This paper traces some changes in Catholic political theory eventually taken up and extended during World War II by Jacques Maritain, who became the foremost philosophical exponent of the idea of "human rights" on the postwar scene. I show that the invention of the idea of the "dignity of the human person" as embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights occurred not in biblical or other longstanding traditions, but instead in very recent and contingent history. In conclusion, I speculate on what the restoration of Maritain's route to human rights to its proper contexts might suggest about the cultural meaning the idea had in postwar Continental Europe, which became its homeland.
Moyn elaborates in the paper's introduction:
Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher and publicist, was the highest profile thinker to defend the concept of human rights in the immediate postwar period, the era of their framing in the Universal Declaration and embedding in European identity. What I would like to analyze in this essay is how this once reactionary critic of rights transformed into their champion. The basic argument is that this shift has to be correlated with overall ideological change in Catholicism, in which dominant old political options disappeared and new ones were needed. They were created, not simply adopted from elsewhere: Maritain – who castigated the language of rights through the late 1930s – changed them through his turn to them as much as they changed him. And his personalist and communitarian recasting of the language as a new option for Christianity helps explain why commitments to human dignity and human rights could become as prominent as they did in the postwar European order.
For we must give up once and for all the idea that the history of human rights is a story in which a static liberal doctrine rises slowly over time, its degree of external acceptance (and the failure of external alternatives to it) the main story unconnected to any sense of its internal plasticity and ideological reinvention. In a recent book, Jay Winter has proposed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be seen as a “utopia,” albeit in a minor key. If so, what matters is whose utopia it was, and with what content, at the moment of its formulation and at different stages of its reception. I will try to argue that, in terms of the cultural meanings that the concept had in the beginning, human rights reflected most centrally the ideology of "personalist humanism.”
This ideology, the intellectual backbone of the larger postwar European politics of human dignity, not only cannot be left out when pondering the original meaning of human rights, but was arguably their most determining constituent.