Jacques Maritain: On Human Rights

I’ve been supposedly talking about Jacques Maritain for four weeks now, and I don’t feel like I’ve said a damn thing about what he’s actually writing. I’m going to try and do that today – not with reference to Christianity and Democracy, but to the other volume in my book – The Rights of Man and Natural Law. I’ll give you the set-up to the last few weeks. Basically, there’s an intro to this book on Maritain that talks about how gay people are anti-Christian and anti-democratic and there’s a secret agenda to wipe democracy off the face of the earth. These last four weeks have been my form of response to that idea. Today, I’m actually finally going to look at the resources within Maritain for dealing with this idea. 

The basic building blocks of the argument are the State, and the rights of the individual within that State. Maritain opens by saying that The Rights of Man is about clarifying that element of political philosophy in the wake of the Second World War. He suggests that the aim of society is not just the individual good, or the collection of all individual goods bundled together (ie the maximised happiness of utilitarianism), but the collective good, the common good. The common good is “essentially integrity of life, the good and righteous human life of the multitude.” That’s why “every unjust and immoral political act is in itself harmful to the common good.” This is where conservative Christians enter the arena – gay relationships are bad, they say, and making them legal and normal is therefore bad. On the other hand, from my (pro-gay) perspective, the anti-gay attitude of conservative Christians is unjust and immoral, and harmful to the common good. So where do we go from there?

Maritain is pretty big on the idea that the individual shouldn’t be subordinated to the State. This is where his religious beliefs come into it: we are social, political creatures, and we are under the political community to the extent that we are political creatures, but we are also spiritual creatures oriented towards God. Our fulfilment is not found in the political community; we are political creatures in part, but we transcend that community in our orientation towards God. Further, the political community serves to activate the individual in their orientation towards God. It is not an end in itself. “Man finds himself by subordinating himself to the group, and the group attains its goal only by serving man and by realizing that man has secrets which escape the group and a vocation which the group does not encompass.”

For Maritain, when the State becomes an end in itself, that’s totalitarianism. The idea that the individual is only political, and that everything needs to be subordinated to the organisation of the State. I will admit that it’s why conservative Christians are accusing the ‘gay agenda’ of being totalitarian – our society is being refigured into something where gay relationships are normal and fine, and they see that as like the State being fascist and imposing a pro-gay status quo on everyone. Our spiritual orientation, for conservative Christians, is being undermined by a State that sees itself as an end in itself. The spiritual dimension is being excluded and we are becoming totalitarian.

Obviously I would suggest that conservative Christians have got it the wrong way round. I would suggest that they’re the fascists with their anti-gay agenda, and that legalising and normalising gay marriage releases the (gay) individual from the domination of the State. Maritain condemns “dictatorships of a totalitarian-clerical type,” and I join him in that. The question, then, is what should democracy look like? Obviously democratic societies are allowed – indeed, expected – to condemn bad things like murder and eating babies. What separates those good and proper democratic processes from the processes of a fascist government? That is, given this split over whether gay marriage is good or bad, what’s the democratic thing to do? How do we stop the State becoming an end unto itself, and maintain the right of the individual to transcend the State towards their higher existential calling? Do we have to resolve the question of whether gay marriage is good or bad first, or can we find a route through political philosophy that allows us to leave that question unresolved?

Let’s sweep through a couple tangential points on our way to dealing with this question. Maritain describes this democratic society as Christian or theist, because under this democratic model God is recognised as “the prime source of political society and authority among men.” Fuck, I’m also super sorry about all the gendered language, it’s just Maritain. Anyway: that’s not to say that non-Christians or non-religious people can’t participate in society. You can cooperate in the common good if you “believe in the dignity of the human person, in justice, in liberty, [and] in neighbourly love.” Honestly I’d say that all of my non-Christian friends are way stronger on all of these points than most of the Christians I’ve met. My friends are fucking fired up about the dignity of the human person, while most of my Christian connections are fired up about conversion. It gets to the point, actually, where I’ve heard multiple Christians say that we don’t have to worry about politics. What is politics to the Christian, they say. What is the dignity of the human person, I hear.

