Contemporary applications of Rosmini's view on personhood: slavery and intellectual property abuse.

AuthorPozzo, Riccardo
PositionAntonio Rosmini-Serbati


Recent developments in mobile communications bring to light, and make urgent, connections between intellectual property rights and human rights. True, human rights relate to natural law, while intellectual property relates to civil law. However, this phenomenon has consequences which are increasing and devastating: the economic exploitation of one's intellectual property intended in its widest sense, namely, abstracting beyond the alienation of one's own thought to embrace the alienation of the image of one's own body, of one's own voice, and even of one's own cultural identity. Provided it is voluntary, such alienation is usually a legitimate economic exploitation, while a non-voluntary alienation is potentially criminal. The impact of new technologies, however, has accelerated the process. Every cell phone today can take or steal voices, images, and whole performances, which can be posted for profit. The notions of author and work of art are in constant development and require adapting to an environment in which technical progress, lawmaking, and individual needs are changing too. (1) In this sense, the notion of copyright shows implications that go beyond the mere economic issue and invest moral issues such as reputation, attribution, and association. (2) First and foremost, however, the work of art must not be an instrument for external designs. Traditional private and public spaces were always local and as such subject to local legislation; the Internet has provided instead a global space of communication, no matter how virtual and intangible. In this global space, the defense of one's private rights is proving to be increasingly difficult, for to date neither social conventions nor legal sanctions have been provided. The hope is that the dynamic networks that have blossomed on the Internet will find themselves remedies in order to protect one's private sphere. However, to do so Internet users must prove to be strong in their ethical and religious assumptions. At stake is the formulation of a legal anthropology of human rights. Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati's personalist philosophy provides an effective stand for defending the sanctity of life in accordance with the Christian anthropological view. (3) A number of case studies will be considered and the predication (known already in the Roman Law) of "active slavery" will be shown to apply. (4)


    Rosminian ethics is divided into three parts. He starts from "pure nomology," which is very close to Kant's moral law, and considers the supreme law or principle of ethics. (5) Under the heading of "moral anthropology" Rosmini deals then with the human moral subject in the natural order, which is very close to Kant's metaphysics of morals. (6) On top of these, Rosmini requires thirdly a "moral logic" in order to apply the moral principle to the moral subject without danger or error. (7) Finally, the three parts of "pure ethics" are distinguished from "applied ethics," which deals with the concrete cases of moral laws or formulas, considered in themselves and according to the psychological conditioning of the subject who is supposed to carry them out. (8) Just like Kant, however, Rosmini did not write any treatise on applied ethics.

    Given that the moral good is objective, (9) and given that moral actions are our own and fulfill our human personality, (10) the human will is the "active power operating according to reasons present to the mind and proposed by the human subject to himself." (11) Therefore, "truth is the principle of morality, and... acknowledgment of the truth, (that is, acknowledgment of direct knowledge) is the supreme duty and the proper, essential act of morality." (12)


    Rosmini's rather scholastic definitions of parts and notions of ethics continue nonetheless to be effective in the context of some case studies provided by contemporary individuals who use technology to damage themselves. Consider a ninety-second newsreel related to the Naples, Italy earthquake of November 1980. (13) A camera team is meeting a young immigrant at the airport in Fiumicino, who is rushing back to help in the highly damaged village of his family. Assume that, hypothetically, just after the first cut, a transaction had taken place between the young man and the reporters, which might have run more or less like this: We are taking you to Calabritto, faster than by train or bus and on top of this we give you 300,000 lire (which in 1980 corresponded to 3,000 [euro] today), provided you agree to our camera shoots. This means you have to sign a disclaimer in which you transfer to the television station all rights to economic exploitation of your image, of the things you shall say, and of the things you shall do. And in fact, the newsreel broadcasts a number of impressive shots of the young man's grief. It looks like a normal intellectual property release, and no actor's agent would find any fault. On the other side a philosopher--Immanuel Kant--would object. By arbitrarily disposing of the image of his own grievance, the young man is actually degrading the humanity which lies in him, and which would stop being an end for itself, namely grief, the respect due to the grief of the one or the other person, and would become a means, a means towards gaining an external profit. (14)

    In May 2008, a letter to the editor of the "Italians" column of Corriere della Sera expressed a series of doubts in regard to the increasingly uninhibited use of new technologies for disseminating images. (15) Punctually, a few weeks later, came the confirmation of the darkest forecasts, a young girl selling pictures of her naked breast via her cell phone. (16) Given the involvement of a minor, and given the obvious illegality of the transaction, the actor's agent, referenced above, would have had something to say in this case. Kant would repeat that by arbitrarily disposing of the image of her breast, by making use of her person merely as a means, the girl would be degrading from an end to a means the humanity that lies in her, for also in this case the action has profit as a goal. Among young people, the body matters. The point is the body does not mean to be physically there, in three dimensions, it can also be an iconic physicality, in two dimensions, without mass.

    To understand the notion of "active slavery," we must go back to Aristotle, who opposed the slaves, as slaves by nature, to the citizens of the city. (17) Slaves can understand reasons, but they do not use their own reason. (18) They have no power to act, so they do not use the deliberative faculty.(19) There can be a certain community of interest, and even friendship between slave and master, suggests Aristotle, in cases when they have been qualified by nature for those positions. (20) The Roman Law declared all human beings to be free and equal according to the natural law, while conceding that some among them might be slaves according to the positive law. (21) Also Aquinas maintained that slavery has no natural cause and that its origins lie in the profit gained by both the slave owner, who runs a business, and the slaves themselves, who have traded their lives for becoming instruments. (22) In the seventeenth century, Hugo de Groot did not hesitate to point out the reciprocal advantage to both the slave and the slave owner, for food and shelter are always a valid economic means of exchange. (23) Samuel von Pufendorf identified human dignity in the immortality of the soul and in the fact that all human beings were capable of the light of the understanding, with the consequence that all human beings are equal by nature. (24) At that time, then, the Aristotelian notion of slaves by nature lost its meaning. Exactly the argument laid out by Pufendorf came--through the mediation of John Wise--into the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776. (25)

    Rosmini makes it clear that there are two anthropological...

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