Pierre Manent on Natural Law and Human Rights

Apr 16, 2021
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This event is cosponsored by University of Notre Dame Press and the de Nicola Center for Ethics & Culture.

Shortly after the promulgation of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Jacques Maritain wrote, “With regard to Human Rights, what matters most to a philosopher is the question of their rational foundations. The philosophical foundation of the Rights of man is Natural Law. Sorry that we cannot find another word!” In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (Notre Dame Press, 2020), leading Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent takes a different and decidedly more critical approach to the relationship between natural law and human rights. 

Manent argues that the project of human rights is inextricably tied to an erroneous modern understanding of human beings as naturally isolated and apolitical individuals. He tries to show that this impoverished understanding of human nature, and thus human rights as its offspring, distorts our self-understanding and saps the intelligibility of law, natural or otherwise, as well as the fecundity of human action. As part of a solution to these difficulties, he concludes the book with a novel approach to natural law thinking that he proposes as a way of recovering the dignity of practical reason and moral action. While this book represents Manent's first extended treatment of natural law, he examines these issues through the same tripartite lens of politics, philosophy, and religion that he has developed in his earlier publications. 

In this master class, we will situate Manent's book on natural law within the wider context of his work as a whole, and we will then discuss his arguments concerning natural law and human rights in some detail, with due sensitivity to his method of integrating insights from politics, philosophy, and religion. Finally, we will attempt to see Manent's book as part of a conversation between prominent Catholic and secular political philosophers.