The Relationship of the Virtue of Justice to Blessed Antonio Rosmini's Approach to Human Rights

By Rauch, Gerry | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Relationship of the Virtue of Justice to Blessed Antonio Rosmini's Approach to Human Rights


Rauch, Gerry, Ave Maria Law Review


INTRODUCTION

The ongoing concern to advance human rights is often understood in a way that is too limited. Everyone is clear that we need well-ordered formulations of rights; and great investments of time and resources are expended in this direction. Yet efforts on another front are equally necessary: the transformation of human wills. Unless real men and women act in harmony with the ideals of rights, human rights remain words on paper and we experience no progress. To say it another way, the achievement of rights in the real world depends on the realization of the virtue of justice in the character of individual men and women as much as it does on perfected conventions of human rights.

In this Article, I want to discuss the importance of the virtue of justice in the advancement of human rights by examining the writings of a great but little-known philosopher, Blessed Antonio RosminiSerbati. (1) A comment in Rosmini's The Essence of Right takes us to the heart of the question:

   [I]f we could classify all activities protected by the moral law,
   and place them in the most perfect logical order, we would have
   succeeded in describing from its divine roots and as it were
   delineating in a wonderful schema the ideal proper to jural
   activity .... Nothing more would be needed at this point than to
   realise those ideal actions held up for universal contemplation.(2)

Rosmini's statement, "Nothing more would be needed than to realise those ideal actions," (3) is certainly an understatement, as Rosmini himself well knows. For in another place he speaks of something in man that corrupts: "We can only say that humanity itself contains a cause constantly inclining it to abuse power, greatness and material enjoyment." (4) This inclination to abuse is the hindrance to the advancement of rights in the real world that must be overcome through the virtue of justice. In order to place Rosmini's thought in its proper context, we will first consider the background to his view of rights.

I. PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT

Rosmini's Philosophy of Right is concerned with acts or experiences that make for a person's happiness, but only insofar as those acts or experiences are morally permissible and fall within the range of what others have a duty to respect. These are a person's rights. (5) In other words, there is no right to immoral activity, (6) and, second, a right is a relationship. (7) On one side of the relationship there is a morally permissible privilege to freedom of action; on the other side there is a duty to respect that privilege in every appropriate way in any given situation. (8)

For Rosmini, the general term that indicates the extent of any person's sphere of such privileges is "ownership," or "governance." (9) According to Rosmini, ownership is

   "the dominion that a person has over something." This is ownership
   in the genuine meaning of the word which truly expresses "the
   strict union of a thing with a person by means of which that thing
   is reserved totally and exclusively to the person as if it were
   part of him." (10)

These considerations allow us to see the point of rights. For rights exist not only as guidelines to help us eradicate injustice and oppression, but also to make it possible to secure every possible good that makes for true human flourishing in situations of human cooperation. (11) A person acts within the sphere of his privileges in order to expand his own being through greater relationships with the rest of being. And so the virtue of justice could be described as the interior disposition of men and women to fully cooperate with each other in the great privileges of human existence, in order that each person may flourish to the greatest extent possible. (12) Indeed, while no one can flourish for another, he can recognize the rights of others so that he does not raise any obstacle that would hinder or prevent another from freely prospering through his or her own activities and experiences. …

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