In his paper “Personalism, Community and the Origins of Human Rights,” Samuel Moyn argues that a relatively understudied current of Catholic political thought—known as personalism—played a key role in the affirmation of human rights as today’s dominant ideological framework. This may initially appear surprising given the well-known opposition of traditional Catholic social doctrine to the values normally associated with liberalism, modernity and the French Revolution.1

Moyn’s argument, however, is that Catholic political thought underwent a transformation in the middle of the twentieth century, developing a distinctive doctrine of human rights on the basis of a concept of the human “person,” which turned out to be crucial for the inscription of human rights within the juridical and political framework of the post-war order. Indeed, Moyn argues that this Catholic rediscovery of human rights took place at a time (the early 1940s) during which other, more progressive, intellectual and political currents were relatively uninterested in them. Thus, he provocatively suggests that the widespread prestige this notion enjoys today has its roots in an essentially “conservative” political project of the mid-twentieth century.

While not disagreeing with the thrust of this argument, I take issue here with two aspects of Moyn’s narrative, which may help to sharpen it further. The first concerns the role assigned to Jacques Maritain within the framework of this reconstruction, and in particular Moyn’s reading of the relationship between Maritain’s philosophy of human rights and more standard “liberal” conceptions; the second addresses the apparent linearity of the process whereby the personalist philosophy of the 1940s is said to have provided the ground for the contemporary rise to prominence of human rights, which seems to be in tension with Moyn’s previous thesis concerning the history of the affirmation of this “last utopia.”

As Moyn explicitly affirms, Maritain is a “pivotal player” in the narrative reconstructed in this more recent piece. Indeed, an impression one could get from reading Moyn’s article is that Maritain succeeded—almost singlehandedly—in extrapolating the concept of the human “person” from its roots in the Catholic anti-modernism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and reinterpreting it in a way that offered the basis for the positive justification of human rights contained in his 1942 pamphlet entitled The Rights of Man and Natural Law. In this sense, Maritain is presented both as a “stepping stone” and a “model” for the broader process Moyn describes as a “conversion” of Catholicism to human rights.

My contention is that this reading exaggerates the extent of Maritain’s rupture with the anti-modernism of traditional Catholic political thought, while at the same time underplaying a tension that remains unresolved between the conception of human rights Maritain ultimately endorsed and another he consistently rejected. In order to substantiate these points, it may be useful to return in more detail to the content of the argument advanced by Maritain in his 1942 pamphlet: a complete reconstruction of which is surprisingly lacking from Moyn’s text, despite its centrality for his narrative.

Maritain’s starting point is the claim that the Christian idea of natural law—as developed in particular in the tradition stemming from Thomas Aquinas—consists in a series of “unwritten moral precepts” which can be derived rationally from the conditions of fulfillment of man’s intrinsic nature. The background assumption here is that human beings are not merely individuals—i.e. bodily distinct material entities—but also persons, since they have been endowed by their Creator with certain faculties, such as reason and will, which imply a specific finality. From this perspective, natural law is understood as the set of imperatives stemming from the conditions required to fulfill the inherent “personhood” of every individual human being within a given historical context.

The emphasis on context is important for Maritain because it implies that the actual precepts of natural law cannot be spelled out entirely a priori: natural law is “unwritten” because its substantive content depends, at least in part, on the context in which human beings are called upon to realize their personhood. Thus, Maritain affirms that the substantive content of natural law may change over time, even if its rational ground is always the same. This is the basis for his claim that natural law needs to be “concretized,” first in the so-called “law of peoples” (ius gentium), and then in “positive law” (ius positivo).

From these premises, Maritain is able to carve out the space for a justification of human rights as the specific form assumed by the Christian conception of natural law in the context of modernity. The key to this move is the idea that the modern notion of human rights can be understood as a way of spelling out the concrete duties imposed on human beings by the requirements of the fulfillment of their personhood, in light of the renewed consciousness of the special dignity of humanity that is supposed to have come to the fore in the modern age. The idea that the specific form of natural law is context-dependent and the claim that all declarations of rights imply a correlative set of duties therefore offer the basis for Maritain’s justification of human rights.

As Moyn points out, from the point of view of the history of political thought, this argument is extremely significant because, traditionally, the Thomistic conception of natural law had been considered incompatible with the modern conception of human rights.2 Maritain, however, claims that this is a result of the fact that human rights first appeared on the historical scene shrouded in an “erroneous individualist metaphysics,” which obscured their foundation in the principle of “personality” and made their rational basis difficult to discern. The task he assigns to a Christian philosophy of human rights is therefore to uncover their “true evangelical foundation,” in order to re-appropriate this notion for a properly “Christian humanism.”

It is important to underline that this way of justifying human rights does not imply acceding to the “erroneous individualist metaphysics” that, for Maritain, underscored the original declarations of human rights. This is made clear, for instance, by the following statement from his 1942 pamphlet:

The true philosophy of the rights of the human person is based on the idea of natural law … It is because we are enmeshed in the universal order, in the laws and regulations of the cosmos and of the immense family of created natures that we possess rights vis-à-vis other men and all the assemblage of creatures … Another altogether opposite philosophy has sought to base the rights of the human person on the claim that man is subject to no other law than that of his will and his freedom, and that he must “obey only himself” as Rousseau put it … This philosophy built no solid foundation for the rights of the human person because nothing can be founded on illusion; it rather compromised and squandered these rights, because it led men to conceive them as rights in themselves divine, hence infinite, and therefore escaping every objective measure.

