The Problem of Human Rights

For the considerable body of people in the western world who still believe in self-government, and in the preservation of their nations’ traditional moral identities, the overreaching of the contemporary human rights project will perhaps lead them to reconsider natural law, presented in a prudently modest formulation. This is a crucial undertaking to which Pierre Manent’s new book is a worthy contribution.

It takes a bold man to offer public criticism of the idea of “human rights.” It takes a profound man to pursue this criticism in such a way as to reveal the deepest truths about the character of our civilization and about the nature of the human condition. It takes a prudent man to derive from such criticism practical advice that may actually be useful to his fellow citizens.

The western world is blessed to have such a man—bold, profound, and prudent—in Pierre Manent. All of these virtues are displayed in his excellent new book, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason. Although short, the book is rich in insight, the fruit of Manent’s decades of deep meditation on the history of political philosophy and on the intellectual, moral, and political predicament of the modern world.

The Origins of the Problem

At first glance, the idea of human rights seems unassailable. Over many centuries we have become accustomed to think in terms of rights and to assume that justice and the progress of rights are synonymous. More recently, the idea of human rights has been formally endorsed by our most prominent institutions. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a seemingly necessary response to the “crimes against humanity” that had taken place in that terrible conflict.

Examined more closely, however, and seen with a philosophic freedom from the dominant opinions of our age, the doctrine of human rights proves to be more ambiguous. Manent shows his astuteness in perceiving, and his boldness in proclaiming, the questionable and even troubling character of the human rights project. To be sure, the idea of human rights was developed in response to real forms of oppression. Nevertheless, as Manent observes, it is now wielded very aggressively by some with a radical agenda—an agenda that often seems pitilessly indifferent or hostile to longstanding moral traditions and religious beliefs that are still cherished by many. Paradoxically, the doctrine of human rights does not always seem very humane or friendly to humanity—at least if we assume that attachment to ancient customs and convictions is a deeply rooted human propensity.

The aggressively partisan and polemical character of human rights advocacy is not a new phenomenon. Manent notes the year 1968 as an important inflection point in the development of rights. It was then, he suggests, that claims of rights started to become overtly hostile to existing institutions—with, for example, young people claiming a right not only to be admitted to the university but also a right to transform its curriculum and its mission. Here Manent speaks as a Frenchman: he is thinking of the famous or infamous student revolts in France in that fateful year. Nevertheless, he is saying something that is recognizable to most conservatives in the western world, who view the late 1960s as a politically transformative moment, a point at which the left in most western nations became suddenly more radically hostile to the things that conservatives want to conserve.

Manent reveals his profundity, however, in carrying his diagnosis well beyond the 1960s. He is not merely a conservative critic of the excesses of the contemporary left. He is a philosopher. Accordingly, he traces our problem with rights back to its ultimate roots—to the origins of the modern world and to the remarkable influence of modern political philosophy on the development of modern thought and society.

As Manent observes, the origins of the modern idea of human rights can be traced back to the radical and daring intellectual experiment undertaken by the sixteenth and seventeenth century pioneers of modern political philosophy. This experiment was performed with the greatest clarity, consistency, and ruthlessness by Thomas Hobbes, to whom Manent pays special attention. Human beings, as we ordinarily and perhaps even universally encounter them, live under some system of law. Nevertheless, modern political philosophers, such as Hobbes, finding the then-prevailing system of law confused and inadequate, undertook to tear law down and rebuild it from the ground up, so to speak. They postulated a “state of nature,” a pre-political state in which all human beings are equal and free, and they sought to base their political teaching on that allegedly original and natural human condition. In other words, according to Manent, they tried to strip law entirely away from man and then restore law on a more solid foundation, or on what they thought was a more solid foundation—the desire of each person to be safe from the personal danger that necessarily accompanies the lack of law.

Recovering Practical Reasoning

Such a radical undertaking was bound to have momentous and grave consequences. The modern theorists of the state of nature wanted to correct a source of confusion and instability in the law of their time—the conflict between political and religious law. They ultimately succeeded, however, only in introducing a new and perhaps worse form of confusion and instability. Having taught human beings that they are by nature utterly free, that there is no natural law constraining their naturally limitless “rights” to freedom of action, what do you get?

