Building the Rights Road to Liberty


Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?, by Henry B. Veatch, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 259 pages, $30.00

At first blush, an attempt to buttress a robust classically liberal theory of rights by grounding it in the moral philosophy of Aristotle would seem an unlikely candidate for success. After all, Aristotle (and his distinguished followers such as St. Thomas Aquinas) lived in a world in which talk of inalienable human rights was not so much distrusted as unknown.

Aristotle himself unself-consciously accepted as part of the natural rhythm of things a social order in which Greeks were the moral superiors of barbarians, females were subservient and males masterly, and slavery was the economic engine that provided for the lucky few comfort and leisure to pursue the higher ends of civilization. It was, in short, a world very much unlike any in which we could feel morally at ease.

And when the great tide of classical liberalism crested in the 17th and 18th centuries, its chosen philosophical foil was the Aristotelianism of the schools and the church establishment. It might seem, then, that no more need be said: defenders of human rights must look elsewhere for relief.

With the publication of Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? this verdict no longer stands unchallenged. The great virtue of the book is Henry Veatch's doughty willingness to pitch his theoretical tent some distance from today's intellectual fashions. Veatch tenaciously argues that an Aristotelian natural-law ethic can adequately support a moral order in which wide-ranging rights to liberty are respected and that no other philosophical starting point can generate rights that are more than arbitrary convention or piously wishful thinking.

In this enterprise he is not afraid to criticize sharply the Mandarins of contemporary moral philosophy, including John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Alan Gewirth. All of them, Veatch maintains, fall within one or the other of the two broad categories "utilitarianism" or "Kantianism." The utilitarians fail because they ultimately confuse questions of what is the case with what ought to be the case. The blunder of the Kantians is to suppose erroneously that moral imperatives can be derived independently of consideration of human ends.

Whither ethics, then? Veatch's answer is unequivocal: to reclaim its cogency it must return to the Aristotelian conception of a world of things possessing natures that prescribe for them fitting ends. There is a good for horses simply in virtue of their being what they are, and it is to live successfully the sort of a life that a horse can. Human beings, too, have a natural good, but it transcends that of lower forms of life. Because people are rational, their natural end is, put most simply, to live intelligently. Indeed, says Veatch, each person has a duty to live according to reason. It is not a duty owed to God or to the state but to oneself.

In most of modern political theory, rights are primary and duties consequent upon them. Veatch contends that this is to get things precisely backwards: "Instead of trying to suppose that duties must be grounded in rights, with the result that the rights then turn out to be ultimate and yet for that reason arbitrary and without proper foundation, why not try making duties ultimate and seeing if rights cannot be grounded in such prior duties?"

The interesting and original twist that Veatch supplies to standard Aristotelian theory is to find rights flowing from duties to self. You have an obligation to live in a wise and fully human way; therefore I, in turn, am required to refrain from encroaching on your legitimate efforts to do so. I may not enslave you, kill you, or commandeer the material means at your disposal. Your rights against me in these regards are strictly derived from your duty to pursue your natural end.

The consequence, as Veatch works it out, is a regime of very wide personal liberty. Private property is accounted necessary for human flourishing and so may not be juggled by state authorities to serve the goals of a so-called distributive justice. People have firm rights, but these are exclusively of a negative sort—prohibitions of interference, and not claims to positive provision of various goods. (Veatch admits he is unable to develop principles that will accommodate the exception of children. No doubt this is a theoretical deficiency, but the admission is refreshing amid the usual run of political philosophy tracts, in which the existence of anyone other than mature, competent persons goes completely unmentioned).

The Aristotelian metaphysics has, in Veatch's hands, yielded a thoroughly liberal politics. In modern parlance, he presents himself as a libertarian.

Curiously, this is a badge he will not deign to wear. In the opening sentence of the book he notes, "I must first make acknowledgement to the Libertarians, for without their assistance this book would never have been written." He then proceeds to state, though, "I am not myself a Libertarian." Why? I find it hard to determine why he believes the appellation not to fit. Veatch argues for the moral necessity of some sort of governmental structure, opposing in the process certain unnamed libertarians. It is hard to believe, however, that one so well read in the literature would believe that all, or even most, libertarians insist on a strict anarchism.

