Thursday, September 10, 2020

What of Rights?

When Rights Go Wrong, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. (audio)

Regarding the seeming failure of liberalism, Fr. Legge begins with a reference to Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed: a major cause is the Enlightenment’s focus on autonomy and the rights of the individual.  “Is the Enlightenment idea of liberty the core theoretical problem for liberalism today?”

Regular readers here have walked with me while I have developed my views.  Fundamentally, an underlying cultural foundation (and, in my opinion, a specific cultural foundation) is necessary in order for liberty as promised in the Enlightenment to hold.  Yet the Enlightenment, while offering that promise of liberty, at the same time offered that the cultural foundation was not fundamental.

Fr. Legge offers his perspective, well-preceding the Enlightenment: we must grasp the true nature between law, justice, and individual rights and the common good.  He begins with Thomas Aquinas and the reality that man is born into a social environment.  We have the possibility of conflicts horizontally (between individuals), and vertically (between an individual and the common good).  I know the phrase “common good” is troubling for many libertarians; just sit tight.

Beginning with Aquinas, he offers that justice is according to God’s plan; God’s will is secondary to this – He acts according to the order He conceived.  Therefore, law is not an expression of God’s will, but of God’s reasoned plan.  Hence, law is an expression of reason – even for God. 

I know there is this question: can God act contrary to this reason?  For Aquinas the answer is no, and anyway, why would He – or, more specifically, why would He have to do so?  God was quite capable of creating an order that would not require Him to act in a manner that was contradictory or arbitrary when compared to this order.

Aquinas’s definition of law is offered:

An ordination of reason for the common good, made by one with authority and promulgated.

Proper human justice takes this into account, along with the right ordering in human acts – both horizontally and vertically.  For this, there are three key elements: first, an ordering; second, according to reason, third, to the good.  The key issue when it comes to the downfall of the liberal order since the is this question of “good.”  What is the “good”?  This will come later.

With this, Fr. Legge is ready to take up the question of rights: does Aquinas have a theory of individual rights?  It is often thought, incorrectly, that he does not.  But it is through Thomas where an issue often raised against the Enlightenment – the explosion of individual so-called rights – can be addressed.

Aquinas does speak of objective rights, ius, that an individual can assert.  The Latin word can translate into rights, the just thing, fair, or what is right.  The ius is the object, or measure, of justice.  Have I rendered what is due to you?  Conversely, I am due something from you – this ius.  And here, we can find a conception of a right – a right that can be enforced against others.

Aquinas does not conceive of these rights as an abstraction from the teleological order.  I take this to mean (and it is consistent with my earlier work on this), that just because natural law dictates an act, it does not mean that another person can require me, by law, to perform that act.

So, if these rights are not an abstraction from the teleological order, then where are these from?  Rights are a function of justice, directed toward the common good.  And it is here where things went wrong – accelerated in the Enlightenment, but not born there.

To examine this, he starts with two other Catholics: one a Franciscan and one a Jesuit, who offer very different accounts of individual rights – “because they lost sight of the truth…” (after which the room erupts in laughter at this inside-Catholic-baseball humor from this Dominican) “…that justice, law, and ius all depend on, or are facts of, a wise and reasoned order of individuals to the good.”

He points to William of Occam, the fourteenth century Franciscan nominalist, as the primary culprit on this score.  Occam rooted law, not in God’s reason or intellect, but in God’s will.  Law ceased to be something that ordered us to the good, but became nothing more than God’s command.

He then points to Francisco Suárez, a seventeenth century Jesuit.  While an opponent of Occam and often praising Aquinas, he would change definitions to the extent that the concepts presented by Aquinas were lost.  I will admit, this portion was a bit way too far inside-Catholic-baseball for me – the nuance of agreement vs. disagreement with Aquinas was not drawn out in a manner that I could well comprehend.

So how does this lead to the crisis of liberalism today?  The shift in the law and common good, beginning in Occam and completed in Suarez, left us a theory of law fundamentally different than Aquinas’s in two ways: first, a loss of the recognition that law is an ordination of reason to the common good, instead becoming an imposition of an obligation by the will of a superior; second, a loss of the sense that rights are a feature of the over-arching teleological order to the good in which the rational creature is placed, instead dependent on the moral power of the creature without reference to that order.

In other words: law has become a function of will – and this, with the death of God, became the will of the strong man; second, the larger context in which I live can in no way be allowed to infringe on my individual rights.  For example, looting is just me expressing my rights.  (Four months ago, I would have written that walking into any restroom I like is just me expressing my rights.  Oh, what happened to those good old days….)