Okay so obviously there’s a link for Maritain between the function of religion and the function of the State. He’s very firm on the evangelical imperative of Catholicism – we’re basically right, he says, and we’re going to try and help you understand that. At the same time, however, “it would be very wrong to conclude that the principle [of Catholic truth] can only be applied by claiming for the true religion the favours of an absolutist power or the assistance of the soldiery.” You can’t brute-force your religion into political power any more. He goes further and says that any attempt at religious brute-force would compromise the spiritual mission. It would represent the corruption of a church that does not understand the separation of temporal and eternal things. The political sphere, by contrast, “has more perfectly differentiated its proper sphere and its temporal object.” Everyone in the political sphere gets equal rights, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs. If one religion is legally and politically privileged over all the others, “even though it were the true religion,” political society would be divided and the common good would be compromised. Fucking pay attention, conservatives. Jacques Maritain says you can’t ban gay marriage just because of your faith. You are not to be legally and politically privileged even if you are right (and you’re not, on this point). You are dividing political society and compromising the common good. Fucking stop it.

So if we’re not allowed to privilege any given set of religious values, what are the values that political society should revolve around? Are we just replacing religious values with a bunch of secular values that we’re disingenuously pretending are totally neutral? Well, Maritain suggests that the proper task of political community is the betterment of the individual, “in such a manner that each concrete person, not only in a privileged class, but throughout the masses, may truly reach that measure of independence which is proper to civilized life.” It’s about liberation from political bondage, from economic or social bondage. Anti-gay marriage proponents would say that we’re creating social and political bondage by foisting our gay acceptance on their children. We would say the same in reverse. They say that we’re legitimising sin; we say that they’re trying to privilege their religious beliefs. They’re talking about right and wrong (or their understanding of); we’re talking about political structure. This is the ground that the argument has to take place on: we’re never going to convince them that gay marriage is good. But we can convince them that gay marriage is democratic. And that will put the argument to rest.

Let me pause briefly to tell you a story. Back in 2013, when the gay marriage bill was being passed in New Zealand, I wasn’t sure about the morality of being gay. I was really conflicted – I’d been brought up in an environment where it was considered bad, but I was having trouble remaining committed to that view. Today, it’s a view that I’ve abandoned. Being gay is fine and great and divinely ordained. But even in the midst of that conflict, I was really excited about the gay marriage bill passing. I understood that temporal things needed to be separated from the spiritual. I wasn’t able to communicate it, but I believed in the integrity of the democratic process and its independence from my religious beliefs. In The Rights of Man, as well as Christianity and Democracy, Maritain offers a correction: that the democratic process is not really independent from my religion at all. In fact, he argues that democracy is fundamentally rooted in Christianity. If he is correct, then gay marriage is an example of Christian democracy in process, and it needs to be upheld by Christians as an example of Christian democracy working how it’s supposed to. That is, if Maritain is right, my my original 2013 perception was wrong. It’s not that democracy is displaying its independence from Christianity, it’s that democracy is underpinned by Christianity and therefore Christianity is affirming itself by affirming the validity of the gay marriage bill.

We haven’t quite reached that point of the argument though. We still have to show that for Maritain, gay marriage is within the bounds of the democratic process, and that it doesn’t just represent a corruption of democratic principles (as conservative Christians might suggest). Maritain introduces the idea of natural law, which for him is derivative from divine law. Basically he argues there’s like a moral code that we all can access and strive towards and get better at. It’s not a written law, he argues, and it’s not something that people necessarily have a perfect understanding of: “Man’s knowledge of [natural law] has increased little by little as man’s moral conscience has developed.” This caveat is necessary, because obviously some people have things that they instinctively think are right but are actually fucked up. People used to think that black people were cursed by God. Obviously that’s fucked up. For Maritain, the fact that “every sort of error and deviation is possible in the determination of these things merely proves that our sight is weak and that innumerable accidents can corrupt our judgement.” Even though the conservatives think being gay is wrong, innumerable accidents can corrupt their judgement. Don’t get too excited though – the same principle applies to us. Even though we think being gay is fine, innumerable accidents can corrupt our judgement.

