Aquinas skates to where the puck's going to be
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
It’s like trying to play hockey inside a moving train. The ice is right below you. The puck keeps whipping around. Good luck trying to skate in such a constrained space!
The hockey rink has been carved up into tinier icy patches and distributed across multiple train cars. Rumour has it, if you skate from one end of the train to the other, you will see a goalie at each end, each guarding his net.
But practically no one ever gets around to skating from car to car. The door at the end of each car is a bottleneck. Besides, who likes jumping from car to car on a moving train? You could easily fall and tumble outside, especially when you are wearing skates and loads of hockey gear.
It’s a rare feat to move the puck from car to car, to get any closer to the goal. Most players, therefore, have simply given up on that game. Instead, they spend their time duking it out on their current icy patch. It’s a face-off that never ends.
And the train keeps rolling along.
This insane game is what our political situation is like today when it comes to human rights. Take the “right to life,” for example. The political battles over such a simple, foundational idea grind away on one spot and mostly go nowhere.
If people cannot even agree on what rights to defend, then maybe we need to rethink “rights.” Are there in fact such things as “human rights”? If so, how do we even know what they are?
The term “human rights,” I would point out, is historically of relatively recent origin. In earlier centuries, they were called “natural rights.” The term refers to various subjective powers of the individual human being to act.
The general idea is these rights are founded somehow on human nature. But ever since their origin, it seems the terms have simply become labels for whatever subjective preferences people have. The self-assertion of the modern individual is in no small part enabled by this new tradition of subjective natural rights.
But there is an older tradition of objective “natural right” (in Latin, ius naturale). This term translates a phrase from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. It sums up the wisdom of the ancients about “natural justice,” the higher standard according to which human laws must be measured.
This higher standard of justice is also what Thomas Aquinas refers to when, in the thirteenth century, he discusses “natural law” (lex naturalis). The idea of “natural law” is that human beings are capable of objectively knowing what is universally right and wrong. The Catholic Church today affirms the truth of this idea, referring to it as the “natural moral law.”
Even if we could enumerate and agree upon various subjective “natural rights,” nonetheless, the more important point is they are always only derived from, and founded upon, objective “natural right” or “natural law.”
This seems to be what Pope Francis was gesturing towards when he made his remarks about the massacre in Paris by Islamic terrorists at the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January.
The Catholic pundit John Allen Jr. notes Francis “stirred the waters” with his comments. On the one hand, Francis was saying, “nothing can ever justify such violence,” but also (in Allen’s paraphrase) that “one should expect blowback if you go around insulting people’s religious convictions.”
Allen perceptively summarizes the true significance of Francis’ remarks: “It was a rejection of the secular gospel of free speech as an absolute good.”
The “secular gospel of free speech,” as a purely subjective right, is divorced from any grounding in an objective natural moral law. If rights are nothing but the assertion of individual preferences, then all that a right to “free speech” means is (in Allen’s words) “giving people license to say the vilest things about religion and then posturing as if doing so is somehow a virtue.”
In the wake of the massacre, the phrase Je suis Charlie (French for “I am Charlie”) became a popular slogan at rallies and in the social media. Many people, however, felt uncomfortable identifying themselves with publishers of offensive material.
The pressing question we face, therefore, is how should we go about affirming the objective dimension of things like free speech, especially if we are uncomfortable with the “secular gospel” of unlimited subjective natural rights?
Wayne Gretzky famously knew how to skate to where the puck was going to be, not to where it had been. When it comes to the debate over free speech, Thomas Aquinas is “The Great One” who has a similar skill.
Modern politics chops up justice into individual subjective rights across a vast range of subjective preferences, much like a train of cars with iced floors. But if you want to reach the goal, you still need to skate with Thomas, to the objective moral law.
Je suis Thomiste.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.
“Who Should Judge the Limits of Free Speech?” is the title of a free event open to the public at Trinity Western University on Wednesday, March 4, from 7:00pm to 9:00pm, in the Northwest Auditorium. Dr. Grant Havers of TWU will speak on “Is Freedom of Speech an Absolute?” and Dr. Morrissey will speak on “Does Error Have Any Rights?” There will be ample time for questions and free speech from the audience.