The Enlightenment magnified this, but this change wasn’t born in the Enlightenment.  Instead of an objective good, we now have the good as defined by the strongest earthly superior.  We now claim rights without a firm foundation of what is good, allowing for a never-ending proliferation of rights-claims.

Even God is not free to make such arbitrary choices.  He created the ordered world, subject to reason – His reason, therefore why would He ever contradict this?  This is an ordering to the good – an objective, not arbitrary good; it is a good subject to reason, not to the possibility of an ever-changing will.

So much for the past.  Now what?  What should be done?  There is no going back to an idealized past.  Yet, we must understand what we need to recover.  In my own words: we don’t go back to the past; we must return to the center.  There is a center, relative to which we are sometimes closer and sometimes farther.  It isn’t going back to the past, but returning to the center.

What is due to another, the ius, depends on the over-arching teleological order; this order regards persons, living in communities.  There is no autonomous individual: we come into the world as a child of a mother and father, in a community, with relationships with many others along many spectrums.  This is the natural condition of the individual.

Hence, rights are not arbitrarily chosen.  Rights affirm what is required if persons are to be properly ordered to each other.  Which brings us back to the issue of the common good.  Does the common good infringe on the rights of the individual?  Not in a Thomistic understanding.

The common good is the good which can be shared by many without diminishment to any individual.  A simple example offered by Fr. Legge is the joy that many can take at the victory of a sports team.  A broader example I offer is that of a well-functioning market.  It is difficult to deny that such markets are a common good, and certain rights are required to protect and defend this common good – for example, rights in person and property.  Well-functioning markets clearly do not infringe on the rights of any individual; in fact, such markets are a good for the individual.  The idea of ius, what is right, will defend this common good.

Fr. Legge offers other common goods: justice, truth, and peace.  Here again, the achievement of these does not diminish any individual’s liberty.  These enhance individual liberty.  Paraphrasing Aristotle: the city exists not merely that men might live, but that they might live well.

All of these rights, born from a teleological understanding of the good, are ignored or even crushed today.  The common good rights of person, property, justice, truth and peace are all attacked daily, both by government and by many that the government enables.

Further, law that defends the just right of the citizen is quite different than pork-barrel spending.  There is no common good in this, as such actions cannot be shared without diminishment toward some at the favor of others.  One can think of many of the so-called rights claimed by those majoring in grievance studies in university in the same way: these claims are not for the common good, as they cannot be shared without diminishment to some individuals.


At its foundation, the disagreement is about what is good.  It is this disagreement that results in varying rights claims, and much of this discussion centers on rights claims not for the common good but at the cost of the common good.

I know that the idea of natural law causes grief for many, ranging from those who find the idea of an objective good abhorrent, to those who claim to find no basis for it in the Bible.  To the former, I suggest that there is no other path to liberty; to the latter, I offer this.

To have properly ordered rights, there must be a shared understanding of what is good.  It still remains, as Murray Rothbard offered, that the foundation of natural law offers the only means by which such questions can be answered, therefore it is only through a foundation of natural law that we can defend individual liberty.


  1. Rights are entirely unbiblical Enlightenment concept for the purpose of making man his own Sovereign, in violation of 1 Timothy 6:15.

    The Only One with rights of any kind is our God and Creator. Even life isn't a right except for God. Think about it: It's inherent in who He is as Creator and the I Am that I Am, per Exodus 3:14.

    For the rest of us, life (and everything that comes with it) is a gift from and responsibility to the One who created us. Think about it: It's inherent in who we are as the created.

    If life is our right then God was obligated to create us, making Him subservient to us. He would, consequently, have no authority to judge us for what's our right to do with as we please.

    For more google blog article "Rights: Man's Sacrilegious Claim to Divinity."

    Furthermore, America was sold down the river when the 18th-century "founding fathers" replaced non-optional Biblical responsibilities (based upon the Bible's immutable/unchanging moral law) for optional Enlightenment rights.

    Google blog article "America's Road to Hell: Paved With Rights."

    1. Man's rights are only applicable in relation to man.

      God has the divine right to do as He pleases regardless of the rights man professes to have in society.

      Life is a right of everyone only insofar as other humans are concerned. God has the right to call us up (or down) whenever He pleases in perfect righteousness. We should all live life in gratitude and servitude towards God, but there is no man who possesses a right to impose this lifestyle on unwilling others with violence or the threat thereof.

      I don't doubt that Freemasons or other anti-Christian Enlightenment forces latched onto the idea of rights in order to subvert the Christian social order of the time, but this does not invalidate the idea of rights.

