Samuel Moyn and Christian Human Rights

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Samuel Moyn and Christian Human Rights

November 5, 2015

Christian Human Rights. By Samuel Moyn. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 248 pages.

Samuel Moyn could take for his own Lord Acton’s remark that “few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.” Moyn, a distinguished intellectual historian, has in several books argued that appeals to human rights in recent times reflect particular political and social contexts. He does not reduce the ideas of rights and dignity to these contexts, but his work tends to stress events rather than the inner logic of ideas.[1]In Christian Human Rights, he maintains that the Roman Catholic Church, beginning in the late 1930s, abandoned its former opposition to the language of individual human rights. Instead, most prominently in the wartime allocutions of Pope Pius XII, human dignity and rights were now the order of the day.  Protestant church groups and writers paralleled the new trend, culminating in the rise and prominence of Christian Democratic parties in the post-World War II period.

Moyn states the key argument of the book in this way: “’Human rights’ came to figure because, in the crucible of reaction before and during World War II when they flirted with authoritarian states. . . Christians learned that the cultivation of moral constraint depended on keeping the spiritual communities that offered their vision of ethical life a home partly free of the state.” (p.11)

Moyn does not view with complete favor the Christian embrace of human rights. “All things considered, the framework that human dignity provided human rights and liberal constitutionalism in and through the war is hard to greet as an uncomplicated breakthrough—if it was not a retrograde concession. Human dignity mainly helped wrest both rights and constitutionalism from the heritage of the French Revolution specifically and from the heritage of political secularism generally.”(p.59)

If he is no sympathizer with the Christian conservatives, Moyn is an acute analyst of their views and activities. He finds the first political expression of the new Catholic stress on dignity in “an unexpected place and at a surprising time: Ireland in 1937.” (p.37) In the Irish Constitution of that year, under the government of Éamon de Valera, dignity was ascribed to individuals rather than institutions.[2]

As Moyn notes, the great French Thomist Jacques Maritain was the principal advocate of the new view of rights.  Moyn rightly calls attention to Maritain’s “personalism”, but he does not explain in detail Maritain’s distinction between the person and the individual. Maritain argued that the individual was subordinate to the political community, but the person transcended it. Precisely here Maritain located the basis for rights. 

Moyn points out that Maritain’s advocacy of rights met with opposition from a number of more traditionally inclined Thomists. He mentions as an example Charles De Koninck. (p.204, n.43) But he surprisingly fails to note the most famous controversy in Thomist circles over Maritain’s views. Father Thomas Eschmann correctly took De Koninck’s 1943 book to be an attack on Maritain, and he reviewed it in sharply negative fashion. Maritain’s disciple Yves Simon joined the battle with a review of his own, and De Koninck responded to Eschmann with at least equal vigor.

In his desire to highlight the conservative nature of the Catholic rights doctrine, Moyn highlights Maritain’s association with the rightwing monarchist Action Française, though he of course notes that Maritain broke with the group after Pope Pius XI banned it. (See especially p.206, note 59.) But he considerably understates the extent to which Maritain during the 1930s moved leftward. In opposition to many on the French Right, Maritain opposed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.[3] Further, to the outrage of French conservative opinion, he supported the Republic rather than the insurgents in the Spanish Civil War.

Moyn wishes to stress the novelty of the appeal to individual dignity, and he makes a strong case for his contention. He goes too far, though, when he says, “And while it is certainly true that Kant occasionally referenced dignity, none of his political disciples have made anything of this of this fact—and his current philosophical disciples only in the last few years. For that matter, there were no Kantians in Germany of note after World War II. . .” (p.27)

The notion of human dignity is more than an occasional reference for Kant. It lies at the basis of his ethics. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says: “In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity. . .morality, and humanity insofar as it capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.”

Further, it is not true that none of Kant’s philosophical disciples made anything of Kant’s notion of dignity until the past few years. Hermann Cohen made Kant’s doctrine of dignity the foundation of his defense of socialism. He criticized the free market for treating human labor as a commodity with a price. Doing so, he thought, contravened human dignity in the Kantian sense.[4] I have no great quarrel with Moyn’s claim, though, that there were no Kantians in Germany of note after the war, although Julius Ebbinghaus counts as an exception.

In his discussion of Gerhard Ritter’s view that Rousseau’s principle of popular sovereignty led to destructive consequences, Moyn seems to me to give inadequate emphasis to an important point. Ritter was a conservative Lutheran historian; but as Moyn says, “Cold War liberals” later expressed similar views. “The perception of ‘Cold War liberals’ that Rousseau paved the way for totalitarianism originated as a commonplace of Christian intellectuals in their interwar reactionary days—and they did  not change their minds when circumstances drove them to invent a new kind of conservatism after the war.”(p.123) I do not dispute this: but can we not properly ask, were Ritter and other critics of Rousseau like Jacob Talmon correct in their account of the totalitarian potential of Rousseau’s thought? Is the very posing of this question an expression of a conservative, or at least insufficient leftist ideology, entitling those of more radical views to dismiss the issue out of hand? I do not think so.

Despite these few points of difference, I think that Moyn has made an outstanding contribution to history and recommend his book highly.

[1] These books include The Last Utopia and Human Rights and the Uses of History. I’d like also to call attention to his “Amos Funkenstein on the Theological Origins of Historicism” in Thinking Impossibilities: The Legacy of Amos Funkenstein. Funkenstein’s Theology and the Scientific Imagination is, in my opinion, one of the masterpieces of historical writing in the twentieth century.

[2] In his discussion of the Irish scene, he misspells the first name of Father Denis Fahey. (See p.45 and p.191, n.33.)

[3] See on this Yves Simon, The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought.

[4] For an exposition of Cohen’s socialism, se Harry van der Linden, Kantian Ethics and Socialism. Mises criticizes Cohen in Socialism, Part IV, Chapter IV.

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