Can Natural Law Thinking be Made Credible in our Contemporary Context?

In Christian Spieβ (ed.), Freiheit, Natur, Religion: Studien zur Sozialethik. pp. 277-297 (2010)
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One of the best-known members of the United Nations Commission which drafted the 1948 "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Jacques Maritain, famously held that the "natural rights" or "human rights" possessed by every human being are grounded and justified by reference to the natural law.' In many quarters today, the notion of the natural law, and arguments for a set of natural rights grounded in the natural law, have come under fierce attack. One common line of attack is illustrated by the arguments of some utilitarians, for whom "natural law thinking" is mistaken insofar as it implies that there is an absolute moral prohibition against violating any human being's "natural rights." Even if there is such a thing as "natural rights," these utilitarians argue, such rights - including even the natural "right to life" - are necessarily relational, and thus have meaning only within the context of a larger social whole. As a result, the argument goes, the supposed "natural rights" possessed by individual human beings are never inviolable or unconditional, but instead always negotiable and subject to being "traded away" for the sake of greater social utility. Consider just one alleged counter-example to the notion that there are inviolable or unconditional "natural rights": it is well-known that approximately 36,000 people in the United States die every year as a result of influenza infections or influenza-related complications.' There is little doubt that hundreds, and probably even thousands, of human lives would be saved every year if local governments were to pass laws requiring flu vaccinations for all members of at-risk populations (e.g., the very young and the very elderly). It would seem that there would be broad support for mandated flu vaccinations- no matter what the expense - if human lives would be saved and if the natural "right to life" is inviolable or unconditional.' And yet no such life-saving laws exist, apparently because citizens and legislators believe that the social costs and inconveniences would be too great. According to the utilitarian position, this demonstrates - contrary to what Ronald Dworkin and others say about rights' - that rights do not trump utility, but in fact are quite regularly and reasonably trumped by utility. In light of such contemporary understandings and policies, can natural law thinking about natural rights be made credible? In what follows, I shall argue that utilitarian thinkers are correct to hold that rights are intrinsically relational; but they are wrong to conclude that the relational character of rights entails that "natural rights" are not inviolable or not unconditional.

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Michael Baur
Fordham University


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