically adding economic rights to the UDHR, she realized that they were going to have to have a confrontation with Russia. That would be a long-term problem. So, anyway, that history there I thought was very interesting. And so, yeah, I don’t have a lot of thoughts on the philosophy of natural law versus natural rights. I don’t really understand the distinction. I’ll lean on the expertise of others, but yeah, I found the history aspect very interesting in this particular issue.
LiVecche: Did all three of us actually punt on that question, is that what just happened?
Melton: Yeah, I think so.
Tooley: Well, we’re not done with this question, because we’re moving on to Aaron Rhode’s review of Nigel Biggar’s new book What’s Wrong with Rights? And Aaron Rhodes has written his own book in defense of human rights and critiques Nigel Biggar, with whom, of course, our own Marc LiVecche elaborated across two years at Oxford, because he views Biggar as rejecting natural rights and rejecting abstract notions of rights and prefers to view morality and the concept of rights in a more specific cultural context. So, perhaps Biggar is more of a Burkean, getting back to Allen Guelzo’s contrast between Burke and America’s founding. But Marc LiVecche, you know Nigel Biggar better than we do, and hopefully you even read his book on what’s wrong with rights. You would like to defend him against Aaron Rhode’s critique, so what say you?
LiVecche: I would like to defend Nigel against anybody who wants to pick a fight with Nigel. Let’s just say it like that, including our Mr. Rhodes. So, a confession, I have read bits of What’s Wrong with Rights? I have an extensive reading list from the Stockdale Center this year, and a lot of my reading list has been sort of let’s say preordained, but I have picked through it a bit, and two years of talking with Nigel about it, and numerous interviews that I’ve watched him conduct on it. So, I think I can defend him, whether or not it’s well, we’ll see. But I can certainly defend him. So, before I get into the specific defense, what Nigel finds wrong with rights, let’s say I think could be probably loosely parsed over four sort of things, four complaints. One is that Nigel recognizes this is common sense that human beings have basic needs. He questions whether or not the possession of a basic need therefore implies a basic right to have that need met, and if it does, met by whom? So, somebody might have a basic human need to be well fed, but the fact that we have a need to be well fed doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a right to be well fed. And if it does, then it doesn’t really begin to suggest as to who precisely has that right. We can start pointing to certain people, people who can help. People who have the surplus of food or enough food to share, they can help. But that starts to get into conversations about duties, and not necessarily rights, which is going to prove important. He’s bothered that very often the dominance of rights talk is above and beyond any appreciation for the facts on the ground. So, one could say at the threshold here that rights talk, when done poorly, can push against some of the Christian realist impulses that we’ve been trying to champion here. So, after the Rwandan Genocide, they had 130,000 some odd presumed perpetrators in lockup and they wanted to conduct trials, but they couldn’t provide them with defense lawyers. And the international human rights community blasted them for not providing defense lawyers. But one of the problems was that a lot of the defense lawyers had been slaughtered or had fled, and nobody was offering to pay for them to be able to come back and conduct these trials. And meanwhile, you’ve got 130,000 people rotting in a prison system, but I don’t remember the numbers Nigel’s quoted, but a prison system made for maybe 12,000, and they’re dying in these conditions. So, something had to be done right away to expedite trials, and so they were trying to be realistic. They were trying to be practical to run a certain kind of trial that didn’t violate their ability to have a fair trial but that didn’t provide defense lawyers. And they were blasted for this over and over again, and one of the results was that the Rwandan government simply stopped listening to the human rights community. And so, this fervor or zeal of rights talk overall tends to scuttle the ability of rights talkers to have any real credibility. So, that’s one. Second complaint, he complains about the moral priority that’s often given to the liberty of human individuals. And here I think Rhodes takes him on specifically on this point. Nigel sees no moral priority of the liberty of human individuals over and against the duties that every human individual is born into. We’re born into social duties, moral duties, etc. There’s no reason to think that my liberty necessarily trumps all that. I’ll get into that in a moment. And I think the last one, just again the dominance of rights talk, in addition to rights, Nigel stresses that citizens need to exercise these rights well. And so, one of the complaints that Nigel has about rights talk is simply that rights talk isn’t enough. We also have to talk about virtue. We also have to talk about duty. When we don’t do those things, rights talkers tend to overplay the hand, emphasize the human individual over common good, and tend to discover their own credibility, right. So, that’s some of the background into which I think Rhodes’ critique then falls. And Rhodes’ critique starts off with what I think is the tell all sentence, and he says that Nigel doesn’t appreciate, or ignores, doesn’t give credence to the fact that liberty and freedom of moral choice are sacrosanct and that they are sacrosanct because they’re rooted in human nature. So, that seems to be the bulk of the critique. And I think Nigel would say well, right, I don’t say that liberty and freedom of moral choice are sacrosanct because they’re rooted in human nature. One of the responses I would give to that, maybe speaking for Nigel, I don’t know if he would agree with how I parse this, but the Christian realist knows that human nature tends to come into bits, right. There’s the bit of it that’s good, our created goodness, and this is best expressed in actions that are self-donating and other-centered. But there’s another bit to our fallen human nature which always has to be taken into account, which instead of self-donating, other-centered acts, it’s other-donating acts of self-centeredness. And both those things have to come into play. So, if liberty and human freedom, if the freedom of moral choice leads to these evils, then to call that freedom sacrosanct is at least odd. Now, I think the immediate critique could be, and should be, well, isn’t this what God did? He wanted human beings. He gave us moral freedom. And he recognized that moral freedom carries risks. One of them is that we’ll abuse our freedom. That’s all true. The response that I would give to that is God gave us human freedom so that we might love, because love has to be free or it’s not love. So, freedom is necessary for this. But what this points to is that the freedom that we’ve been given, the freedom of moral choice, is a freedom for responsibility. We were given moral freedom so that we could do those things for which we were made. That’s different than to champion the freedom to be indifferent to these things for which we were made. And I think this is one of the great divides in moral philosophy. And it was freedom for excellence, for human flourishing, for responsibility, or as human freedom for indifference. It doesn’t really matter what. One kind of freedom is worth everything, and the other kind of freedom is simply the risk of that thing. And I think it’s a basic difference of opinion as to what human freedom is for. That’s probably enough to be said on that, and I think that gets to Nigel has no qualms about there being moral rights, so again the moral law. He’s deeply suspicious whether or not that necessitates moral rights.
