Sense and Nonsense: Even More Rights

In March, I wrote, ironically, about the “right” to be obese. It turns out that the January 9 L’Osservatore Romano carried two related items, the Holy Father’s November 3, 2001, letter to the director general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and an address of Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, the Vatican’s representative to the FAO. In his letter, Pope John Paul II talks of yet another right—”the inviolable right to a proper diet.” Archbishop Marchetto holds that “food security” is a “true and real fundamental right of every human person.” So while governments tell us we eat too much, the Church wants a guaranteed proper diet for everybody.

Talk of new rights seems problematic. In much modern parlance, the word “right” is not grounded in anything but human or political will (Hobbes). “Whatever the prince wills, is the law [or right]” (emphasis added), as St. Thomas Aquinas noted in an objection to the Roman Law in his Summa Theologiae. The contemporary prince (read: democracy or any other form of government) “wills” some strange “rights” and advocates some atrocious “values” (another dubious word) that have little objective grounding as modern rights.

Obviously, the pope and the archbishop begin with extreme cases—starvation caused by war, natural disaster, or underdevelopment often resulting from faulty political policies. Such analyses can lead to startling implications. “When people can no longer satisfy their basic needs because of war, poverty, bad government or mismanagement, or even on account of natural disasters,” the pope writes, “others have a moral duty to intervene to help them.”

Taken literally, such a principle reduces the sovereignty of many nations to practically nothing and signifies an enormous growth in international power. Moreover, undue authority is given to whoever defines “starvation” and “poverty.” “The existing contrast between the possible and real intervention and the will to do something effective,” Archbishop Marchetto writes, “seriously threatens the survival of millions and millions in our world where, as a whole, we have a development and progress that are unprecedented.”

Neither the Holy Father nor Archbishop Marchetto mentions the market or property, the main causes of progress and development, which are the most effective instruments in the production and distribution of food within a nation or the world. Though some distinction between justice and charity exists, the emphasis is on distribution and rights, not on production and voluntary or commercial exchange. Most people now grant that the world can produce enough food for whatever population we have. The Vatican has to protect itself from the accusation that its policies on population are the cause of the very shortage of food it bemoans.

Because of their failure to distinguish more clearly between exceptional cases and normal exchanges—and their too uncritical view of environmental control it is difficult not to read these documents as primarily advocating state intervention whenever some dire food situation arises anywhere in the world. Is “We invade you to feed you” the new international slogan?

The general doctrine of Aquinas, based on Genesis and Aristotle, argues that the goods of the world are given to all mankind in general to reach (or feed) everyone in particular. The pope in his letter mentions the food supply in Genesis before the Fall, but he does not explain the situation afterward when Adam has to work “by the sweat of his brow.” Presumably, original sin comes into our hearts in a powerful way to increase selfishness and disorder.

Aquinas, following Aristotle’s critique of Plato, held that the best way for mankind to supply material goods to all people is through private property. He did hold, famously, that when someone was in fact starving, it was permitted for him to take from those who had food. The purpose of the division of property was not working in that particular case. I suppose these rights to a proper diet or to food security presume such a background.

But the right to a proper diet has implications over and above simply alleviating starvation wherever it might exist. If I have a right to a proper diet, do I have a duty to follow only a proper diet? Who is to mandate what a proper diet is? Who is to supply and enforce it? The implications for political control of the most private aspects of human life are enormous if we accept the full import of such demanding rights. To help the poor and starving, access to free markets, plus a generosity with the abundance this system makes possible, still seems the most efficient and least politically dangerous option. New rights to diets and food security, however well-intended, are probably not the best ways to help most of the starving.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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