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.
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