      The Decalogue implies, at the very least, the right of all men (and women) to not be plundered, falsely accused, or murdered by other men.

      If God was here on earth in the flesh, then I'd be an immediate advocate of Absolute Monarchy (and I'd relinquish all my rights), but since He's not, and since all of us (especially those predisposed to politics) share in the imperfect human condition, I wish to retain my rights grounded in disciplined reason and divine revelation and am thus an advocate of market-based, voluntarily-contracted, anti-monopolistic government.

      Rights in the modern world, however, have gotten totally distorted, and all of your criticisms of these I'd probably agree with. People think they have rights to things that others must provide, but this is only legalized plunder, which is a violation of the rights given to us in the Decalogue.

    2. Texas Libertarian, thanks for you thoughtful and kind response.

      However, I stand by my claim that I have a *right* to nothing and God to everything.

      The Decalogue *demands* not the right but the lawful responsibility to defend my life, the life of my family and others.

      America was sold down the river when the 18th-century Enlightenment and Masonic theistic rationalists (aka constitutional framers and "founding fathers," including anti-Christ Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence) replaced non-optional biblical r4esponsibilities with optional Enlightenment rights.

      For example, under the Second Amendment it's my optional right to defend my self and others whereas under the Bible, as a Christian, I'm worse than infidel if I don't do so.

      Think about it: The Amendment WITH the wording "shall not be infringed" is the MOST infringed, licensed, and limited Amendment of the entire twenty seven. Furthermore, a future generation of our posterity is likely to see the Second Amendment whittled away entirely or repealed altogether. This is inherent nature and danger of optional Enlightenment rights versus non-optional Biblical responsibilities, such as the following:

      "Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword [or today's equivalent] in their hand ... this honor have all his saints. Praise ye Yah." (Psalm 149:6-9)

      "But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house [beginning with spiritual and physical protection], he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (1 Timothy 5:8)

      Which is more potent: 1) Optional rights, or 2) Non-optional responsibilities?

      Which is more likely to be infringed, licensed, and one day abolished altogether?

      Which did the pre-Second Amendment Americans look to as their authority to bear arms, with little or no infringement?

      For more, listen to "The Second Amendment: A Knife in a Gunfight," delivered at the Springfield, Missouri Firearms and Freedom Symposium, at

      At this same location, you will also find a radio interview Larry Pratt (Executive Director of Gun Owners of America) conducted with me on this same subject. I think you'll find Mr. Pratt's remarks especially interesting.

      See also Chapter 12 "Amendment 2: Constitutional vs. Biblical Self-Defense" of "Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective" at

    3. For more on alleged rights, at the same location as above, see my four latest articles on "Biblical Examination of the Declaration of Independence," particularly Pt. 4.

      In the earlier articles, you'll also find evidence that Thomas Jefferson was an anti-Christ and that, therefore, the God and Creator of the Declaration is not the God of the Bible but a god and creator of Jefferson's own making.

    4. Ted,

      I feel like in the main, we're talking past one another, but perhaps there are some differences. Let me try to explain.

      "The Decalogue *demands* not the right but the lawful responsibility to defend my life, the life of my family and others." -Ted

      Are you making the distinction that the concept of a right is only 'negative' in that it only prevents unjust action but does not require just action, whereas God's laws require both unjust inaction and just action as a personal duty or responsibility to God?

      If so, I would say that in the realm of political action, i.e. when the use of force is justified, only negative rights are just. Obligations and duties, say to protect and provide for our families, to love our neighbors, to minister to the sick, and to help the needy, can (and should) be 'enforced' in the social realm (shame, dissociation, boycott, ostracism, excommunication) depending on the severity of the offense.

      "Which is more potent: 1) Optional rights, or 2) Non-optional responsibilities?"

      Clearly both have been infringed egregiously in nearly every society on earth, so I couldn't say. I certainly value the former more than the latter, but that doesn't mean much to the world around me.

      God has shown that He will not enforce His laws on earth while we are living our lives down here. He gives us free will and consequently free reign. We err when we abuse this freedom and forget God's laws, and He has built this world in such a way that when we choose poorly, natural consequences ensue so that we feel pain and know that we've chosen poorly. But we are 'free' to feel pain, or rather inflict pain on others, all we like with judgement only coming in the afterlife or on Judgement Day.

      I guess my question for you is who, down here on earth, is going to make God's laws "non-optional" with force? And could we trust such a man or group with this sort of power? Could we trust this person's interpretation of God's law once they are given such power? I would say probably not.

