Category Archives: legal theory

The “public interest” and its (mis)use throughout history

 

Politicians, courts and activists invoke the “public interest” at the drop of a hat, the better to marshall it in support of a favored doctrine or project. But consider this:

For the sake of the public interest Plato and Fichte defended the withdrawal of the children from their parents and wanted their education to be entrusted to the body politic. With an appeal to the public interest Plato wanted to abolish marriage and private property as far as the ruling classes of his ideal State were concerned. Aristotle wanted education to be made uniform in ‘the public interest’; on the same ground Rousseau wished to destroy all the particular associations intervening between the State and the individual citizen. Wolff desired the body politic to meddle with everything human and, at least for the Protestant Churches, he wanted the government to fix the confession.

The idea of the ‘salus publica’ was the hidden dynamite under the Humanistic natural law theories of Hugo Grotius and S. Pufendorff. In Chr. Wolff’s doctrine of natural law this idea resulted in a frankly admitted antinomy with his theory of innate natural rights. The slogan of the public interest was the instrument for the destruction of the most firmly established liberties because it lacked any juridical delimitation. The terrible threat of Leviathan is audible in this word as long as it is used in a juridically unlimited sense. The universalistic political theories could conceive of the relation between the State and the non-political societal structures only in the schema of the whole and its parts. This is why they could not delimit the idea of ‘the public interest’.
(“Dooyeweerd 1997–III: pp. 442–443)

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Aquinas on Tyrants and Tyrannicide

periander_vat2Aquinas’ De regno ad regem Cypiri (Address to the King of Cyprus, circa 13th C.) : interesting to read this short work written by Thomas Aquinas, especially the section on tyrants and tyrannicide, which I find to be a fertile source for contemporary political thought and discussion. A special note to make is that for Aquinas, a monarchy is the best political arrangement, hence the discussion is centered on the king.

Aquinas is reluctant to endorse private ventures to kill a tyrant; at the most, he appears to allow an uprising led by public authority as a last resort (I suppose, to give it a cloak of legality). Calvin follows this line, as do the Dutch Calvinists (for example, getting William of Orange to lead against Spanish tyranny), but I am not sure if Calvin et al acknowledge Aquinas as their source for their position.

Too, one thinks of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler that was joined by the Lutheran theologian Diectrich Bonhoeffer, which seems to meet Aquinas’ requirement, as it was hatched by a small group that involved military officers and a couple of civil servants, who thus might qualify as public authorities. Yet Aquinas gives sufficient caution against such an adventurism, citing Roman examples when the ouster of a tyrant led to worse tyrannies. (Think of Pol Pot too!)

He also appears to provide a basis for later social contract theories here: ” If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.”

As earlier stated, Calvin and the Dutch Calvinists appear to echo this Thomist idea of revolt led by public authority; The English Puritans also argue that the governed have the right to revolt against unjust leaders. The American revolutionaries who rose up against the British re-state the same idea, by way of the English social contractarians, notably John Locke.

Ideas have legs, indeed? (Also serves to show Ecclessiastes is right — there is nothing new under the sun. Human nature, being what it is, often falls victim to the same weaknesses and bad habits). Hence the relevance of the battle cry — ad fontes!

Finally, Aquinas allows that tyrants may have been allowed by God to rise to power as punishment for the sins of the people. Now we Filipinos should start asking ourselves whether the present darkness is a punishment or a reward.

 

(photo of the Tyrant Periander of Corinth’s  source)

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The UDHR and the Ontology of Rights

 

UDHRMore than 60 years after its founding, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) remains a document relevant to contemporary issues and problems; Perhaps, its genius lies in the fact that it is a declaration that embodies a broad sweep of the world’s varied traditions, philosophies and perspectives, so that no single bloc can claim ownership over its “sacred truths,” to use a theological term in this highly secularized era of ours.

Perhaps too, it can well be said that their commonality lies in the sureness of their being profoundly human. And while critics may rightly point to how its more influential interpreters often offer to the world a lopsided bent towards the individualistic view of human rights, as a founding document, its relevance is measured by the willingness of its adherents to a reasoned dialogue about the differences and commonalities that characterize various interpretive traditions.

