Being Human, Being Good: The Source and Summit of Universal Human Rights

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2004-07-26

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Abstract

This dissertation uses the concept of universal human rights to explore the relationship between the individual, society and truth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in the wake of World War II, was meant to provide a moral standard for judging the state's treatment of the individual. Yet to this day some contend that the principles expressed therein are not universal, but culturally relative. The dominant arguments for universality, however, are themselves relativistic because they are not grounded in the idea of a natural order that supplies objective standards of value. The result is not a morally neutral explanation of human dignity, but a new moral philosophy altogether that upholds personal autonomy as its highest good. But this position ultimately undermines human rights, for it entails that what is understood to be human is not fixed, but determined by the most powerful elements of society.

How did we arrive at this point of wishing to say something universally true about human beings even while lacking the philosophical means to do so coherently? To answer this, I explore the changing relationship between truth and politics from Plato to Locke. Plato and Aristotle saw truth as essential to the proper ordering of individual and political life. Christianity concurred, but held that knowing truth was no longer the sole province of philosophers. Machiavelli rejected transcendent standards as inadequate for politics. Modern political philosophy actually begins with Grotius, who, in reaction to Machiavelli's political realism, constructs a natural law philosophy divorced from the idea of objective good. This leads inevitably to Locke's non-theistic natural law and the elevation of human will to the level of the sacred, thus resulting in the current crisis of understanding in universal human rights.

The only logical ground for the concept of universal human rights is Thomistic natural law. An investigation of Aquinas's notion of being and goodness reveals that the only truly universal human rights are to life and free will. Applying this principle yields the conclusion that if human rights are to have any meaning whatsoever, there can never be a "human right" to abortion.

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Rights