To be clear, I’m fully committed to gay civil rights. But on a very basic philosophical level, it’s not inconceivable that I could be incorrect – and not just about this, either. Maybe murder is morally virtuous. Maybe the Jews are right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being committed to a perspective while also remaining conscious of the fact that we’re all limited human beings and there’s always more to learn and more areas for growth. Sometimes that growth means recognising that something you thought was true actually isn’t. That’s how I moved from being anti-gay to pro-gay. It would feel impolite to expect conservative Christians to have that openness without maintaining it myself.

So there’s natural law, and we’re still learning more about it. Natural law informs the laws built into our legal systems – “they are a prolongation or extension of natural law.” But natural law isn’t just a series of moral rules – it’s also a series of rights. Maritain distinguishes between natural law, the Law of Nations, and positive law, but we’re basically skipping over all that at the moment. Maritain argues that in terms of rights, “man’s right to existence, to personal freedom, and to the pursuit of the perfection of moral life, belongs, strictly speaking, to natural law.” Here are some of the other rights that Maritain attributes to the individual: “the right to existence and life; the right to personal freedom or to conduct one’s own life as master of oneself and of one’s acts, responsible for them before God and the law of the community; the right to the pursuit of the perfection of moral and rational human life; [and] the right to the pursuit of eternal good.” There are others, but let’s start with these.

That second one is the really crucial one for our purposes. As an individual, you have the right to personal freedom, to conduct your own life as you want. Here’s Maritain on this personal freedom:

“Every human person has the right to make his own decisions with regard to his personal destiny, whether it be a question of choosing one’s work, of marrying the man or woman of one’s choice, or of pursuing a religious vocation.”

And there it is. As a human person, you have the right to make your own decisions about who you marry – the man or woman of your choice. It’s right there. That’s it. It’s a human right that stems from the natural law laid down by God. Now note: this isn’t necessarily the same as saying that gay marriage is right in the eyes of God. It’s just saying that actually, as a human being you’ve got the right to self-determination. Marry who you want, choose your own work – these decisions are your God-given democratic right. But there’s a super important caveat. Your conduct is not free of consequence.

Maritain says that you have the right to pursue moral perfection. That’s something that you have. However, he also says that you are responsible for your actions before God and before the law of the community. So say you think murder is morally acceptable. You murder someone, and the State locks you up for violating its laws: “the State has the right to punish me if, my conscience being blind, I follow my conscience and commit an act in itself criminal or unlawful.” You’ve got the right to freedom of morality, but the State also has the right to put you in jail for transgressing against its laws. The right to freedom of conscience does not mean the right to avoid State punishment if you perform an illegal act. However, even within that, “the State has not the authority to make me reform the judgement of my conscience.” If you do a bad thing because you think it’s good, the State has the right to lock you up – but you still have the right to believe that you’re doing a good thing. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed irrespective of legal consequences, but freedom of conscience does not mean immunity from legal consequences.

What we’ve got, then, is a distinction between the morality of the individual and the morality of the State. They don’t always align. You can think that murder is morally good, and the State will imprison you for murdering people, which it sees as morally bad. You’re still allowed to think that murder is good, but at that stage you’re in jail and you can’t hurt anyone, so I don’t really care what you think. This distinction is a natural and normal part of democracy. Nobody is claiming that the State is always morally right. It’s obviously not. And nobody is claiming that the individual is always morally right. That’s also obviously dumb. But in a healthy democracy, everybody gets involved and gets politically active and we organise political parties and political groupings and people express their ideas and opinions and then we all vote for the people we want in charge of the State. And the State operates for the people by the will of the people. And sometimes the people are fucking stupid and they elect dictators and fascists and whatever other sort of scum you can imagine. That’s their right. They are responsible for their decisions before God, but they have the right to self-determination, to independently work out their destiny as a nation.

So you might not like gay marriage. Tough. As human beings in New Zealand, we have the right to work out our collective destiny. It’s not anti-democratic, it’s democracy in fucking action. The National party did not lose power in 2014 after gay marriage passed, because the population of New Zealand decided that they wanted the National party to keep on doing what they were doing. Actually technically 32 of the 59 National MPs voted against gay marriage in its third reading but it passed anyway, so it wasn’t for lack of trying on their part. Even so, the Conservative Party, which has the explicit agenda of repealing the gay marriage bill, did not win and still has not won a single seat in Parliament, so how’s that for the will of the people.

