Thursday, January 29, 2009

Natural Rights Conference At Georgetown

Anyone in the DC area might want to strongly consider attending this conference at Georgetown tomorrow featuring among others Randy Barnett of Georgetown Law and the Volokh Conspiracy.

9:30am-11:00am Panel 1: The Origin and Nature of Natural Rights and the U.S. Constitution
Brian Tierney, Cornell University: Sources of the American Idea of Natural Rights: Some Competing Narratives
Robert Kraynak, Colgate University: Ordered Liberty at the American Founding: Natural Rights in Cultural Context
Respondent: Steven Brust, Georgetown University

11:00am- 11:15am Break

11:15am – 12:45pm Panel 2: Perspectives on the Constitution, Natural Rights, and Natural Law
Robert George, Princeton University: What is Natural Law?
Randy Barnett, Georgetown Law School: Was Lochner Right? Natural Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment
Moderator: Patrick Deneen, Georgetown University

12:45pm-2:00pm Lunch with Keynote Address
Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute (begins at 1:00pm):
Belief in a Certain Type of God as a Foundation of the Natural Right of Conscience
RSVP required for Lunch

2:00pm – 3:30pm Panel 3: Natural Rights, the Bill of Rights and Judges: Theory and Practice
Christopher Wolfe, McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies: Natural Rights, the Constitution, and Judicial Review
Charles Lugosi, Ave Maria Law School: Why Judges Should Understand the True Nature of the Rule of Law to Effectively Interpret the Constitution to Protect the Rights of All Persons.
Respondent: Phillip Muñoz, Tufts University

I've blogged about the work of many of the above mentioned figures. Many of presenters are going to make a Thomistic natural law case for natural rights; Randy Barnett is more than able to hold his own when he argues for a different perspective. Barnett's idea is if we have a natural right to political liberty (something I don't believe Thomas argued) such concept transcends the strict domain of natural law ethics. In short the natural law tells us what is right and what is wrong in every aspect of our lives. Natural rights deal with what government may, by right, do. Both use the same method: "natural," by definition, means discoverable by reason, as opposed to revealed in the Bible. The biggest difference between Barnett and George is that Barnett argues individuals have a natural right to do what might arguably violate the natural law; whereas George argues that we have a natural right to do what is compatible with the natural law only. Here's an example: Adults have, I would argue, a natural right to consume alcohol in private. Drinking in moderation doesn't violate the natural law; though a case could be made that drinking to excess does. Nonetheless government does not have the natural right to use its police powers to ensure my drinking in private accords with the natural law. Indeed, government doesn't need to enforce the natural law because the natural law is self enforcing. If I drink too much I get a hangover. Nature punishes me! Government need enforce natural rights only, not the natural law.

Robert P. Kraynak of Colgate is a really interesting fellow as well. He a conservative Catholic like George, Wolfe, Novak et al. (what some have termed "theocons"), but one who does not believe America's Founding concept of natural rights accords with Thomism (not unlike Robert Bork) or a traditional Christian worldview. He'll argue to his fellow conservative Catholics that American natural rights as the American Founders articulated them are dangerous to Christians who want to use the organs of government to enforce their traditionalist worldview (which he wants to do). He believes in reading the Constitution unmoored from the natural rights dogma of the Declaration of Independence. And in his first best world (where traditional Christians use government to enforce their worldview) the best instrument for doing so is NOT the US Constitutional system, but rather a more authoritarian top down constitutional monarchy.

His work has provided me with valuable insights on refuting the "Christian Nation" thesis.

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