Rights, Virtue, and the Common Good

Paper presented at a seminar on Jacques Maritain, sponsored by the American Maritain Association, at Princeton University, October 28-29, 1983.

The author of a recent popular article on Maritain argued that “it was Maritain, more than anyone else, who taught the Church to speak the language of human rights . . .” The Church did indeed have to learn the language of rights. For most of its history it addressed questions posed by political and social life without mentioning natural rights or human rights. Two of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition, Augustine and Aquinas, did not have a rights teaching at all. It is not even clear when and why the Church began to use the language of rights.

Everyone knows that the first great modern encyclical, Rerum Novarum, states that people have both rights and duties in the political order. Less well known is that Leo XIII’s defense of a right to property differs from the thought of Aquinas, who simply argues that it is licit and necessary to possess property. The pope’s stress on the natural right to property sounds more like Locke than Aquinas. By asserting that the right to property must be regarded as sacred, Leo XIII invests the ownership of property with more importance and dignity than it had in the mind of Aquinas. The latter nevertheless contended that ownership serves three important purposes in society: it promotes industry, order and peace. Aquinas also argues that “the division of possessions is not according to natural right, but rather arose from human agreement . . .” Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to natural right, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”

Today hardly anyone addresses questions of justice in the political and social order without invoking human rights (The term that has come to replace the older language of natural rights). There is, however, disagreement as to the content of human rights and little or no consensus as to their foundations. What Jacques Maritain asserted in Man and the State is still true: there is no commonly accepted rational justification for the rights of man. Some assume that there are rights teachings in the gospel and/or writings of the classical political philosophers. Others see the seventeenth century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, as the originator of natural rights teaching. Jacques Maritain believes that the philosophical foundations of the rights of man is natural law. Maritain does not argue that Augustine and Aquinas put forth a teaching on rights in their reflections on natural law. He believes that philosophers in the eighteenth century achieved a great breakthrough by discovering and showing conclusively that natural law required respect for the rights of man. That discovery, he says, was “due to progress in moral and social experience.” Older Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, Maritain implies, failed to see all the ramifications of their natural law teachings.

Maritain further argues that rights do not have a solid foundation unless man has intrinsic dignity because of his essence or nature. In other words, respect for rights can be defended only if man has a certain kind of nature and, thus, is ordered to a final end.

Maritain is fully aware of the problems with rights teachings, especially because of the influence of Rousseau and Kant.

. . This philosophy of rights ended up, after Rousseau and Kant, by treating the individual as a god and making the rights ascribed to him the absolute and unlimited rights of a god. The rights of the human person were to be based on the claim that man is subject to no law other than that of his own will and freedom.

In Maritain’s mind, rights do not have a solid foundation if they are based on the human subject. Rights need, Maritain believes, God, nature and natural law as a foundation and as an end. Without a foundation and a goal outside of man there would be no way to establish objective guidelines for the exercise of rights. In Maritain’s words,

Modern man claimed human rights and dignity without God, for his ideology grounded human rights and human dignity in a godlike, infinite autonomy of human will which any rule or measurement received from another would offend and destroy.

Maritain fully realizes that the modern justification of rights leaves no room for an objective standard to which people could or should look for guidance in the exercise of their rights. In the modern secular understanding rights stand alone without any intrinsic relation to duties or obligations. In Maritain’s mind this attitude is not in accord with the natural law. “A genuine and comprehensive view would pay attention both to the obligations and the rights involved in the requirements of natural law.” The liberty afforded by rights needs “the mastery of self or moral responsibility.”

A corollary of the autonomous human will as the foundation of rights is the abandonment of a teleological view of many by the modern mind. In Maritain’s words:

. . . modern man looked for democracy — without any heroic task of justice to be performed and without brotherly love from which to get inspiration. The most significant political improvement of modern times, the concept of, and the devotion to, the rights of the human person and the rights of the people, was thus warped by the same loss of the concept and the sense of purpose or finality and the repudiation of the evangelical ferment acting in human history.

While celebrating the modern discovery of rights, Maritain believes significant problems will develop because of the modern repudiation of any purpose of life.

In Man and the State, Maritain gives a brief explanation of how a teleological view of man and society affects the way he understands the place of rights in human life.

It is by virtue of the hierarchy of values to which we subscribe that we determine the way in which the rights of man, economic and social as well as the individual should in our own eyes, pass into the realm of existence.

Maritain describes the values to which he subscribes as personalistic. Personalists see the mark of human dignity in the power to make the goals of nature “serve the common con-quest of intrinsically human, moral and spiritual goods and of man’s freedom of autonomy.” The two other major systems of values which determine the way people understand the meaning and limits of rights are liberal-individualistic and communistic. Advocates of the former see the mark of human dignity in the power of individuals to decide freely, without recourse to objective criteria, how best to use the gifts of nature. Advocates of the latter see the mark of human dignity in the power “to submit these same goods to the collective command of the social body in order to “free” human labor . . . and to gain control of history . . .”

Despite Maritain’s theoretical difficulties with modern rights teaching, he looked with great favor on modern democracy. He believed democracy not only protected rights but facilitated the practice of virtue. Of America Maritain wrote:

The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling. . . . if a new Christian civilization, a new Christendom is ever to come about in human history, it is on American soil that it will find its starting point.

