Respect for and promotion of human rights have come to be seen as the basis of legitimacy of modern Western civilization. There is nevertheless a striking contrast between our common view on the importance of rights and our profound disagreement on their meaning and content. This disagreement has become increasingly sharp in the last decades, due to the emergence of controversial “new rights”. This book offers an in-depth account of the most important moral debates, exploring the ethical and political foundations underlying the different understandings of rights. In the first part, the author focuses on the role played by the ideas of “good” and “reason” in the Thomistic-Aristotelian and Kantian traditions; and he compares those concepts with the main currents of contemporary liberalism, which, among other things, focus on our emancipation from the limits of nature. The book attempts to show the dehumanizing effects of denying the relevance of integral human good in defining the scope of human rights and liberties, and offers an alternative way forward for our understanding of human rights in a pluralistic society.
Preface: A possible framework for understanding / Part I: Good and reason in two classical political traditions / 1. The Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition / 2. Immanuel Kant / Part II:Antiperfectionist liberalism and the desire principle / 3. “Free and equals”: John Rawls’s political philosophy / 4. “Equal concern and respect”: Ronald Dworkin’s philosophy of rights / 5. Goods and processes: Jürgen Habermas’s ethical-political project / Part III: The dehumanization of human rights / 6. Mutual disinterest and civil liberties / 7. Desireless life and undesirable life / 8. Playing God? Promethean desires / Part IV. Constructive proposals / 9. Teleology of civil liberties / 10. Perfectionist liberalism and restriction of the rights discourse / Bibliography
Fernando Simón Yarza is Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Navarra (Spain). He has been a Visiting Scholar in the Universities of Münster (Germany), Boston and Princeton. He has been awarded the prestigious “Tomás y Valiente Prize” by the Constitutional Court of Spain. He is a member of the James Madison Society (Princeton University).
Between Desire and Reason is a very important and original contribution to what might be best called the ‘natural-law civil liberties’ project, inaugurated in effect by John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights in 1980, and probably best exemplified by Robert P. George’s 1993 Making Men Moral. Simón’s book is, in my judgment, the best book-length full-orbed treatment of contemporary problems in constitutional theory from this basic perspective since George’s magisterial text of 1993. The incorporation of key European court decision distinguishes it (in a welcome way) from even the best of the Anglo works of its kind.
This is an unfailingly clear and fair-minded, as well as deep and novel, critique of modern liberalism. The quality of Simón’s scholarship is high: I have learned a great deal from the book about both the classical tradition, and about the theories of Rawls, Dworkin, Singer, and Habermas. Simón’s objections to the modern liberal theories, grounded in a frankly teleological conception of human nature and in the work of Robert Spaemann, pose a challenge that is not easily set aside, demonstrating that they all rely on a paradoxically ‘ateleological teleology.’
This book challenges the doctrine of contemporary liberalism as grounded in the contingent desires of human beings. Simón Yarza strongly defends a conception of human intentions and actions explained under the guise of the good. His account is provocative and controversial, but it compels us to reconsider the scope of the idea of the priority of the right over the good.
Taking up the torch from some of the most influential political thinkers of our time, this book insightfully shows that reducing rights to bare desires is neither accidental nor for free. It stems from deeper disbelieve in the objective distinction between right and wrong, and it logically leads to deny the universality of human rights. It is thus an unavoidable source of inquiry for students and researchers concerned with understanding the roots of the increasing loss of legitimacy of the discourse of rights, and with finding a way back from skepticism.