Of course, ontological issues cannot be summarily set swept aside. (Indeed, the Western tradition presses on the primacy of the individual as the supreme if not the only ontological truth there is).

But that precisely is the role of reasoned dialogue: to show which interpretative strategy is better able to explain the problems and the solutions to them. Hence how can we better account for the so-called collective/group rights other than a resort to the positivist predilection for the description of the what is (and its undisguised disdain for the teleological)?

This discussion is also crucial to an understanding of the rise of non-state actors in international law. Is the sociological account (as for example, the process view of Higgins) enough to convince us that original objective legal personality must now be seen as something that transcends the state.

Indeed, much of theorizing on the state has been influenced by a philosophical movement that either exalts the state as the only political reality or treats it as a legal fiction of the social contract between among purportedly free and autonomous individuals.

International legal theory takes it for granted that there is an opposition between the individual and the state, to the exclusion of all other non-state actors. International legal theory thus confronts us with a nominalism of the state as the only true sovereign and a nominalism of individuals as the basic elements of the international legal order.

Hence, international law theorists resort to an unsatisfactory strategy of (1) devising external limits to the powers of the state or (2) stressing the primacy of the individual over all else to curtail abuse of state power. This nominalistic approach has so dominated international law that for the most part, the state has been seen as the only source of legal standing and legal personality in the international arena.

The first strategy cannot fully account for the state’s public and private duties while the second strategy fails to do justice to the proper exercise of the same duties as well as to the existence of other non-state entities, such as civil society groups, churches and multinational corporations.

This in fact leads to an irresolvable conflict between the state and the individual, inasmuch as it fails to properly recognize their respective competencies, as well as the existence of other spheres in society.

Neither of the two strategies can properly account for the rise of non-state actors in international legal discourse, other than resorting to notions of democratic participation and legitimacy that in the first place do not provide a convincing ontological justification for why non-state actors should be granted the right to democratic participation and the power to ascribe legitimacy to international legal processes.

As Jeremy Sarkin has persuasively argued, there is a “clear position from 1948,” when the UNDHR was adopted, that the instrument demands that “every individual and every organ of society … promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

From this standpoint, although “companies may not be in the habit of referring to themselves as ‘organs of society,’ they are a fundamental part of society. As such, they have a moral and social obligation to respect the universal rights enshrined in the Declaration.”[1]

Yet his observation also begs to ask the question thus: is this merely a matter of opinio juris and state practice, or something that requires a radical and fundamental ontological commitment? Of course, we all know that even the positivist position is anchored on an unstated ontological commitment, that is, one that thinks lightly of ontology, if at all.

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On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2015

[1]Jeremy Sarkin, The Coming of Age of Claims for Reparations for Human Rights Violations in the South, 1 SUR INT’L J OF HUM. RIGHTS 67, 69-70 (2004)

 

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International Law as Process

515EilmX7mL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_AA300_It’s time once again to teach public international law. As I’m wont to do before the start of the new semester, I re-read my notes on Rosalyn Higgin’s book. Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It, the first two chapters of which I discuss with my class in great detail for the first two meetings of the semester. In this book, Dame Higgins famously advanced the view that international law is not rules but process — in fact, according to her it is a process  involving a normative system  of “authoritative decision-making”; In so doing, she wished to avoid the rigidity that is perceived to attach to international law conceived as rules.

Dame Higgins’s definition, drawing from her Yale mentor Myres McDougal’s policy-oriented approach,  emphasizes the dynamic  and formative process set in motion by various institutions to arrive at binding international legal norms. It appears to me that from a reformational view,  this method surfaces two aspects, the kinematic and the historical. Process implies movement; authoritative decision-making implicates institutions that give form to the norms of international law. What it fails to grasp is that international law itself must not be seen as a “thing” but as part of the jural dimension of reality.

While Dame Higgins’s definition is able to capture the dynamic movement that yields international legal norms, that is, through various actors in international law (hence, it also involves the historical, formative  competence that gives positive shape to principles, as expressed  legal norms), it does not see that these aspects form part of  the necessary conditions — the constitutive elements — of the international legal norms themselves.  They form part of the “structural building blocks” of any legal order; they  are presupposed, to begin with, by the idea of an  international legal order.

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