Saint Thomas Aquinas on Rights

Although Thomas Aquinas does believe in the existence of rights, he conceives of them in ways that are significantly different from Enlightenment thought. When Thomas begins his treatment of the virtue of justice in the ( Summa Theologiae II-IIae, q. 57, a. 1, he starts with the question “whether right is the object of justice?” Since it is obvious that he will answer “yes,” it is misleadingly simple to believe that he therefore is advocating rights. In fact, in the translation, there are two Latin word which are translated as “right,” and Thomas clearly sees a connection between them, since one is in fact a species of the other. The two words are “rectum” and “jus.” The meaning of “rectum” is clearly the “morally correct” and has the sense of “straight and true” in English. What is right in this sense, is the object of all the virtues, and so is not special to justice, but insofar as justice concerns the ordering of each person to others, there is a species of “rectum” that applies only to justice. This is “jus,” which is the basis of what is just (justum) and thus of justice (justitia).

Thomas fleshes out the meaning of “jus” through this orientation to others which is the proper object of justice. Thus, when he comes to define the virtue of justice ( ST II-II, q. 58, a. 1), he says that it is “the habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will.” And since a virtue is defined by the good act which is proper to it, and that a good act is in turn defined by its proper object, “jus” or “what is due to each man” seems to have a logical priority over the virtue of justice. “Jus” also seems rather similar to the modern notion of “right” in that it is that which is peculiar to every person and what every other person owes to him or her.

Two points, however, show that there are differences between Thomas’ “jus” and the modern “right” which do stem from the former’s natural law theory. First, what the natural law indicates as the good which ought to be done is much broader than merely “jus.” The natural law, in theory, commands all the acts of all the virtues, and so commands that one be temperate, courageous and prudent, in addition to being just. What is right (in the sense of “rectum”) is the object of every act which the natural law commands, and it seems clear that this is broader than what someone has a right to. It seems that the object of good acts is known derivitavely, or at least simultaneously, with knowing that one should do such acts, and so what is right (rectum) is no more basic than the natural law (but is probably secondary to it).

Second, “jus” is known first as belonging to another person and as the object of an act which is obligated under natural law. Thus, the obligitory nature of Thomas’ ethical theory is what is most basic. “Jus” is not something that one ordinarily claims for oneself, nor is it self-evident and inalienable in the way that “rights” are in Enlightenment thought. Thus, Thomists should be wary about assimilating “rights” language into their account of ethics and political theory. On the other hand, Thomas’ “jus” actually could help to rehabilitate “rights” language by placing it in the much more coherent natural law context.

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