    5. Woops, reading my comment above, I noticed in my response to "which is more potent" I said I valued the former more than the latter, but I meant the reverse. My apologies. To be abundantly clear, I value God's law over any human law.

    6. Ted, this is intriguing.

      "For example, under the Second Amendment it's my optional right to defend my self and others whereas under the Bible, as a Christian, I'm worse than infidel if I don't do so."

      Let's start with only myself, without ever considering others.

      Are you really saying that, as a Christian, following in the teaching and example of Christ, I am required to defend myself, no matter what? Are you saying that I am "responsible" as a Christian if I defend myself against any and all forms of aggression? Are you saying that the use of violent defense, as a Christian, is not only justified, but also required?

      If this is true, then how do you explain the actions of Christ when the guards came to arrest him? As the song goes, "He could have called 10,000 angels..., but he died alone...". How do you square this with his command to Peter to "...put away your sword." How does this mesh with the teaching that "...those who will save their lives [practicing self-defense, violent or non-violent] will lose them..." (Matthew 16:35, Luke 17:33)

      Do we, as Christians, have an obligation and responsibility to defend ourselves against any or all forms of aggression? Is this an order? Are we commanded to use violence in order that our lives be preserved and that we prosper? Or not? Does God demand that we defend ourselves, violently if necessary, or not? Non-optional--remember this. It is a non-optional responsibility.

      Let's get this out of the way first, before we get into the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution of the USA, which is another argument entirely.

    7. With respect to God, I have no rights. God owes me nothing. I am due nothing from Him and He is obligated to give me nothing. My life, my future, my eternity is His to do with as He pleases.

      With respect to other men, I do have rights, specifically in my relationship with other men who seek to or have authority over me, i.e., government. My "rights", viewed correctly, are not meant to grant me "optional freedoms", but are supposed to limit the abuse which governments of whatever kind can visit on me.

      For instance, the Fourth Amendment specifically states what the State CANNOT do to me or my property outside the legal course of action. Of course, legal is relative and is not always proper, but that is not the discussion here. As a citizen of the United States, I am secure (or should be) in my person and property against aggression by the State DUE to the wording of the Fourth Amendment. The people who run this country and have rule over me OWE this to me. It is my right and I will defend it as vigorously as I am able to. The Fourth Amendment applies equally across the board and serves as "protection" in the general sense (I use that term loosely) for everyone against the predations of a State which seeks to control everything. It is not an “optional right”, except that we have the option to keep it or have it taken away from us, depending on how vigorously we defend it, which will determine our relative freedom.

    8. Ted Weiland says,

      "For example, under the Second Amendment it's my optional right to defend my self and others whereas under the Bible, as a Christian, I'm worse than infidel if I don't do so."

      The Second Amendment says,

      “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

      Without getting into the quagmire of what the wording of the Second Amendment really means, let me say that I see nothing here about “optional rights” to defend myself and others. It only gives me the legal standing to possess a gun which I may use in my defense and everything that entails. A firearm is a tool. So is a two-edged sword. So, too, will be a light saber, if it is ever invented. They are only tools which men use to defend themselves, their families, and their property against marauders, both legal and illegal. The use of a firearm to defend ourselves is a right granted to us by the Constitution, but it could just as easily be a stove poker, a butcher knife, or a 2 x 4 and it can be taken away almost as easily. The Second Amendment ALLOWS us access to firearms for self-defense, but that is all. We are free under the amendment to use them in self-defense, even against the State, which is why statists are constantly trying to whittle it down and abolish it completely in some cases.

      The urge to self-defense is an inherent characteristic built into every creature, including man. Animals will, to the best of their ability, fight back against aggression if necessary. Plants, in their own way, have a built-in mechanism of self-defense. Man is different, however, because he alone understands why he defends himself and others. Animals and plants operate instinctively. Man, even infidel man, operates in reason and understanding.

      If there is any responsibility in self-defense, it is not to maintain and keep what we have, but rather because we understand that we should resist and destroy evil wherever it appears. Everything that we have (or consider to be ours) can and will eventually be taken away from us (Matthew 16:25, Luke 17:33), but the battle against evil goes on forever. In reality then, self-defense is not so much a physical action as it is a spiritual one. We should defend ourselves and ours, not because it is our “right” which is granted, but because we have love for what is right, which is opposed to evil. We are expected to protect our own because we are created in the image of God, Who takes care of His own. We love because God is love and we defend our own because He does.

      God, however, works in mysterious ways.

      “If someone slaps you on one cheek, allow him to slap the other one as well.”
      “If someone requires you to carry his load for one mile for nothing, carry it for the second one freely.”
      “Do not return evil for evil, but rather good.”
      “Do not take vengeance for yourself. Trust me, I will take care of the situation. And you, as well.”

