Front Page Titles (by Subject) Aquinas and Natural Rights - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3
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Aquinas and Natural Rights - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Aquinas and Natural Rights
“Natural Law and Right in Aquinas' Political Thought.” The Western Political Quarterly 33 (December 1980): 520–535.
A linguistic analysis helps clarify a problem in the history of political thought: Aquinas' theory of natural law and its application to the problem of obeying unjust law. Aquinas' theory can be understood only when we pay careful attention to its specific linguistic features, and in particular to the meaning of the central concept, “right” (jus). A distinction is drawn between two senses of “right” (“right that” and “right to”). This distinction is important not only for the light it casts on the difference between high medieval and modern political thought, but in itself and for its relevance to contemporary discussion of human “rights.” After sketching Aquinas' theory of law, with particular reference to natural law, the author raises the central problem—what ought to be done in the face of unjust laws and a tyrannical ruler? The last sections of the article elucidate the basis for Aquinas' answer that, in most cases, the tyrant must be endured.
For Aquinas, unjustified or unauthorized action against even an unbearably vicious tyrant is not only no better in kind than the acts of the tyrant, but it is much more dangerous. Resistance is likely to produce faction, sedition, and even civil war, thereby forfeiting all the benefits of political society in the attempt to remedy a few of its contingent defects. Aquinas finds himself in a dilemma, torn between the two central functions of human law, restraining evil and fostering virtue. To tolerate the human evil of the tyrant means that, at least temporarily, we must renounce the fostering of virtue as a primary goal of law. By requiring obedience to the tyrant, he deprives citizens of the protection of the natural law by abrogating its binding force and its priority over human law.
The conceptualization of Aquinas' treatment of the problem of unjust laws is misleading since it suggests an embryonic theory of natural or human rights in Aquinas' notion of natural law. Donnelly believes that such notions are totally absent from Aquinas and discusses in great detail the relation of justice, right, and law in Thomas' thought. His crucial distinction is between two senses of “right”: “right that” (as “It is right that Smith do X,”) and “right to” (as “Smith has a right to X”). Aquinas acknowledges only one right (“right that”). Aquinas' jus is a different concept from our modern notion of human “right.” For Aquinas natural law does not give rise to “rights” in the sense of “right to” but only states what is right in the sense of “right that.”
A tyrant is acting evilly and unjustly and it is not “right that” he violate God's natural law, but he owes his moral obligation to God and not to his citizens. For Aquinas, citizens cannot (except by an-achronistically invoking modern rights theory) claim that they have a “right to” resist or possess a “right to” self-government that “entitles” them to depose a tyrant or establish a ruler of their choice. Aquinas subscribes to a view of politics which formulates what is right almost exclusively in the sense of “right that” and which also wholly lacks the idea of natural or human “right to.” Injured citizens have available to them, within Thomas' framework, claims which they are not entitled to enforce. “The demands of natural law may be quite considerable, but the position of the people in a political system based on such a view of natural law, and the operation of the system, would be quite different from one based on natural or human rights.”