Tooley: We’ll have to get a response from Aaron Rhodes to your vigorous defensive of Nigel Biggar, but I think that Aaron Rhodes himself agrees with Nigel on some of these points in terms of the excesses of the international so-called human rights regime.
LiVecche: Yeah, unguardedly. I think their difference is philosophical, not terribly practical.
Tooley: Finally, let me conclude on a note about my article on the U.S. sort of non-response to the murder two years ago of the Saudi dissident Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, at the behest almost certainly of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince. An intelligence report confirming the Crown Prince’s complicity was publicly released several weeks ago, and, in essence, the U.S. is taking no action directly against the Crown Prince, who is viewed as effectively the head of state, or head of government, of Saudi Arabia. They of course have an elderly king, the Crown Prince is calling the shots, and instead there will be some punitive actions against lower-level subordinates who were complicit in the murder. The decision I think is tragic and gross but necessary, and I liken it to the silence of Churchill and Roosevelt during World War Two about the Soviet mass murder of the Polish army officer corps, among others, many of whom were buried in the Katyn Forest. And the Germans dug them up and exposed the atrocity, and Churchill and Roosevelt, for reasons of justified state given the importance of the alliance with the Soviet Union, publicly endorsed the Soviet story over the German story, even though they realized the facts pointed elsewhere. So, a case for Christian realism in this regard in that there were larger national and moral objectives that had to be pursued, as I believe now, given the importance of the U.S. strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Any thoughts, Marc LiVecche or Mark Melton?
LiVecche: Yeah, I thought your analysis was spot on. I think the term gross is exactly what it is. You can do certain things after the fact, we can condemn Katyn now, and it’s important to do that. I think it’s important that even when America can’t act on what it knows to be right, Rwanda maybe being a case in point, the complications of intervention there, even when we can’t do what we know to be right, we should still declare what right is and lament the fact that we can’t do anything about it. In this particular case, you point out that our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and maybe I think implied in that is less important than or less crucial as our relationship was with Stalin in that moment in time, and that implies that maybe we have a little bit more wiggle room to not to risk that relationship, but that the costs of pushing against the relationship are less. And so, there might have been room here to say something like a general condemnation of the act, to express our disappointment that our allies would behave in this way, and then to sort of leave it there. But you don’t want to bring shame to them. It’s a cultural dynamic that is maybe different than ours, where the shame is going to be very dishonoring perhaps and very complicated in ways that we don’t appreciate. So, you have to hedge your bets. It is ugly business. Sausage making, they say, right?
Tooley: Mark Melton, any closing thoughts on the ugly business of statecraft?
Melton: I think your example from World War Two is interesting, because we did still have to confront the Soviet Union after the end of World War Two because of the nature of that regime. And the fact is that Americans were not prepared for that. And we see that, I alluded to the Christianity & Crisis articles, and Reinhold Niebuhr was very much, he thought that he seemed to think that we could still get along with Russia, but a lot of that was from the propaganda during World War Two that said the Soviet Union was great and “Uncle Joe” can be trusted. When all these actors who were actually in the government understood the nature of the Soviet regime and that this wasn’t going to happen. And so, I think in this situation, America I think has a much better understanding of this Saudi regime, and it’s difficult because Iran is not going to be our friend. Some people I’ve heard want to have better relations with Iran, but Iran gets a choice of whether or not they’re going to be our friend, and they’ve decided not to. And so, we are stuck with the Saudis, and there’s not much we can do with it. But at the same time, I’m not sure where the line should be drawn on publicly condemning what they did. Obviously, people in the private sector can do it. And in the government, there’s going to be some limitations, but in private, maybe you can be a little more assertive and take more action in private than you can in the public sphere of public diplomacy.
Tooley: Perhaps Providence, with all its influence and force, can speak where the U.S. government cannot. But on that note, fellow Mark(c)s, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.