7.3.3 Objection 2: Human rights language is individualistic

Back to 7.3.2

Unit 7 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Objection 2

The language of human rights is inherently individualistic and, therefore, incompatible with Christian affirmation of the common good.

This objection has a long history, going back to Marxism, which saw the language of rights as inherently bound up with defence by bourgeois (i.e. middle class) people of their individual privileges.  As we saw earlier, in the historical summary of the emergence of ‘human rights’ (7.2.2), much early advocacy of ‘the rights of man’ in the context of the Enlightenment was individualistic in its premises (explicitly or implicitly).

But the response to this objection also has been outlined earlier (7.2.1– see the later part of the screen, after the readings).  While I need not repeat what is there, here is the basic point.  When we understand persons and the common good well, there is no contradiction between them.  On the contrary, a community properly makes real in its life together a common good in which the dignity of its members and therefore their human rights are respected.  So if people’s human rights are not upheld, the common good cannot really exist – it is impaired in its essence, and to this extent what exists is a ‘common bad’.

On this point, we can interpret the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ as having done a real repair-job on what otherwise was an individualistic tradition of Western thinking about rights.  This non-Christian tradition of human rights thinking of course continues to exist, and some, even many, advocates of human rights continue to think that it is only an individualistic, voluntarist view of human wellbeing that provides a basis for human rights (cf. 6.2.1).  But this is precisely what development in Catholic thinking has shown isn’t true – rather, the very possibility of the common good requires that persons’ human rights are upheld.

In this connection, some critics of human rights discourse articulate an argument that goes basically like this.  Detailed historical study shows that the terminology of ‘natural rights’, and so ‘human rights’, grew from deeply individualistic roots (that can be traced back perhaps as far as the thirteenth century).  It has always continued to manifest those roots, right through to the present.  Those origins make it inherently problematic, and Christian endorsement of it inevitably imports voluntarist and individualistic assumptions.  It should therefore be avoided.1

Again, this line of argument is consistent with the Catholic Church’s rejection of ‘the rights of man’ in the nineteenth century.  Yet it is open to a decisive objection.  It rests on a version of the ‘genetic fallacy’, namely that because something’s origins are problematic, whatever has developed from those origins must be equally problematic.  This way of arguing is flawed because it hasn’t reckoned sufficiently with the possibility that something that has gone wrong, even from the start, can be redeemed.  We could say it hasn’t reckoned enough with the gospel!  What the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ has accomplished is a way of understanding and affirming human rights that has broken free of such individualistic roots and is fully consistent with Christian teaching about the common good.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

End of 7.3.3

Go to 7.3.4 Objection 3: ‘Rights inflation’

Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you make use of material on this page in a course assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. This kind of critique of human rights is made especially eloquently by Joan Lockwood O’Donovan in a number of articles.  One that is accessible online is ‘Rights, Law and Political Community: A theological and historical perspective’, in Transformation, Vol. 20.1 (2003), pp.30-38, at:www.ocms.ac.uk/transformation/free_articles/2001.030_odonovan.pdf (Aug. 2011).  The brief remarks in the text above are of course not an adequate response to her argument.  Advocates of this position are often influenced, directly or indirectly, by a classic study by C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (OUP, 1964).  A writer who has been significant in showing how Catholic affirmation of human rights is consistent with the common good is David Hollenbach.  See e.g. ‘A Communitarian Reconstruction of Human Rights’, and ‘Afterword: A Community of Freedom’, in R.B. Douglass and D. Hollenbach (eds), Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy (CUP, 1994). 

Go to Top