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A philosophy teacher of mine once asked me to define a chair.
At first, I thought he was joking, but he pressed me for the definition, so I eventually offered that a chair is something you sit on. Simple.
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"But," he replied, "you could sit on a table, right? And that wouldn't make a table a chair."
"Okay," I said—not quite sure where he was going with this—"a chair is something with four legs and a back for sitting on."
"A couch or bench," he quickly pointed out (he had been lying in wait for that answer, too), "could have four legs and a back."
"Well then, it's something with four legs and a back which is made for one person to sit on."
"What about those art deco chairs that just have two legs? Or those chairs I've seen at IKEA with just one post for a leg?"
You get the gist of how the conversation went for a few minutes. In the end, I admitted that I couldn't define a chair properly. And that unsettled me: of course I knew what a chair was! But I just couldn't seem to get my mouth around the right words to define it in any meaningful way. I knew enough Aristotle at the time to realize that my attempts at defining the chair were totally inadequate. They were either too broad or too narrow, or focused on the non-essential and variable attributes of a chair.
The professor's point, it became clear during the class, was not simply to be pedantic, annoying, or frustrating. The exercise was part of a political philosophy course, and the lesson that day was dealing with the concept of human rights.
If, the professor pointed out, we struggle so much to define simple everyday objects like chairs, how are we going to define complex and often controversial things like justice, rights, and freedoms? We need, he insisted, a way of properly defining the words we use in debates and arguments. And we need to agree with our interlocutors about what words stand for. All too often we end up talking past each other because we're relying on hidden, uneven assumptions about words.
He made a good point, and one that was a very real concern for the French philosopher Jacques Maritain.
From Enthusiasm to Dismay
Maritain was a co-author of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the then-fledgling United Nations. The Declaration has become a template for many subsequent international agreements dealing with the notion of human rights.
Initially, Maritain was enthusiastic about the prospects of the draft Declaration paving the way to world peace founded on respect for the rights and freedoms of all people. "The equality of rights of all citizens is the basic tenet of modern democratic societies," he wrote in Man and the State. World War II had just ended and there was an international appetite to secure peace for the future. The new United Nations set itself the task of drafting a document that would see to it that there would never be another world war.
But that hope soon turned to dismay when the Declaration went before the UN for ratification. Of the 58 member states, only 48 signed the document. Unsurprisingly, most of the Soviet states behind the Iron Curtain abstained from adopting it, as did Saudi Arabia.
But it soon became clear to Maritain that even among the nations signing the Declaration there was not a uniform agreement on what the word "right" meant. From the point of view of China, a "right" was little more than a privilege bestowed on a subject by his government. In the U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, there was a strong lobby to interpret rights as being practically anything that a particular individual wanted. Thus, it wouldn't be long before contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex "marriage" were touted as "rights."
The Roots of Rights
For a while, many of the original signatory states adhered to traditional notions of "rights." That traditional notion was rooted, Maritain pointed out, in an acceptance of the natural law and biblical principles (in particular, the Ten Commandments) as being the foundation for any meaningful moral discourse. Right and wrong only had meaning in reference to some higher principles that transcended politics.
Back in 1948, many of the member nations were the fruits of a Catholic or at least a Judeo-Christian culture. It was precisely this tradition that gave birth to the concept of human rights as derived from the natural law. And it was on this basis that Maritain and co-author John Peters Humphrey drafted the Declaration.
But nothing in the discussions on the UN floor or in the final version of the Declaration dealt with the definition of a right. There was no mention of the natural law or where it comes from. There was no discussion about the philosophical basis for human rights at all. The natural law may well have been assumed by some signatory nations, but it did not inform the understanding of all the member states or their debates.
The consequence of this failure to understand what the word meant, said Maritain, would be that the Declaration would be treated as something open to interpretation. States would be free to reinterpret, limit, and eventually rescind rights recognized and detailed in the thirty articles of the Declaration. Despite its auspicious beginnings at the drafting stage, the document quickly showed itself to lack any real teeth.
Maritain's concerns were not hyperbole or hysteria. His warning that the Declaration would fail to protect the rights of individuals has been played out time and again on the international stage.
Rights as Universal Goods
A brief case study illustrates the kind of thing Maritain was concerned about.
Belgium today not only considers euthanasia a right, but as of 2014 has included children as being among those eligible to exercise this right. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, does not yet consider euthanasia to be a right, though in 2014 the House of Lords conducted a ten-hour debate on whether or not British courts should recognize the "right to die."
While the term "right" appeared a great many times in both the Belgian and the UK debates, there was not a single mention of the natural law in either country, nor was there any discussion of the basis upon which euthanasia could be considered a right at all. Thus, it is probably only a matter of time before the UK also legalizes euthanasia. Why? Because few in Parliament seem to possess the language to define and defend a coherent notion of the "right to life" as delineated in the Universal Declaration.
Interestingly, the debates in both countries introduced the term "right to die." Nowhere in the UN Declaration is such a right recognized, nor would it have made any sense in 1948. The "right to die" makes as much sense as naming a "right to be depressed." People are depressed all the time. Many want to die. Many wish that life were different. None of these hopes and desires could be recognized as rights in the context of the natural law because they are not universal goods.
Maritain was at pains to point out that a "right" in the context of the Universal Declaration is all about what constitutes a universal good. In other words, a right is a positive good that applies to all people in every time and place. Food and shelter are clearly universal goods. Being treated with respect is a universal good. Not being tortured is a universal good. But being terminally ill and wanting to die is not a universal good. Being unable to cope with life is not a universal good. Dying in general is not a universal good!
The cases of Belgium and the UK, both signatories to the Declaration, indicate what happens when the notion of rights is separated from its definition as a universal good. The European courts waded into the debate and declared that no member of the EU could prohibit the "right to die" and not be in contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That article in fact only guarantees a right to a private and family life. So within just a few decades of adopting the Universal Declaration, the European courts were already redefining rights, as Maritain had warned.
Until he died in 1973, Maritain maintained that on the world political stage, the notion of rights would become more and more incoherent as time went on. In short order, the demand for pseudo-rights would escalate and proliferate. Rights lobbyists would start insisting that particular political and moral agendas should be recognized as rights (enter Amnesty International and its 2007 declaration that abortion is a human right, or Saudi Arabia's refusal in 2016 to consider torture a violation of human rights).
While World War II was raging, Maritain wrote that human dignity "means nothing if it does not signify that by virtue of the natural law, the human person has the right to be respected, is the subject of rights, possesses rights."
The political climate today is not conducive to talking about the natural law. Either it is not properly understood, or it is dismissed as being a peculiar and dated religious doctrine. The concept of the natural law is a confusing subject for many and is often conflated with "the laws of nature." Also, natural-law theory comes in a number of variations, and not all of these competing theories are coherent.
Until we recover an authentic understanding of the natural law, Maritain warned, all our discussions about rights will ultimately fail. Concepts once understood to have their origin in the natural law—concepts like human dignity, rights, and freedom—will become very difficult if not impossible to define and thus will be very difficult to defend. Even sincere appeals to "human dignity" will run the risk of becoming hollow and unstable.
A More Critical Question
The inability to define the word "chair," my professor concluded the lesson, is an inconvenience, but it hardly poses a crisis for humanity. The inability to define the word "right," on the other hand, is a different matter. The proper understanding of rights involves a deeper understanding of the natural law. Indeed, it is the natural law itself that enables us to define what it means to be a person possessing those rights.
"Now," said my professor finally, "let's see how hard it is to define a person without any reference to the natural law."
Given our difficulty with the chair, you can imagine how that conversation went. •
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