If you are a conservative Christian, and you don’t like gay marriage, that’s your right. You can campaign against it and organise political groups against it and try and get into Parliament. But gay marriage is not anti-democratic. If anything is anti-democratic, it’s the attempt to invalidate our authentic striving for a better and more just society. We might not have it totally right, but we’re trying our fucking hardest. We’ve all got the right and responsibility to do the best that we can in this world, and we’re all pursuing what’s right as best we know how. When our visions of right and wrong differ, that’s all a normal and natural part of human existence. It doesn’t mean that we’re anti-democratic. Stop trying to invalidate our position because it doesn’t cohere with yours. We’re not impinging on any of your basic human rights. You still have the right to self-determination. In fact, you’ve been given another legal avenue of self-determination – if you want to have a gay marriage, that’s now available to you.

Of course, if you’re a conservative Christian, you might say that you feel like you are having your basic human rights infringed on. You might say that you feel like you can’t express your anti-gay views, because you get shouted down or criticised by people. Tough. Stop being such a fucking snowflake. You have the right to freedom of conscience; you do not have the right to immunity from its social consequences. If you saw a literal flag-waving Nazi in the streets, you would argue the same applies to them. They don’t get immunity from criticism just because they’re exercising their conscience. They don’t get immunity from social or even legal consequence just because they’re exercising their conscience. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that our situations were reversed, as they historically have been. Let’s go back a hundred years to when gay relationships were illegal in New Zealand. Actually, let’s just go back thirty-three years – after all, it was illegal until ’86. In 1986, do you imagine that gay people were able to express their views about gay marriage without being criticised and shouted down? They had the right to freedom of conscience, but not the right to immunity from its social consequences. Now the make-up of New Zealand society has progressed, and changed, and we’ve all come further in our collective understanding of natural law, and we’ve largely decided that actually being gay is fine. We’ve made progress. You might not see it like that, but none of the rules have changed. So I’m not really arguing with you about whether it’s right or wrong. I’m just pointing out that it’s all still democracy.

I’ll finish with Maritain, who’s finally had his work considered on Week 4 – sorry about that, again. I’m actually going to dip back into Christianity and Democracy, because something he says about the Communists in Chapter 7 seemed very relevant to this conversation. He basically opens by asking what we’re going to do about Communism, which “is a totalitarian and atheistic catastrophe of democracy itself.” He suggests quite bluntly that “Communists are not Communism, and, at the cost of blood shed in the cause of common liberation, they have openly won the right to take part in the work of reconstruction as companions in arms.” He’s not saying we should all just accept Communism – on the contrary, we must demand “that the strength of the laws which protect freedom must be opposed to schemes of violence, from whatever quarter they may come.” Nevertheless, he insists that the population must “frankly accept the cooperation of the Communists and their participation in the common talk,” while still maintaining “complete autonomy with regard to them.” Obviously we can’t maintain autonomy from each other as citizens in New Zealand society. Maybe that’s fine. There’s still a basic point about the necessity of human cooperation, even – and perhaps especially – across ideological lines.

Maritain suggests that the best way to overcome communism is to rob it of its pretexts, to create a democracy “fully resolved upon social justice” and “determined to put an end to the hegemony of money.” Basically, he says, take the best things about communism and do them better than the communists. I’ve always said that for me, non-Christians have consistently demonstrated more of the character of God than the Christians of my acquaintance. The non-Christians in my life have been patient, gentle, forgiving, kind, loving, appreciative, faithful, and supportive. They have taught me about being a good person and accepting different points of view. This morning, one of my friends received a message. He used to be a very conservative Christian – much more than me – but has since moved away from the faith. This message was from one of his old conservative buddies, telling him that he was going to hell and there was no hope for his future. I’d been making plans for this article, but once I heard the message I knew I would have to write it today. It’s, ah, 5pm now, as I’m writing this. You know, some conservative Christians feel like they’re in a battle for the soul of society. They rave about secret conspiracies to undermine Christianity and hollow out the heart of democracy. But if Christianity is on the wane, maybe it’s not because of some secret atheist conspiracy. Maybe Christians are just shitty people. Maybe secular society is more consistently demonstrating Christian virtue. Maybe, in the final analysis, the heart of the problem is that Christians just aren’t that good at being Christian.

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