Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Rights-in-relation: need for an anthropology

Cardinal Angelo Scola, speaking in Venice recently, discussed the phenomenon of the expansion of the notion of 'rights' in the context of modern political discourse without any agreed philosophy underpinning them.
We are faced with a paradox: a hitherto unprecedented circulation and expansion of rights in tandem with a degree of vagueness about their content... Looked at from one side, any catalogue of rights has formidable economic and social implications, but in truth it is itself the product of a certain view of man which is always I-in-relation. To recover the true face of rights it is indispensable to engage with their anthropological and social dimensions: an objective on which the various sciences and disciplines converge, each with its own specificity but in a perspective which increasingly requires a transdisciplinary dimension.
It seems to me that the Cardinal is getting at the following. Human rights can only be based on (a) the inherent or intrinsic value of the person, existing in relation to God, cosmos, environment, and fellow human beings, and (b) the actual needs (rather than wants) of that person in that situation if he is not just to survive but to flourish. This requires that we know at least roughly what a human being is and what causes him to flourish - in other words, we need an adequate anthropology. Without that, we are whistling in the dark.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Good relations

Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate that "a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family;" adding that "interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization." This is the task we have set ourselves for our meeting in Oxford (see last post). The Pope continues:
Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation. This is a task that cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man's transcendent dignity is to be properly understood. As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God. Hence these relations take on fundamental importance (53).
This is the foundation of solidarity - the fact that we are relational creatures, not isolated units. Here we immediately run into a difficulty. Belief in God is not universal among us, and it may be a stumbling block for the secular environmentalists. Yet we can surely agree that we are "relations", even if not all of us locate the source of that relationality in God, in the Trinity of relations we call "Persons". Through biology and physics, I am related to and entangled with everything else on earth, especially the things that live and breathe. But more than that, my own sense of identity is bound up with these natural relations. They are not simply traces of my historical descent or effects of my actions. I have to live these relations (as the Pope says) in order to reach a mature identity.

What does that mean? Surely that in order to be true to myself, I must be receptive to the truth, goodness and beauty that reveals itself to me through these relationships. They impose upon me a responsibility, which I cannot shirk without diminishing my own humanity.

Picture: Port Meadow by Rose-Marie Caldecott