Jules van Schaijik

Natural rights, witches and unicorns

Sep. 26, 2010, at 10:55pm

There are quite a few books on our shelves that I feel I ought to have read, but haven’t yet. Until a few days ago, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was one of them. But now I have finally gotten around to beginning it.

Today I came to a section in which MacIntyre argues that there are no natural or human rights. This took me by surprise. He does not just say that rights-talk has gotten out of hand, or that there is too much emphasis on rights and not enough on duties and responsibilities. Nor does he limit himself to saying that an ethics of rights needs to be supplemented with, and grounded in, an ethics of virtue. No, he simply and bluntly denies that rights exist at all: “the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”

I do not have to finish the book to say that I think he is wrong about this. Rights do exist, and it is crucial to recognize and defend them. Still, I am interested in trying to understand the reasons for his position better.

So far I have found two. The first is that virtually no culture other than our own recognizes the concept of natural rights. It seems therefore to be a creation of our culture rather than an objective feature of reality that is in principle observable by all. To this I would reply (in a nutshell) that not all objective facts are explicitly recognized and understood by all cultures. (Especially some moral truths, and certain truths about the person, require a cultural maturity that cannot be taken for granted.) And so in this case our western culture has a decided advantage over most others. The recognition of natural rights naturally grows out of that deep appreciation of “the infinite worth of the individual soul”, which Max Scheler referred to as the “magna carta of Christian Europe.”

But “the best reason”, MacIntyre thinks, for asserting that rights do not exist is of “the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches,” i.e. that “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.” So far this reasoning seems circular. What he really means, however, is that, in the final analysis, all arguments for natural rights are based on the claim that their existence is self-evident, or that they are known through moral intuition. MacIntyre has no patience for that sort of claim: “we all know that there are no self-evident truths,” and “one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a sign that something has gone badly wrong with the argument.”

This reasoning is almost as surprising to me as the claim it is meant to support—especially considering the influence of Aristotle on MacIntyre. Aristotle is well known for showing that if nothing is self-evident then nothing can be proven. Self-evident truths are the ultimate starting point of any argument. Moreover not all self-evident truths are easily perceived or perceived by all. That is why Aristotle thinks that it is useless for young persons—young in age or youthful in character—to attend classes in ethics and politics.

It is true that an appeal to intuition or self-evidence can be abused. But that is hardly a reason for dismissing the notion altogether. Are there any readers who are more sympathetic with MacIntyre on this point then I am? If so, I would love to hear from you.

Katie van Schaijik • Sep 27, 2010 - 8:57 am

Speaking of abuses—
Having this post on my mind, these lines from an article by James Bennet in the Oct. 4 National Review, stood out this morning:

For decades — at a minimum, since the beginning of the Progressive Era, and arguably earlier — America had been on a course toward a more centralized society, one in which individualism as it had been understood since before the Founding — a society built on independent families living on their own properties, most of them farms — was being replaced by a different vision. The progressive vision was one of citizens as employees whose existence was mediated by negotiations among large corporations, unions, and government agencies. For such subjects, “rights” were to be a designated set of entitlements granted by those organizations.

This is exactly how “rights” seems to be understood by many in our society—as entitlements granted by government.  How antithetical to their true sense as being grounded in the objective dignity and worth of the individual!

Dan Williams • Sep 28, 2010 - 4:41 pm

Noun 1. self-evident truth - an assumption that is basic to an argument

I have to agree with Mcintye that intuition and self-evidence though basic to much philosophy is problematic.
For an interesting article on intuition which feeds into the argument for self evident truth and natural rights see;

“The Problem of Intuition”
Steven D. Hales

American Philosophical Quarterly

volume 37, number 2, 2000

Pp. 135-147

Rhett J Segall • Sep 28, 2010 - 5:53 pm


I think that denying the self evident is committing intellectual suicide. Thomas Jefferson got it right when he said “we hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, etc.” A way to understand the opposite of the evident is to consider the contrary of an assertion. Does it make sense to say all men are not created equal or to say that there is nothing wrong with being unfair or to say that something comes from nothing? Our minds cannot hold on to such assertions and stay sane.

