Apparently the idea is floating around the Reactionary Right that Natural rights don’t exist. This is a compelling idea, considering how the Left is now using the concept of “human rights” to justify immoral license, as is all too obvious in these immoral days. The answer seems to be to reject any kind of inherent rights as incompatible with order in the society, and for those who would do so I have a question: Which is more important, Justice for the person or order for the society?
The only sound foundation of societal order is and must be the Natural Law, which is also the source of true Freedom. Such an order is inherently just, and yet is not by any means a perfect order in this fallen world. In his encyclical Libertas, Pope Leo XIII explains that,
the force of law consists in the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights
If this is true, then the force of the Natural Law consists not only of Moral commands, but of Moral rights respecting human persons. Such rights, what St. Thomas Aquinas defines as Natural Right, have their origin in Human Nature, and ultimately in the God the Creator, who is the source of the authority of the Natural Law. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris explains that,
In consequence he has been endowed by God with many and varied prerogatives: the right to life, to bodily integrity, to the necessary means of existence; the right to tend toward his ultimate goal in the path marked out for him by God; the right of association and the right to possess and use property.
Now this is not contrary to societal order, but an integral part of a truly Just and Free order. Nor are the natural rights listed above contrary to Man’s obligations, for Pope Pius later continues by saying,
Man cannot be exempted from his divinely-imposed obligations toward civil society, and the representatives of authority have the right to coerce him when he refuses without reason to do his duty. Society, on the other hand, cannot defraud man of his God-granted rights, the most important of which We have indicated above. Nor can society systematically void these rights by making their use impossible. It is therefore according to the dictates of reason that ultimately all material things should be ordained to man as a person, that through his mediation they may find their way to the Creator.
The argument that basic rights with respect to the Human person have their origin in civil society is not only flatly contrary to the Natural Law, it undermines other moral arguments. A favorite argument of the Reactionary Right these days is that the woman who procures an abortion ought to receive legal consequences if abortion is made illegal, and I am not arguing that they are wrong. But what is their own moral argument against abortion if the innocent do not have an intrinsic right to life, but rather all rights are determined by the State?
Yet in the end the question remains, “which is more important, Justice for the person and imperfect order or a seemingly perfect order for the society which denies justice?” Do we first and foremost equitably give each person his due or do we seek to impose a perfect order over society putting each person where we feel is his place? Is the ruler really ordering society to the Good if he does so at the expense of the individuals or is the ruler simply a tyrant? Has the King really returned if he denies the God-given inherent rights of his subjects or are we swearing allegiance to a false crown?
“Discipline for the whole society is surely more important than justice to an individual…”
“Discipline for society——” he repeated, very staccato, “more important—justice to individual?”
Then after a long silence he called out: “Who and what are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the white-robed figure, without turning round.
“You are not a Catholic…”
–The Ball and the Cross, G.K. Chesterton