This passage makes clear that two competing conceptions of human rights coexist within the framework of Maritain’s thought: a “personalist” one founded on the traditional Christian doctrine of natural law and a “liberal” or “individualist” one founded on the principle of individual autonomy. Within the terms of this opposition, the overall purpose of Maritain’s discussion of human rights boils down to a defense of the former against the latter.

Thus it seems inaccurate to suggest, as Moyn does, that Maritain “reconciled” the traditional Christian doctrine of natural law and the modern notion of human rights. Rather, what we find in Maritain’s work is the development of a new and different doctrine of human rights, which is juxtaposed—and indeed opposed—to the liberal one, in order to appropriate the notion of human rights for Catholic social doctrine without really changing any of that doctrine’s key tenets.

To achieve this, Maritain transforms the original meaning of human rights much more than the substantive content of Catholic social doctrine. However, because of his truncated reconstruction of Maritain’s argument, Moyn prevents himself from recognizing this—ultimately confusing the latter’s merely terminological appropriation of human rights for a “radical transformation of the political meaning of Christianity.” In reality, all that Maritain effectively proposes is a restatement of the traditional Christian doctrine of natural law, in terms of a redefined notion of human rights.

This clarification may also suggest a way of complicating the overall shape of the narrative proposed by Moyn. At several junctions, Moyn seems to give the impression that the personalist philosophy of the 1940s provided the basis—or at least the condition—for the later rise to prominence of human rights in more mainstream philosophical and political opinion. In the last paragraph of his paper, for instance, Moyn writes that:

The original context of the European embrace of human rights … was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent, which lasted for two decades before the shocking reversal for the fortunes of religion after the mid-1960s. The death of Christian Europe, as one might call it, forced—along with many other developments—a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in the European identity both formally and really since the war [emphasis added].

For anyone familiar with Moyn’s other writings on human rights, it is difficult to avoid the impression that this statement is strangely un-Moynian. The idea that the death of Christian Europe “forced” a reinvention of human rights seems to imply the possibility of tracing a continuous line of development between the personalist philosophy of 1940s and the conceptions of human rights that are dominant today, even though the two are based on very different—and indeed opposed—historical and philosophical premises. Isn’t this precisely the kind of teleological “tunnel vision” that The Last Utopia was written to unsettle?

Indeed, even the cursory reconstruction of Maritain’s discussion of human rights I provided above shows that these two competing conceptions of human rights already coexisted with one another during the 1940s. Instead of a linear transition from personalism to liberalism, it may be more accurate to speak of an ongoing struggle between them as a constant feature of the theorization of human rights, at least since the 1940s.

From this point of view, the real significance of the personalist appropriation of human rights in the 1940s is not so much to have provided a theory that later “forced” more progressively-minded liberals to reinvent human rights, but rather to have made the notion of human rights itself into a site of struggle, by opposing a Christian conception to the liberal one inscribed in the original declarations.

While this challenges the idea that the notion of human rights ever had a univocal meaning, as Moyn’s narrative seems to suggest, it provides a way of giving a firmer foundation to the claim that the personalist philosophy of the 1940s played a key role in the affirmation of human rights over the second half of the twentieth century. For, as Moyn himself insightfully points out with respect to the notion of the “person” (but curiously not that of human rights3), a concept’s indeterminacy may be a reason for its success, since it allows the same concept to be appropriated for a variety of different intellectual and political purposes, and therefore become the terrain of the struggle between them.

From this point of view, it is not just the personalist conception of human rights advanced by thinkers such as Maritain, but also the liberal or “individualist” one they opposed—and indeed the struggle between them—that explains the success of the notion of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century.

Carrying this logic one step further, it may also be possible to challenge the assumption that the conception of human rights that prevails today is indeed as internally homogenous as Moyn suggests when he claims that, after the “death of Christian Europe” human rights were reinvented along the lines of an essentially neo-Kantian philosophy.

Perhaps if human rights remain so widely discussed and influential today it is precisely because the basic tension we uncovered at the heart of Maritain’s thought—between a Christian (or conservative) conception of human rights and a liberal or individualist one—remains yet to be resolved.

  1. The encyclical Mirari Vos promulgated by Pope Gregory XVI in the aftermath of the French Revolution, for instance, famously denounces the very idea of rights pertaining to individuals independently of their submission to a divine authority as “a monstrous doctrine … more deadly to the state than any other.” Similar attacks on the notion human rights can then be found in most other expositions of Catholic social doctrine throughout the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, at least until the encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1962. (Documents available here.)

  2. On this point see for instance: Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953 and Richard Tuck, Natural Right Theories: Their Origin and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981. See also: John Milbank, ‘Against Human Rights: Liberty in the Western Tradition’, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 1:1, 2012.

  3. On p. 88 of his paper, for instance, Moyn writes that: “The ambiguity of personalism was, in a sense, its genius. It signaled the identity of the opposition clearly, while leaving flexibility about what the alternative program was … [Moreover], its ambiguity was also a minimum condition for its eventual extrication from its typically reactionary and always illiberal origins.”