Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: March, 2013

Right Thinkers #5: Henry B. Veatch (1911-1999)

In my academic explorations, I will occasionally come across an article or book that provides a key to everything else I have been reading or thinking about–a unifying text that bursts through the conceptual fog and implants itself as the basis for further research. My last such experience occurred when, following some references in a dense monograph, I came across a book entitled Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? (1985) by Henry Babcock Veatch. The book provides a rigorous reevaluation of the foundations of human rights by delving into the realm of moral philosophy.

Although Veatch had enough sympathy for the libertarian right to publish with Liberty Fund, I suspect he would have objected to being labelled a “right thinker.” I classify him as a right thinker only in the sense that his manner of thinking is upright and correct, at least according to the general parameters of the orthodoxy I espouse in this blog.

Veatch provides a critique of the ethical foundations of modern legal systems, offering as an alternative an ethic based upon the Natural Law tradition of moral philosophy. The Natural Law tradition has nothing to do with any primeval “law of nature,” but is instead concerned with those moral and ethical principles which are unchanging, discoverable through the use of reason, and in accordance with human nature. Aristotle provided the basis for the Natural Law tradition, but it was most extensively elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas, who fused it with Christian orthodoxy. Natural Law remains the guiding principle of the ethical and political teachings of the Catholic Church. Veatch presented himself as an Aristotelian philosopher, and did not appeal to religion to justify his views, but was clearly working under the shadow of Aquinas and twentieth-century neo-Thomists like Jacques Maritain.

Like the more celebrated modern moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Veatch sees the moral philosophies of Aristotle and Nietzsche as representing the two fundamental and fundamentally opposed bases for all ethical systems. Unlike MacIntyre, however, Veatch does not attempt to reconstruct or reinterpret Aristotle in light of later philosophical developments. His application of Aristotelian moral philosophy is clear and direct, buttressed by his ability to effectively counter possible objections.

The underlying principle of the Aristotelian view is a teleological conception of human development. Everyone has a moral duty to pursue their natural end, which is “the activity not of just staying alive but of living wisely and intelligently and rationally” (83). In the free performance of this activity, a person may be said to ‘flourish’ (an Aristotelian term). To facilitate human flourishing should be, according to Veatch, the goal of all ethics, law and human rights.

Human rights, for Veatch, must be based on one’s duty to oneself to flourish as a person (160-166), and if one expects to hold these rights, one must grant them to others as well. The fundamental rights that are necessary for personal development are the “negative” rights of life, liberty and property (166-177) (the concepts of negative and positive rights are borrowed by Veatch from Iredell Jenkins). These rights, which are inalienable but not absolute (202), are the only rights that are rooted in human nature, although a number of secondary political rights (such as the right to vote) may follow from them (176). There are no “positive” natural rights (like the right to healthcare or work), although prosperous members of a good society will engage in the “beneficence” (190) that is demanded of them by the moral duty to help others less fortunate. Furthermore, a person’s fundamental negative rights may be curbed if necessary for the common good, and especially if that person has more wealth, advantages, or resources than he or she needs for their own pursuit of their natural end.

Veatch’s theory of human rights does run into trouble in one respect, which Veatch clearly acknowledges (196-97). What should become of those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to live intelligently? The mentally disabled, according to Veatch’s logic, could potentially be justly deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to life. Although Veatch claims he doesn’t know how this is to be avoided, I suspect he is covertly suggesting that the answer lies in the incorporation of religious morality into the Aristotelian framework he has outlined. If this is his implicit suggestion, I wholeheartedly agree with it. The essential dignity of every human person, each one created in the image of God, must be acknowledged as a precondition of any notion of human flourishing. Some unfortunate souls will never flourish, but they still have a right to life. Even if they can’t develop as human nature demands, they may still maintain a close relationship with God and act as a reminder to all of the purely religious values that crown the values of Aristotle. Without saying it explicitly, Veatch is pointing the reader toward a consideration of Aquinas and his fusion of classical and Christian thought.

This book will not appeal to those on either the libertarian or Nietzschean right, but I encourage them to read it and try to formulate a convincing response to Veatch. For those with any interest in the Natural Law tradition and its applicability to our times, this book offers the clearest and soundest guide available.

