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

by rightscholarship

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.