I suspect that Veatch's disinclination to be placed among the libertarians is based on no divergence in doctrine but rather on qualms about method. Although much libertarian political philosophy invokes human ends, these are typically characterized as chosen rather than natural ends. Veatch holds that rights erected on foundations such as these are too shaky to stand. Still, so far as I can see, that is not to oppose a libertarian philosophy but rather to argue that its foundations should be Aristotelian.

For almost half a century Henry Veatch has been a distinctive presence within American philosophy. As much as anyone over that time, he has been a worthy champion of the classical tradition. It is within that tradition that Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? resides, thereby contributing a welcome additional perspective to political theory. But does it succeed in providing that to which the title adverts: the "facts" that will raise talk of rights above the level of fancy?

Here I have my doubts. That is both because I am less confident of the deliverances of Aristotelian philosophy than is Veatch and because I am more optimistic than he concerning the prospects of alternative theoretical avenues. Concerning the latter, I should either say a great deal here or nothing at all. So, I keep my silence. Concerning the former, I note a few of the difficulties that keep me from enrolling in the Aristotelian camp.

First, even if it be supposed that human beings have something that can be called a "natural end," why should that matter to us? That is, why should nature be held in this context to be a true guide rather than a hindrance? For example, if anything seems to be built into my nature, it is to be an earthbound creature. Is it therefore my duty resignedly to turn in my Frequent Flyer card? As animals, it is a component of our nature to procreate; yet St. Thomas himself took vows of celibacy. By means of what principle are we to distinguish imprescriptible natural law from the way things merely happen to be with us?

Second, even so eloquent and energetic an Aristotelian as Veatch does not proceed very far in limning the details of our natural end. "Live intelligently," we are informed. Well, yes, that sounds like unexceptionable advice—but intelligently for what? One can't simply act intelligently without being intelligent about something or other. And the particular something matters a great deal.

When Socrates was put before the Athenian jury, his display of philosophical genius did not amount even to a minimally intelligent effort of self-preservation. Are we to evaluate Socrates' performance as commendable or as catastrophic? Obviously, it depends on what we take to be of greatest true worth in such a case: fidelity to a philosophical ideal or enhanced longevity. It is the worthy that ought to be pursued intelligently and not the crass.

Intelligence, then, seems to be a means to an end (good or bad) rather than itself a candidate for all-encompassing human end. As Aristotle himself noted, reasoning concerns means to ends and is not of ends themselves.

Third, the notion of having duties to oneself is inherently problematic in the way duties to others are not. (Can I graciously waive the performance of the duty? Am I due compensation when it is not fulfilled?) But even setting that aside, I fear that a reflexive duty to live intelligently will generate little in the way of rights.

The interesting thing about a duty to act intelligently is that it can be carried out in virtually every imaginable circumstance. Whether I find myself slave or master, accosted by a mugger in the park or by an IRS auditor in a suite of offices, it is always up to me whether I act with greater or lesser intelligence. Thus, almost nothing can be done to me short of killing me that will interfere with my duty to exercise intelligence. Therefore, so far as I can see, such a duty is neutral between the political order favored by John Stuart Mill and that prized by the Ayatollah.

Finally, suppose that I am doing only a mediocre job of actualizing my full human potential. If I have a duty to do better, then isn't it entirely proper for the legitimate civil authorities to enforce my compliance? In more usual parlance, this is the question of the legitimacy of paternalistic intervention. Veatch suggests that enforcement can properly extend only to breaches against others. But if the so-called duty may, under no conditions, be externally mandated, are we not playing fast-and-loose with words to call it a duty?

At any rate, it is undeniable that all the most eminent Aristotelians believed that the church or state was justified in doing a great deal to ensure that persons would act wisely and virtuously. More than a few of them manned the Inquisition.

These criticisms are not intended to be dismissive of Veatch's argument. Rather, they are to suggest that the debate broached by Human Rights deserves to be further pursued. My hunch is that a viable liberalism will have something to learn from Aristotle, though perhaps not as much as Veatch suggests and perhaps not the items that Veatch emphasizes most. I personally find Aristotle's doctrine of natural ends not very illuminating. However, Aristotle's conception of what ethics is for seems to me far more insightful than the dominant contemporary paradigm of morality as primarily an interpersonal decision procedure. This is not the occasion to pursue such lines. It is, however, the occasion to welcome the circumstance of Aristotle being brought to bear on classically liberal rights.

Loren Lomasky is a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and the author of the new book Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (Oxford University Press).