The relationship of the virtue of justice to blessed Antonio Rosmini's approach to human rights.

AuthorRauch, Gerry


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.


    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. (13)

    Therefore, it is too limited to see justice as simply the lack of injustice. It is better to approach it from the other side: to think of injustice as the lack of justice, and of justice as a wider concept related to human beings' privileges of action and experience.(14) For justice is not most properly a concept of the lack of destructive things. It is a rich positive concept that envisions human beings increasingly engaged with all of being and enjoying the fulfillment it gives them. In short, human rights are about benefitting from the inexhaustible privileges accruing to human existence. (15)

    Thus we see even more clearly the great challenge of enunciating a complete, perfectly structured schema of all such rights. Anyone who could achieve that goal would have accomplished a great work in the realm of ideas. But to bring about the realization of such rights in the real world would be also a feat worthy of the highest admiration. In fact, given the persistent presence of evil in our world, we do not expect to fully achieve all rights. Rather we take note of any genuine advance in human rights as praiseworthy. (16)


    As I mentioned above, Rosmini observes that there is something in humanity itself that is inclined away from the realization of rights. Another way he says this is, "[I]n the practice of everyday life... humanity's constant endeavour had never exceeded [this measure:] The better things I see and approve, but I follow the worse." (17) This expresses something about the degree of deficiency of the disposition of individual character that we call justice. (18) Rosmini's explanations of the ways in which mankind misses the mark, many of them chillingly contemporary in flavor, paint a disastrous picture of the level of injustice in this world. (19)

    By way of illustration of the lack of justice among human beings, consider the life of David, King of Israel. (20) The story of David is especially apropos in the context of this Article because his personal struggle with the virtue of justice took place in an historical context in which God had given the people of Israel a well-formulated schema of rights in the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Old Testament moral law. Establishing such a schema of rights is one of the two goals we seek when we want to promote human rights. In this case, the formulation of rights was beyond compare, for it had its origin in God: "[W]hat great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?" (2l) Yet under the reign of King David, who came to be regarded as Israel's ideal ruler, the best formulation of rights could not withstand that something within mankind (and that something within David) that Rosmini identified as "a cause constantly inclining it to abuse power, greatness and material enjoyment." (22)

    Consider several striking incidents from the life of David. It becomes clear that it was difficult for him to live a life pleasing to God because of his own lack of character in the area of justice. Here are some of the relevant stories:

    In the first book of Samuel, he slays 200 Philistines, twice the number requested by Saul, in order to cut off their foreskins as a bride-price to be given for the privilege of marrying Saul's daughter, Michal. (23) Today, this would be considered a war crime.

    In the second book of Samuel, (24) David takes Uriah's wife Bathsheba sexually, and when she becomes pregnant he tries to arrange events so it will seem that Uriah is the father. Failing in the attempt, he then arranges the death of Uriah, whose only crime was to have been cuckolded by David. David is so bold in evil that he sends by Uriah's own hand the message calling for his death in battle. This time Uriah's only crime is to have been a faithful messenger. When David hears back that some other soldiers have also perished in the unfolding of his plan, he unfeelingly tells his General Joab: "Do not be chagrined at this, for the sword devours now here and now there." (25)

    Later the prophet Nathan tells David about a rich man with abundant flocks who has taken the one lamb of his poor neighbor in order to feed a visitor. Not realizing that it is a parable of his own sin, David is incensed and blurts out, "[T]he man who has done this merits death!" (26) This is another indication of David's tendency to injustice in that the punishment of death is well beyond what would have been fair for stealing a lamb.

    In the first book of Samuel, when Nabal refuses to feed David and his followers who have protected his property from robbers, David sets out with 400 men intending to kill every male among Nabal's family and servants. Nabal's wife manages to dissuade David from his unjust intent, preventing him from taking his own vengeance, which he was forbidden to do, and from shedding the innocent blood of others, whose only offense was to be Nabal's faithful servants.

    Starting in 2 Samuel 13, David turns the other way when crimes occur in his own family. His first-born son Amnon rapes his half- sister Tamar, a daughter of David by another mother. Since it was a matter within his own family, David should have assigned someone else to carry out a fair and impartial tribunal, but instead he did nothing. In the vacuum left by David, Absalom, another son of David, and Tamar's full brother, took the law into his own hands and killed Amnon in revenge. Thus David's injustice began to unfold in a further series of unjust events, (27) which eventually led to a break with Absalom that devolved into a full-scale civil war. (28)

    The meaning of justice as the virtue by which men and women cooperate in the privileges of human existence, and conversely the lack of justice as the reason they cannot cooperate, is clearly seen in these incidents, which are only some of the dramatic results in David's life that followed from his failures in the virtue of justice. We should not leave David, however, before acknowledging the depths of his...

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