Dan Williams • Sep 28, 2010 - 5:57 pm

Why would this denial be intellectual suicide? I have trouble understanding Jefferson when the, “all men created equal,” though sounding wonderful was not actually believed or practiced on a wide scale. Nor is it today. Maybe this is a hope rather than a self evident truth? And of course the ambiguity of the phrase ‘equal’ has been well discussed by others.

Katie van Schaijik • Sep 28, 2010 - 7:50 pm

Do you see “self-evident” and “evident to all” as synonymous, then, Dan?

I don’t.  I understand “self-evident” to mean a thing that relies on insight into what von Hildebrand called essentially necessary truths, such as “responsibility implies freedom”.  If I am not free; I am not responsible. This is not a thing that can be proved, only seen or not seen.  Nor does the fact that some people don’t see tell against its truth.  Rather it tells against the non-seer.

Dan Williams • Oct 1, 2010 - 6:40 pm

I think your right in that I had thought you, and Jefferson, where saying ‘self evident’ I did think you were saying evident to all. But you really are saying the truth is an intuitive insight which has epistemic value and weight and that normally functioning folk ala Plantina.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 2, 2010 - 1:50 pm

Did part of your comment get cut off?

Jules van Schaijik • Sep 28, 2010 - 10:34 pm

Thanks, Dan, for pressing me further on this question of self-evident truths, and for the reference to Hales’ article.

An admittedly quick reading of that article seems to supply a pretty good answer to your question above, as to why a denial of self-evident truths would be suicidal. Hales writes that

without admitting intuitions as evidence, we cannot construct a coherent epistemology. In fact, we cannot do philosophy at all. ... without intuition, philosophy is left high and dry.

Unfortunately, Hales just leaves it at that. It is simply a choice we must make between two incompatible but equally rational alternatives: either we accept the existence of self-evident truths, and we continue to do philosophy as usual, or we deny their existence, and admit that philosophy (as it is normally understood and practiced) is just so much “bunk”.

But I think Hales fails to see how self-evident truths justify themselves. A truly self-evident truth, when we understand it as such, does not just seem to us to be true. Rather, it affords us the absolutely certain knowledge that it is true. The word seeming, which still leaves room for doubt, is here totally out of place. Seeming gives way to knowing.

Hales repeatedly uses the phrase “the method of intuition justifies some propositions” to describe the view of those who, like myself, think that insight into self-evident truths is the starting point of all genuine philosophy. But I think that is putting it backwards. It is not our intuition that justifies certain propositions, but rather our contact with self-evident truths, that justifies the method by which we achieved this contact.

That said, I do believe there are real problems with appeals to intuition. For one thing, such appeals do not help if your partner in dialogue does not share the same intuition. Secondly, there is the problem of self-deception, or, at least, of uncritical, unclear, and untested intuitions that would have to be clarified and adjusted in and through discussions with others.

The examples give by Rhett and Katie are good cases in point: Jefferson put his finger on a real and important truth when he said that “all men are created equal.” But the statement itself needs to be interpreted and guarded against misunderstandings. Likewise, the idea that “responsibility implies freedom” is basically true. But it too can easily be misinterpreted. Often the linguistic expression of an insight, falls short of the insight itself. The expression can be properly understood only by those who share the insight.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 8, 2010 - 11:18 am

The ACPQ article to which I refer in the post I just added, also deals with the question of intuition. Maritain criticizes Bergson for separating intuition from the intellect, and thereby making it too much a matter of instinct and feeling. Against this, Maritain insists that the intellect itself is (also) intuitive and, hence, capable of reaching metaphysical insights that are conceptually clear and convincing.

My own view of intuition is also includes the intellect.  That is to say, I think there are all sorts of intuitions. Some of them are mysterious and obscure, and more a matter of feeling or sensing than of knowing. (e.g. “I feel that he is angry with me, in spite of what he says.”)  But others are luminously clear and can be conceptually expressed. (e.g. “Persons are ends in themselves, and may never be used as a mere means.”)

