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Who is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights
by Thomas D. Williams
The Catholic University of America Press, 342 pages, $69.95

When the Christian churches incorporated “human rights” as a philosophy and project, did they take on an ethic that corrupts their best moral thinking drawn from scripture and classical humanism? Skeptics inclined to this subversive thought have pointed to a range of issues.

The modern philosophies of natural rights, for instance, evolved in tandem with the problems they claimed to solve: the reduction of the human person to the status of an individual proprietor of powers and things; the myth of social and political orders as constructs of commutative justice; the rejection, or, in any case, the despair in locating natural or supernatural foundations for moral consensus; and the creation of state sovereignty that brings in train claims of natural rights as so many immunities against untrammeled state power. One theologian has put the issue neatly: “the question that has yet to be satisfactorily answered . . . is why Christian thinkers have been and are willing to adopt a child of such questionable parentage as the concept of human rights.”

Then again, it is claimed, the notion of human rights is subversive of the institutions of justice and the rule of law, whatever its historical and ideological lineage. Even when their content seems morally unobjectionable, human rights are often vague and leave the scope of individual and social responsibility so blurry that we cannot know with any precision who owes what to whom—or, on another model, they are enumerated in such detail that they look more like social legislation than natural rights.

Finally, these critics argue, the discourse of human rights not only leaves ontological foundations floating somewhere in air but marginalizes the moral and supernatural virtues that are necessary to keep justice from becoming abstract and ineffectual. It obscures the conversions of mind and heart, and desiccates the moral imagination necessary for treating one’s neighbor rightly.

A moderate supporter of human rights might answer that the crimes of the last century made necessary some accommodation of public rhetoric about human rights, at least for any institution wishing to speak credibly in the public sphere. Such a supporter might concede that talk of human rights leaves philosophical groundings unclear and practical details underdetermined—yet insist that discourse about human rights can be a useful way to summon minds to some of the tasks of justice. Human rights, in this view, is a secondary language, useful for the communication rather than the location of moral truths upon which justice depends.

But Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, seeks something more than moderate support for human rights. In his new book Who Is My Neighbor?, Williams maintains that “sensible ideas can sometimes arise from contaminated philosophies.” Once decontaminated—which is to say, once we understand human rights according to an adequate ontology of the human person—rights turn out to be neither alien nor secondary as a language for locating moral truth. Rather than being coyly accommodated, human rights are to be embraced. Indeed, they ought to be made even more prominent in Christian ethics and social doctrine, because they are integral to natural law and to the gospel imperative to love one’s neighbor.

The hinge for Williams is Karol Wojtyla’s thesis that “a person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love.” “In fact,” he continues, “the order of justice is more fundamental than the order of love . . . inasmuch as love can be a requirement of justice.” Williams explains the relation between love and justice according to St. Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between love of desire (amor concupiscentiae) and love of friendship (amor amicitiae).

An agent, Thomas holds, does every action from love of some kind, for love is a principle of movement toward an end. In the case of other persons, the love of goods for one’s own sake is distorted or incomplete without the love of the other person for his own sake. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as the Gospel of Matthew puts it. To understand what is a human person is to understand, however imperfectly, that the proper due is love—and to grasp this much is to understand, albeit imperfectly, that we must will for our neighbors things that are truly good for the neighbor’s own sake. Rights arise not from subjective claims, but rather from the good of human subjects.

Love is not reducible to justice, for love aims at union with the person as such; it transcends particular things exchanged. In this sense love is a movement toward completion and is called the “end” of the commandments. As Thomas explains, the commandment is fulfilled in three ways: It is “holy” if fulfilled for God’s sake, “righteous” if one wills for his neighbor only truly good things, and “true” if the neighbor is loved for his own sake, as one loves oneself. The greatest completion is found in the first way of fulfilling the commandment, but Williams correctly notes that the third way most properly signifies the scope of the precept in the sphere of justice.

At the same time, true love—loving one’s neighbor for himself, as one loves oneself—discloses the interdependence of love and justice in its most familiar terms. Doing good to another presupposes love of the other’s good. What is loveable about the neighbor magnetizes the motion of love and traces out the requirements of justice (strict duties as well as the more open-ended responsibilities to care for and promote the good of the neighbor).

Justice pertains to the particular goods relating, belonging, or being due to the other person, for the neighbor’s own good. “Thus just as the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself reveals the implicit dignity of the human person and his intrinsic ‘loveableness,’” Williams writes, “so the specifications of the commandment to love, such as the injunctions of the second tablet of the Decalogue, reveal particulars of that dignity”which are natural human rights.” In this sense, love is a “primordial ur-right.” It is, at once, the basis and the end of justice to neighbor. Williams insists that “if love is not owed to the person,” the “bottom falls out of any attempt to make sense of natural human rights and duties.” Without it, natural rights become carelessly claimed and carelessly ignored. They will look like self-assertions or political programs of the moment, floating free of the society uniting persons who are givers and recipients. Love that manifests itself in justice is good for both giver and recipient. Williams writes: “If a person fails to develop his natural gifts for art or for mathematics, that is sad. If he never learns to love, he has failed in the essential enterprise for which he was created.”

Williams sets all this out lucidly. He helps us to understand why Wojtyla and his generation of Catholic thinkers believed they were doing something more than merely accommodating the ethical idiom of natural rights. The effort to find an adequate anthropology, which occupies a considerable part of Williams’ book, is the work of Thomistic personalism, after the fashion of Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel, but especially Karol Wojtyla.

Broadly stated, Thomistic personalism uses St. Thomas Aquinas’ objective anthropology and metaphysics as a “point of departure and permanent reference point” for inquiring into the nature of human self-consciousness. Such inquiry proceeds from the inside out, from the experiential phenomena of the acting person who knows, loves, and exercises mastery over his own acts. The method is meant to describe and affirm the subjective side of what has dignity and therefore rights. Williams emphasizes, along with Wojtyla, that this exercise stands or falls on the issue of subjectivism (subjectivity either made absolute or put into a permanent state of deferral with regard to the order of nature and metaphysics). If it is successful, the personalist method yields an account of the human subject as the bearer of dignities that satisfies contemporary interest in subjectivity (what Mounier called “the perspectives of personal life”) without becoming ensnared in subjectivism, the graveyard of human rights.

Inasmuch as the analysis of subjectivity targets the experience of the person as an agent, and then generates a system of objective value and right, the project sounds rather Kantian. Indeed, its persistent division of things into those having instrumental value and those which possess intrinsic value is Kantian. Its proponents, however, contend that personalism need not depict the human person as a kind of independent value, stranded from the rest of the world and linked to it perhaps only through the bridgework of mental intentions.

For his part, Williams affirms the traditional ontology of potency-act, soul-body unity, natural sociability, and the classical understanding of the virtues. One wonders whether personalism avoids the pitfalls and obscurities just to the extent that it grafts itself on to a more classical philosophy—specifically to the Thomism that it set out to “improve.” Williams, for example, begins with the binary division of persons having intrinsic value in contrast to the rest of the world, but when he moves into the constructive chapters of the book, on the relation between love and justice, the two-term Kantian division is translated into a much richer picture of intelligible goods and appetites and diverse modes of love and friendship. It is as though a switch were flipped, and the phenomena begin to acquire the dimensions of a living world. Phenomena acquire names, definitions are drawn, and distinctions multiply as the plot thickens.

For personalists of the strict persuasion, this is not supposed to happen. Williams remarks that “the great value of personalistic thought is that, in a sense, it picks up where Thomas leaves off.” The question cannot be settled here, but it seems the order of Williams’ own inquiry and exposition shows the opposite to be true.

Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.