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Michael D Higgins to address Civil Rights Commemoration in Derry

Irish President Michael D Higgins is to deliver the keynote address to a civil rights festival in Derry to mark 50 years since the 1968 civil rights March of October 5th (https://www.irishnews.com/news/2018/08/14/news/president-to-address-derry-civil-rights-commemoration-1406531/). It was at this March, broadcast on television for the world to see, that public opinion was focussed on civil rights issues in NI, and so it is right and just that it will be commemorated.

The anniversary serves to focus our attention on the wider context of civil rights; that wider context is the natural law. The natural law is a moral outlook which can be known independently of God and revelation (https://ionainstituteni.org/2018/07/17/morality-religion-and-the-natural-law/). It is so known through a consideration of the nature of the human person and the ends specific to the human person precisely as human. Indeed, the natural law position is the only philosophical outlook capable of providing a reasonable justification for the various rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on the same. Other outlooks that diverge from the natural law either dismiss the notion of a human right entirely (e.g. utilitarianism whose founding father Jeremy Bentham described such rights as nonsense on stilts) or think primarily in terms of duties that the moral agent has, not rights that a person possesses (e.g. Kantian deontology the primary focus of which is to conform the will to the categorical imperative). The idea promulgated by the natural law tradition on morality is that reflection on the nature of a person will reveal a moral dimension to the person wherein the rights that we have are found.

We may go even further than that in favour of the natural law. Given that the natural law defends the position that there are natural rights, there is thereby a natural justice which honours those rights, and in turn an injustice that dishonours them, i.e. fails to uphold them. This distinction is key to many of the modern civil rights movements, since those movements typically object to various laws in a state which violate the natural justice required to uphold natural rights. Accordingly, positive law, i.e. the law enacted by the state, is only just when it squares with the natural law; otherwise we have a situation whereby there is a positive law which is positively unjust. And we have numerous examples in the 20th Century where states have enacted laws that are unjust and the common feeling of humanity has rebelled against them precisely because they are unjust. It was this distinction that illuminated Martin Luther King’s own position in his letter from Birmingham jail, and it was also this distinction which animated the proceedings of the Nuremburg trials: something is not right just because it is law, a law cannot be right unless it is in accord with the natural law. Thus, the natural law tradition gives us a reasonable justification for the criticism of unjust laws.

The natural law tradition in morality forms the backbone of civil rights thinking for it justifies natural rights and the outrage felt at unjust laws. So any supporter of civil rights who bristles at the natural law or rejects the natural law entirely is not actually a supporter of civil rights at all but a counterfeit double appropriating the good name of civil rights and its ideals for himself or herself for whatever end. As Irish president, Michael D Higgins has the opportunity to speak on civil rights in Derry at this anniversary event, let us hope that he speaks on behalf of the natural law and does not undermine it.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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