Scott Johnston • Oct 2, 2010 - 4:11 am

Jules, perhaps you know this, but I recall being told that MacIntyre, at some point later after writing After Virtue, changed his mind on some points he presented in After Virtue. I’m sorry I don’t know specifically what those points are. But I think I can say with fair certainty that he no longer holds to everything he put forth in that book, though much of what he says therein is quite valuable. We were assigned sections of it for our first course in moral theology (of a two year series) at the Dominican House of Studies.

One major point that I recall Fr. Corbett, OP, highlighting based on that book is the importance of understanding that we have a nature as human beings. This, in turn, is linked to having a telos for human life. Then, an understanding of virtue as integral to the attainment of both authentic freedom and full human flourishing is possible. The absence of a properly understood nature-rooted anthropology must eventually produce an ethics that devolves merely into the struggle for power and the imposition of the preferred laws by the powerful. No nature; no virtue; no genuine human social equality and freedom and flourishing. Nothing left but a will to dominate. At least these are a few broad themes I recall from the course during the time that we were using MacIntyre.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 2, 2010 - 2:15 pm

Both good points, Scott.
It would be interesting to know (and probably pretty easy to find out) on what points MacIntyre later changed his mind, and why.

Let me also say, for the record, that I largely agree with MacIntyre, about the importance, for ethics, of understanding the nature and end of persons. And I liked his insight into the social ramifications fo “emotivism”: that it “entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.”

LHB • Oct 4, 2010 - 6:08 am

There is an easy way to understand the natural basis of “rights” in the idea that we have moral obligations toward ourselves and toward each other.  This idea is prompted by reason, and reaffirmed by Faith and Revelation.

Whenever someone asserts a “right,” they are simultaneously asserting a corresponding obligation as a matter of formal logic.  Implicit in the idea of a “right” is that the corresponding obligation is binding on society vis a vis the individual human person who is asserting the right in question. 

To assert a right to freedom of religion is to assert the existence of an obligation that is binding on the part of every other individual in society to not attempt to force religious belief on another.  To assert a right to life is to assert an obligation that is binding on the part of every other individual in society that they not kill another.  And so on.

It is usually said that “every right must have a remedy.” If the remedy to the obligation that corresponds to the right in question is to be found in conscience (which is to say, in the Moral Law), “rights” grow out of the moral obligations that we have toward one another when we live in society.

One could argue that some rights should also have a remedy located in the law, but the basis for this assertion (if one believes in an objective moral law) is the existence of the corresponding obligation as binding in conscience.

I usually go on to distinguish between “negative” and “postive” rights when lecturing on the subject, but that directs us toward another problem which isn’t german to this discussion.

In short, the concept of “rights” specifically asserts that society has responsibilities toward the individual person, whereas throughout most of human history, in most places, the emphasis has been on the individual’s obligations toward the rest of society.  I’ve always viewed the recognition of “rights” as one of the most important contributions of Western Civilization toward a correct understanding of morality as it specifically relates to people living together in society. 

To assert that there is no basis for the existence of “natural rights” is to say that we have no moral obligations toward one another when we face them as individual human persons from the standpoint of the collective abstraction we call “society.”  This is certainly antithetical to the pronouncements of The Church’s Social Magisterium from Rerum Novarum up through Caritas en Veritate.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 4, 2010 - 8:51 am

Would you mind elaborating a little more on this idea that “every right must have a remedy”?  What exactly is meant with the term remedy here?

Thanks for the comment!  I find it very clear and helpful.

LHB • Oct 5, 2010 - 5:32 am

The word “remedy” in connection with the assertion of a right is generally taken to mean some way of ensuring that the obligation implied by the right will be fulfilled.  The term is usually used by legal scholars to imply some sort of legalistic apparatus to ensure that rights are observed.  I prefer to use the term more broadly, because if one conceives of rights in terms of their corresponding obligations, it is obvious that many such obligations are regularly fulfilled whether or not there are any legal consequences for failing to do so.  This implies that rights have a remedy that is located somewhere other than the law, which suggests that they are something much stronger and more important than the flimsy social constructs suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue.”