In his 1943 book, entitled Christianity and Democracy, Maritain almost waxes lyrical in his praise of democracy. For example, he writes:

the democratic impulse burst forth in history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel. . . . This form and this ideal of common life which we call democracy, springs in its essentials from the inspiration of the Gospel and cannot subsist without it.

. . the chances of religion, conscience and civilization coincide with those of freedom: freedom’s chances coincide with those of the evangelical message.

Because of the gospel influence the secular conscience has come to recognize the dignity of the human person. Maritain sees great benefits accruing to society from the democratic political philosophy which he calls a humanistic philosophy. Democracy, inspired by the proper philosophy, safeguards the dignity of the human person and fosters liberty, equality, fraternity, law and justice.

Maritain does concede that the gospel needed help from secular sources in order to bring about the widespread acceptance of democracy. He mentions, in particular, Locke, Rousseau, and the Encyclopedists, none of whom “can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.” From all that Maritain says in praise of democracy you might expect him to argue that Christians must regard democracy as the best regime. Consistent with the Christian tradition he does not do so. Instead he says,

One can be a Christian and achieve one’s salvation while militating in favor of any political regime whatsoever, always on condition that it does not trespass against natural law and the law of God.

Maritain is clearly saying that the gospel has political implications: “democracy is the temporal manifestation of evangelical inspiration.” Yet on the other hand, Maritain also clearly affirms that Christians can oppose in good conscience the establishment of democratic regimes and even work to dismantle those already in existence. Why are Christians free to oppose a regime produced by evangelical inspiration? It would make more sense to hold either that Christians should embrace democracy or to argue that the gospel doesn’t have any definite political implications and thus leaves Christians free to choose whichever regime seems best.

Maritain, as noted, does concede that Christians were not the first to see the democratic implications of the Christian message. Though the roots of democracy are evangelical, it came to be embraced in the modern world only “by aligning itself with erroneous ideologies and with aberrant tendencies.” One insightful critic of Maritain’s position asks,

how is it that the obscure work of the evangelical spirit in history had to be done not in and by, but outside of and against the Church, even most often against the faith.

The Common Good

Maritain argues that a person “is more a whole than a part” and has absolute dignity because of a direct relation with the absolute. “. . . the person as person, requires to be treated as a whole in society.” “. . . the human person as a spiritual totality referred to the transcendent whole surpasses and is superior to all temporal societies.” On the other hand Maritain argues that the person stands in need of society for three reasons: for all the requisite material conditions of life, and in order to acquire knowledge and moral perfection.

The common good, according to Maritain, comprises not only those utilities or advantages, or conditions necessary for the good life but also the bonum honestum of a multitude of persons, including justice and moral rectitude. The common good demands the development of virtue in the individuals of the body politic. The common good is not a simple aggregation of private goods and not the good of a whole which sacrifices its parts. It is common to the whole and to the parts and requires recognition of the fundamental rights of persons. To achieve the common good society needs a significant contribution from individuals, especially their love.

The common good should be the goal of politics. Hence statesmen must not only try to improve the material conditions of life but also promote directly and indirectly the good life of the multitude. Maritain also expects the family, the church, and the various and sundry associations in society to make a significant contribution toward the achievement of the common good.

In one of his more eloquent essays, “The End of Machiavellianism” Maritain argues that the observance of justice and moral virtues tends to promote the long term survival and welfare of the political community, while injustice and moral vice produce the opposite result. Hence the pursuit of the common good, especially the bonum honestum is necessary to prolong the life of the nation and facilitate the attainment of external goods by persons in the body politic. Maritain also believes that without a serious national preoccupation with a common work to accomplish, a nation will define itself in opposition to other nations. In this perspective a genuine pursuit of the common good at home will contribute to international peace.

For all that Maritain says about the importance and content of the common good, he still seems to accept the primacy of the spiritual rather than the primacy of the common good.

. . . it appears that the common good of the temporal order is essentially subordinated . . . to the extra-temporal good of the human being taken in his quality of person, that is to say, as a whole endowed with a spiritual life and called to a destiny outside time.

In Maritain’s view a person is not a part of society qua person “since to speak of a person is to speak of a whole, not a part.” A human being is part of society qua individual and in that capacity can be called upon to sacrifice his individual good, including his life, for the common good of the temporal order.

In 1943, Charles DeKoninck of the University of Laval published a book entitled De La Primauté Du Bien Cornmun Contre les personnalistes. Although De Koninck never mentions Maritain by name one cannot but notice the striking contrast with one of the latter’s books entitled Primauté du Spirituel. In fact, De Koninck’s book prompted Fr. Eschmann to write an article entitled “In Defense of Jacques Maritain.”