      Jesus personified this and He taught us that we do not have to resort to violence to achieve God’s will in our lives. Above all, it is a message that we learn to trust God in everything, even when it seems that our very lives are in danger. Here is the question all must answer: Do we trust ourselves and our ability to defend ourselves or do we trust God and our belief in His Word? These are not mutually exclusive positions because we can trust God AND defend ourselves at the same time. “Trust God and keep your powder dry.” was a popular saying in early America.

      I find no fault with it.

    9. Roger, "The use of a firearm to defend ourselves is a right granted to us by the Constitution..."

      I believe it is more appropriate to say that this "right" (along with others in the Bill of Rights) is not "granted" to us by the Constitution; instead, the Constitution limits the government from infringing on this pre-existing right.

    10. Well, yes, you are right. My wording is bad. Thank you for pointing that out.

      The right to defend oneself is inherent to every creature as I mentioned above, including man. It is part of the way we are created. It is part and parcel of human nature. It is on equal footing with the right to think, the right to love, the right to make choices, the right to make mistakes, etc., and cannot be taken away by any government.

      However, it can be infringed. Restrictions can be imposed to forbid or impede the use of firearms (tools) in self-defense, under penalty of law. Governments can, in fact, completely outlaw, abolish, and prohibit the private ownership of firearms and punish those who are found guilty of transgression. Governments DO have the power to determine whether or not citizens may possess firearms.

      The "right" to self-defense is inherent. The "right" to own a gun and use it in self-defense is granted and, therefore, a privilege.

      Governments and constitutions do not and cannot confer rights. They can and do grant privileges at their discretion. Our rights, which originate in God, cannot be taken away from us, but privileges, which come from government, are subject to the whim of the law.

      Perhaps the best example of this can be found in John 19:10-11.

      "Then Pilate said to Him,...Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?"

      "Jesus answered, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above."

      If this was true for Jesus, then it is also true for us. We can go boldly and fearlessly into the future, no matter what threats the Pilates of this world issue against us.

    11. Roger, I believe I have the right - the right that no government can legitimately infringe, but regularly does - to use as a means for my defense any weapon or tool equal to that available to my enemies.

      This extends to far more than a gun, albeit governments make it illegal from going beyond this line (and of course, make many things illegal even within this line).

      To say I have the right to defend myself, but I do not have the right to be able to procure the means by which I can reasonably defend myself, makes hollow the right of self defense.

    12. Bionic,

      "...I do not have the right to be able to procure the means by which I can reasonably defend myself..."

      I did not say this. Never have, never will. I did say that governments can and do restrict that ability, which is not the same thing. ANY infringement of our right to defend ourselves is illegitimate. On that we are agreed and, hopefully, at some time in the future, people will be able to defend themselves with any weapon equal to (or greater than) that available to their enemies.

      I will never see that day, but I still look forward to it. That certainty, though, does not negate my present right to reasonably defend myself with what I have available and at hand. It just makes it more difficult. If a SWAT team breaks down your door at 0230 hours, you may not meet them legally with a bazooka and hand grenades, but you can use your 12 gauge Browning semi-auto. Or a hammer and a can of bear spray. Or perhaps you may have to dive head-first onto the floor and take up your defense later in a court of "justice" or a civil rights lawsuit.

      In the gulag, Solzhenitsyn never, as far as I know, complained because he didn't have weaponry or power equal to the jackboots clattering up his stairway, but he had plenty to say about the fear which paralyzed him, so that he couldn't pick up a poker or an axe and meet them at the top of the stair in a full-throated, though probably futile, attempt to protect himself.

      Would he have called his right to self-defense hollow? Somehow, I doubt it.

    13. Roger, I was quite certain we agreed. I just thought the language needed some clarification. I could have better introduced my statement in this regard.

    14. Perfect! Where two or three are agreed, a matter is established.

  2. Bionic, I have listened to the presentation by Fr. Legge which you linked to above and would like to hear more of what he has to say. Do you have other links which you could post or a link to the original source? I prefer audio, if possible. Thanks.

    1. Roger, I found him, along with other interesting lecturers, through an online course Aquinas 101. After signing up, every week I receive an email with a 7-10 minute video and one or two lectures - these from various speakers.

      You might also find things from him directly with a search.

    2. Thank you. I will take a look.

    3. Bionic, I signed up for this course material and just received my first lessons this morning. Haven't had a chance to review them yet, but am looking forward to it.

      Thank you very much.