A MATTER OF RIGHTS
We have rights because corollary to those right are duties.
(The following constitutes part of the notes of my talk at the US Embassy on Thursday, February 2018, on The Nature of Rights and International Human Rights Enforcement.)
Perhaps best to start with an axiom: we have rights because we have responsibilities.
That is a paraphrase of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s letter to William Gladstone. He was actually talking about “rights of conscience” but it serves our purpose: we have rights because corollary to those right are duties. They go together.
“A” has the right to live healthily and peacefully, while simultaneously having the duty not to kill or harm “B.” In essence, “A” has his rights and also the duty not to violate that of “B’s.”
Sounds simple enough. Which leads us to the puzzle as to why, from the current administration and its supporters, to progressives of the secular Left, that either a profoundly mistrustful or confusingly bloated view of rights prevails?
One possible way of addressing that question is to determine the source of and, thereafter, identifying rights’ contents. For now, let’s set aside the latter and focus on the former.
I invite the reader to former chief justice ( and now head of the Consultative Constitutional Committee) Reynato Puno’s spectacularly learned Separate Opinion in the case of Republic vs. Sandiganbayan, where he traced (more cogently than the majority opinion) the history and basis of rights. It starts with the natural law. In his opinion, CJ Puno traces its lineage: from Sophocles to Aristotle to Cicero to Aquinas, and then the trinity of political thought: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
Of Cicero, he is widely recognized for establishing the view that “right is based, not upon men’s opinions, but upon Nature.” And his dialogue De legibus is significant for providing insight on Cicero’s views regarding what we could fairly refer to as the natural law.
Of Locke, CJ Puno was quite succinct: “That Locke’s modern natural law and rights theory was influential to those who framed and ratified the United States constitution and served as its theoretical foundation is undeniable.”
Such views of rights made their way to our 1935 Constitution, which has clearly embedded within it the natural law framework. Remember that, although the 1935 Constitution contained traces of the Malolos Constitution, the Spanish Constitution, the German Constitution, the Mexican Constitution, the Constitutions of several South American countries, and the English unwritten constitution, it was the US Constitution that had the heaviest influence.
And, to reiterate, this is material because natural law ideas have been credited with having influenced the American revolution itself, as well as having sowed the seeds of constitutionalism in America.
In fact, it has been repeatedly pointed out by scholars that the American Declaration of Independence itself embodies natural law thinking: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But obviously it is not only the Americans from which the Philippines could be said to have culled its present understanding of rights. Jorge Coquia, in 1976, pointed out the “influence of natural law is more significant in the Philippines with the introduction of Christianity by the Spanish clergy and with the teaching of scholastic natural law of Thomas Aquinas.”
Interestingly, Coquia also mentioned: “It is understood that the civil and political rights now provided for in the 1973 constitution, as they were in the original constitution, are based on natural law.”
Finally, the international law system, which the Philippines is part of and its norms we incorporate, considers natural law as basis for determining whether other international law norms (such as treaties) are valid, a fact constantly recognized by our previous Supreme Courts.
Worth pointing out are the contributions of one man to The United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights: natural law thinker Jacques Maritain.
This is because the UDHR puts his ideas on natural law and human rights together in a single document: “In contributing to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Maritain recognized the need for the world to achieve agreement about universal moral standards. He believed that the horrors of the
Second World War called for a notion of natural law that was more precise in its practical implications.” (“Jacques Maritain and Alasdair MacIntyre: The Person, the Common Good, and Human Rights”; Deborah Wallace, 1999)
The problem then, if one must put it in simplified form, is dilution.
Human rights have become diluted, to the point sometimes of weightlessness or incoherence, due to the need to satisfy political correctness brought about by societal adherence to an overly individualistic sense of freedom.
We have rights ( and duties) because of our inherent human dignity as rational creatures. That human “nature,” the basis of human rights, is immutable.
Human nature also requires that we be part of a community, hence our obligation to seek the “common good” of each one of us, allowing each of us the opportunity for his individual flourishing.
Unfortunately, “rights” talk today seeks to forget that.