De Koninck’s book is not easy to understand. It is then not surprising to me that scholars would disagree among themselves as to whether or not De Koninck was criticizing Maritain’s understanding of the common good. I would not venture to propose any definitive statement on the issue but would make the following observations. De Koninck clearly rejects the view that the good of the individual person is superior to the common good even though the individual’s good is supernatural beatitude. De Koninck argues that supernatural beatitude by its very transcendence is “the most universal common good which must be loved for itself and for its diffusion.” In other words De Koninck doesn’t think that supernatural beatitude is properly sought unless an individual desires that it be shared by others. A Christian cannot properly desire the beatific vision just for himself.

In other words, the most elevated good of man is appropriate for him, not inasmuch as he is in himself a certain whole where the self is the principal object of his love, but in the measure that he is part of the whole, a whole which is accessible to him on account of the very universality of his knowledge.

In De Koninck’s view it is as a part of a whole “that we are ordered to the greatest of all good which can only be ours in its communicability to others.” The divine good cannot formally be “the proper good of the man in the measure that he is singular person.”


There is little discussion of the common good today because there is no agreement on the nature of the good. The denial of the common good follows from denying that value judgments — judgments about man’s nature and his ends — can be true or objective. There is a great deal of talk about justice today, even the primacy of justice. For example, in a Theory of Justice, John Rawls proposes to establish principles of justice by attempting not to rely on any particular view of the good, of human nature, or of final ends. This is the world of deontological liberalism according to which society is best arranged on principles that presuppose no particular view of the good. This is the best arrangement because society is composed of many different kinds of individuals, all with their own interests and conceptions of the good. The implicit premise of this argument is that there is no hope of ever coming to substantial agreement on the nature of the good. The universe of the deontological ethic is one without an objective moral order; it has no telos or purpose. There is no good to which all people are attracted or bound by reason of their human nature.

According to Maritain there can be no ethics unless there are answers to the questions “What is man? Why is he made? What is the end of human life?” Most modern rights teachings prescind from these questions. Since human rights are mostly based on the autonomous human will and linked with a non-teleological view of man, might not the celebration of human rights turn even the minds of Christians away from virtue and the common good? The giant shadow of Immanuel Kant looms so large over moral and political philosophy that the great stress in Catholic circles on the dignity and rights of the human person might serve Kantian rather than Christian ends. The transformation of the Christian human rights teaching in a Kantian direction is surely facilitated by virtual neglect of Maritain’s caveats regarding the problems with modern rights teachings.

Many will think that to raise questions about the dignity and rights of the human person is to approach heresy, to condemn which both the right and the left would enthusiastically join forces. Accustomed as we are to hearing the affirmation of the dignity of the human person we are apt to forget, in the words of Charles De Koninck, that one can at the same time affirm the dignity of the human person and be in very bad company. Some contemporary scholars even think that there are no solid philosophical grounds for respecting rights. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his widely read book, After Virtue, makes that very argument with the following conclusion:

The best reason for asserting so bluntly that there are no such rights is indeed of precisely the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches and the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no unicorns, every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.

Maclntyre goes on to point out that one of the latest defenders of human rights, Ronald Dworkin, (Taking Rights Seriously, 1976) concludes that no one has demonstrated the existence of such rights, but argues that they may nevertheless exist on a solid foundation. This is true, Maclntyre responds, “but could equally be used to defend claims about unicorns and witches.”

Human beings do of course have great dignity because they are created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. The Christian affirmation of human dignity is, however, intrinsically linked with both a definite view of human nature and a final end. Christians must be careful not to downplay these unfashionable truths, while rejoicing over what they have in common with non-Christians and non-religious people, viz., respect for the dignity and rights of the human person. Cardinal Villeneuve expressed a similar point of view in his preface to De Koninck’s book De La Primauté Du Bien Commun Contre les personnalistes. He said that it was wholly proper to exalt the dignity of the human person but not sufficient “because the person, man, is not an end in himself, nor the end of everything.”

[The person] has God for an end, and to wish to borrow the language of others, even when one seems to correct it by the charm of the best adjectives . . . even if one doesn’t exclude the implications which orthodoxy supposes, one also implies the thought of others, a naturalistic, atheistic thought . . . and one facilitates the overthrow of civilization because one overthrows language and with language philosophy and theology.

Cardinal Villeneuve was afraid that the glorification of the human person would promote the organization of society around the individual person, and not “in terms of the common good, in its various degrees” . . . that is to say, God.

Permit me to conclude with a few judgments about Maritain’s political thought. He doesn’t explain in what way rights find their base in natural law. Secondly, Maritain exaggerates the importance of rights teachings given their weak philosophical foundation and separation from teleology. Thirdly, because of his understanding of the human person, Maritain does not sufficiently maintain the primacy of the common good.

On the positive side Maritain’s personal integrity and his political thought provide a moving example of courageous dissent from fashionable trends. His insights continue to shed light on contemporary problems. For example, he points out that teachings on human rights can be warped if not placed within a teleological perspective.

Secondly, Maritain has helped to keep alive the very idea of a common good based on an understanding of what constitutes human perfection. Thirdly, Maritain reminds us how important the cultivation of virtue, especially by the Church, is for the renewal of society. In his words, “A renewal of the social order in Christian lives will be a work of sanctity or it will not occur at all.”

  • J. Brian Benestad

    J. Brian Benestad is a member of the Theology and Religious Studies faculty at the University of Scranton.

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