Veatch, Henry B. Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1985.


The Fiamengo fiasco

On March 7, English Professor Janice Fiamengo delivered a lecture at the University of Toronto titled “What’s Wrong with Women’s Studies”? The lecture was hosted by a campus group called the Men’s Issues Awareness Society and sponsored by the Canadian Association for Freedom and Equality (CAFE). Predictably, Professor Fiamengo faced a campus conformity squad of radical feminists, and her lecture was almost derailed before it started when someone pulled the fire alarm. You can see the whole thing here.

She fared better, however, than men’s issues guru Warren Farrell, whose lecture at UofT on November 16, 2012 was picketed by some particularly vile feminist drones, who prevented a significant number of people from attending.

Militant feminism on university campuses is of course not a recent or unusual phenomenon, but I used to think it had reached its peak (or nadir) in the early 90s and would eventually subside. However, it seems that it has become more radical, even as feminism has become a pillar of establishment thinking in Canada, and there is nothing more dangerous than a political orthodoxy whose representatives believe they are under attack. (I do understand that this is exactly what feminists think of those who champion the rights of white males.)

I listened carefully to Professor Fiamengo’s talk, and I agree with almost everything she said. Feminism has become exceedingly dogmatic and dismisses vast realms of human thought and experience, replacing it with a Manichean worldview of good versus “the patriarchy.” As I see it, feminist criticism is flawed at root, and its growth in academia, and particularly in English programs, has provided shelter for a host of lesser critical ideologies, like post-colonial, black and queer studies (feminism being the Queen of them all). Of course, the study of gender, colonialism, race or sexuality in literature or elsewhere can lead to fruitful scholarship. Feminist criticism, however, is not really scholarship, but rather a form of political praxis. The same might be said of Right Scholarship (interpreted as scholarship of the political right), I know, but with Right Scholarship the scholarship comes first, and is bolstered and protected by political praxis. With feminist scholarship, the scholarship is often secondary, and the objects of study are usually uninteresting when not invested with political meaning.

One thing that never occurs to feminists: if the patriarchy is so all-powerful, maintaining control through both physical violence and disciplinary power/knowledge (Foucault), why did it let feminism rise to such heights of influence, so that now it may be said that feminism is the dominant discourse in our society? Was feminism really that strong, or was the patriarchy simply weak? Did the patriarchy feel its time was up, and choose death by feminism? Can it be said that behind every feminist stands a man who is not only letting it happen but also providing the impetus? Those are questions for another post, perhaps.

Some of the men’s rights supporters are a little hard to stomach. When I hear the word ‘equality,’ that’s when I reach for my, um, iPad, to compose a polemical blog post, and I think we must pay careful attention to the idea of equality that gets bandied about by men’s rights groups like CAFE. Men and women are qualitatively different, with different dispositions and different needs. Men and women flourish as human beings in often starkly divergent ways. Even under a pro-feminist political regime like ours in Canada, women still gravitate toward particular jobs, professions, and social roles by nature and not by force or inequality of opportunity. To demand quantitative equality among qualitatively different groups of people is an old ideological trick used to justify oppression. To achieve a 50/50 male/female split among engineers, for example, would require a draconian limit on the number of males allowed to enter Engineering programs. Anyone who supports employment equity must remember that when quotas used to be enforced regarding the number of Jews allowed in medical school, it was not because Jews were seen as students of lesser quality, but because it was feared that the percentage of Jewish doctors would exceed the percentage of Jews in the population at large. It was an employment equity measure. Let’s not play that game by creating a men’s movement modelled on feminism, demanding an impossible equality among men and women.

In any event, I encourage you to listen to Fiamengo’s talk and check out her blog at PJ Media. Readers of Right Scholarship (few as they are) will be especially interested in posts like “Manufacturing Racism: Academic Hiring and the Diversity Mandate,” “Captive Minds: Conformity and Campus Intellectuals,” and “Can the Humanities Be Saved?” Fiamengo does seem to like David Horowitz, whose motives I think are suspect, but we can forgive her for that. When you are facing so many enemies, you can’t be picky in choosing friends.

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