If you teach human beings to assert their rights, but deny any natural standards by which to judge the rightness of their actions, you unleash an endless quest for rights not governed by any intelligible principle—a quest that sows confusion at all levels of society. You get governments that try to advance and regulate the explosion of rights, but with no clear conception of any authoritative common good for their citizens. You get social institutions that can no longer regard their purposes as in any way authoritative and therefore have to succumb to demands for individual rights that are not compatible with the flourishing or even the existence of such institutions. Finally, you get individuals who seem to be free, and who demand ever more freedom, but who have no idea what to do with their freedom and who in fact end up lacking the truest kind of freedom. They are dominated by their passions, because they have no conception of an authoritative practical reason in light of which they can judge some of their passions as more worthy than others. They are free to the extent that the external obstacles to their passions have been removed, but they are not free to act responsibly in light of their reason—which is to say that they lack the freedom to lead an authentically human life.

As this final observation suggests, Manent further displays his profundity by evaluating the modern thirst for human rights in light of the permanent truth about human nature. Fundamentally, the modern human rights project is a betrayal of what man is. Manent agrees with Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Man is by nature a political animal, meaning that he is by nature capable of practical reason, or is naturally aware that his actions must be evaluated in light of some rule or law. Thus modernity and the ideology of “human rights” alienate man from himself.

A Modest Proposal for Regrounding Rights

Such philosophic critiques of modernity are often theoretically persuasive but of doubtful practical value. On the one hand, we sense that there is something wrong with the modern world, despite all of its material advantages. It is characterized by constant intellectual, moral, and social upheaval brought on by its endless pursuit of new and ever more radical conceptions of “rights.” This cannot be the normal and healthy condition for human beings. On the other hand, we have no choice but to live in the modern world. We cannot go back to the pre-modern world, the world before the philosophic rights revolution. And, in any case, as Manent hints, that world had problems of its own.

This is where Manent’s prudence emerges. His theoretical critique of modernity requires of us a radical rethinking, but it does not necessarily demand a radical upheaval in our lives. Manent finds thoughtful ways to limit the distance we have to travel, so to speak, in order to benefit from his teaching.

First, Manent does not insist that our rejection of modernity’s philosophical errors requires us to dispense with all of the free institutions of the modern world. Modern societies, Manent notes, want to be based on the idea of laissez faire—of letting go, or letting each individual make his own choices. A legislator or founder acting on the ancient, Aristotelian understanding of natural law can affirm such modern freedom, Manent contends, if that freedom is understood as establishing a realm “favorable to the improvement of the practical capacities of members of society or of its citizens, to their education for reflective choice.” In other words, Manent’s repudiation of the “state of nature” as the fundamental truth about human beings does not require us to jettison all of the individual liberty to which we are accustomed, but instead to reconceive it. Such liberty, properly understood, exists not for the sake of unlimited license but as an occasion for the exercise of our practical reason in governing ourselves according to moral principle.

Second, Manent’s conception of natural law is not unduly forbidding or excessively rigorous. Having completed his critique of human rights, his book concludes with a very “modest” positive proposal. The ground of natural law, Manent suggests, is simply the universally experienced truth that all human beings are moved by three motivations: the pleasant, the useful, and the just or noble. Armed with this elementary insight, we can begin to judge ways of life according to whether they provide sufficient scope for all three of these natural human goods.

Here Manent’s argument is open to a powerful objection, likely to be made by the proponents of more traditional and highly elaborated conceptions of natural law. His modest suggestion does not give rise to any clear, specific laws that human beings must observe. For that matter, Manent does not even suggest any ground on which human beings are obliged to treat the just and the noble as more compelling than the pleasant and the useful. Where, we might well ask, does actual law come into his account of natural law?

Nevertheless, Manent’s modest proposal is potentially very fruitful, because while it does not put off the modern reader (long accustomed to his seemingly unlimited freedom) by being too specifically demanding, it at least does something to remind us of the highest human possibilities by insisting that our sense of the just and the noble is every bit as natural, every bit as human, as our desire for the pleasant and the useful. A human being who admits the truth of Manent’s modest proposal at least knows this much: that his or her desires cannot be simply self-justifying, that a complete human life requires that we reflect on our passions in light of the just or noble. And this, as little as it is, is enough to permit us to begin to interrogate the endless revolution in rights that has come to characterize the modern world.

Such interrogation, such a re-thinking, is necessary in view of the increasingly radical character of the contemporary human rights movement. As Manent observes, today’s most fanatical proponents of human rights no longer really believe in democratic self-government, or even in the need for a government to be responsible to the community that it governs. For them, human rights are more compelling than communal self-government; the point of their political project is not to represent the community but to transform it. The human rights project, perhaps intoxicated by its remarkable recent successes (such as the redefinition of marriage) is overreaching. For the considerable body of people in the western world who still believe in self-government, and in the preservation of their nations’ traditional moral identities, this overreaching will perhaps lead them to reconsider natural law, presented in a prudently modest formulation. This is a crucial undertaking to which Manent’s book is a worthy contribution.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!