For example, if one asserts than all persons have a “negative” right to life, one is asserting that society has an obligation to not kill its individual members.  There are many legal remedies for violation of this right in the form of murder, manslaughter, etc. statutes.  People who argue for changes in the U.S.‘s pro-abortion regime may be viewed as advocating that a legal remedy be put in place which provides legal sanctions in cases where the obligation that we have to not kill persons that are not yet born is violated.

But since there is no legal remedy when an unborn person is killed, why are so many unborn children that are not seriously “wanted” by their parent(s) not aborted?  May I suggest that it’s because one of the most potent remedies which ensure the observation of the right to life is located in conscience.  Most of us do not kill because we do not want to violate the moral imperative against the taking of a person’s life.  Most of the obligations implied by negative rights (obligations to NOT do something) that we have toward one another would be observed by most of us, I optimistically suggest, because we know that it is morally right that we not do such things.

Since the essential remedy for all human rights is to be found in conscience, I suggest that to assert the primacy of individual human rights is not to assert something that goes against duty, responsibility, or obligation.  It is rather to assert that the most essential duties, responsibilities, and obligations that we have toward one another – as persons living together in society with other persons – are at the very foundation of human rights as they’ve come to be generally understood.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 5, 2010 - 7:59 pm

Thanks for taking time to answer, LHB. I get it now. I was thrown of by the ordinary meaning of the term “remedy,” which has to do with repairing a damage already done, rather than preventing that damage from happening in the first place.

rhett j segall • Oct 8, 2010 - 12:45 pm

Backtracking and responding to some of the thoughts on this interchange:
1. I think Jefferson’s emphasis on “hold” these truths to be self-evident is of capital importance. The power of the common opinion to pull a person away from what is evident should not be underestimated. This is exemplified in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Many truths dealing with respect for property, sexuality and truth telling are commonly denied. It is imperative in the face of public pressure to “hold” on to the evident.
2. Katie’s tying in the evident with Von Hildebrand’s phenomenology whereby a person attends to the “essentially necessary truths” is on target. However, I’ve been grappling with some thoughts by Maritain in this area. Happily Jules referencing Maritain’s emphasis on intuition provides the opportunity for formulating my thoughts.
In the “Peasant of the Garonne” M is scathing in his criticism of phenomenology:
“Whether they honor Husserl or disregard and disown him,…,all our phenomenologists presuppose Husserl and are prisoners of his Refusal.” (p.107. emphasis added)
I’m trying to understand M’s critique. I think he says that phenomenology is a form of Idealism that imprisons a person in ideas preventing contact with being thus destroying all genuine knowledge. I don’t know if this is an accurate assessment of M and wonder if vonH’s phenomenology escapes this judgment.

Katie van Schaijik • Oct 10, 2010 - 8:22 am

Someone who knows the field better than I do will have to take up your question in proper detail, but from what I have read, it seems to me that though DvH and Maritain shared a deep Catholic faith and an unshakeable philosophical devotion to truth, they were in many respects unsympathetic thinkers.  Maritain was a committed neo-Thomist; DvH a critic of neo-Thomism.  Their views on aesthetics were radically different.  And in their respective political philosophies they were about as far opposed as is possible for two true Catholics to be.  (Von Hildebrand was a friend of the Habsburgs and a defender of monarchism; Maritain was a friend of Saul Alinsky and an originator of liberation theology—which he later I think rejected.)
The differences between them in metaphysics and epistemology stem from age-old differences between Aristolelians and Platonists.
But for all their deep and passionate disagreements, when von Hildebrand was a refugee from war-torn Europe, it was a recommendation from Maritain that got him a job teaching at Fordham University in New York.  So his widow told me.

I hope someone will do a comparative study one day.

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