Natural law, human rights and women's rights: an investigation into the foundations and limitations of appeals to women's rights outside the law

Lead Research Organisation: Roehampton University
Department Name: Drama, Theatre and Performance


Since the end of the Cold War, human rights language has become the dominant discursive framework within which issues of ethics, politics and international law are debated and contested. There is a widespread acceptance of the concept of universal human rights, even although this has paradoxically occurred at a time when postmodernism has called into questions all values and practices based on appeals to universal values or norms. Human rights theorists and practitioners continue to debate the extent to which the concept of human rights may be 'nonsense on stilts' (Jeremy Bentham), a pragmatic ethical system which abandons the quest for foundations in favour of 'sentimental education' designed to inculcate western democratic values into societies and individuals (Richard Rorty), or a concept which is implicitly dependent upon theological perspectives associated with natural law and divine justice (Michael Perry).

This research project examines the natural law tradition and its relationship to human rights theory and law, with a particular emphasis on questions of women's rights. It argues that natural law theology and philosophy provide a resource for reflection on the relationship between law, rights, gender and justice, while affirming the affinity between humankind and the natural world in a way which has implications for environmental concerns and the understanding of nature.

The project looks at historical concepts of natural law from their origins in ancient Greek thought, through the medieval scholastic tradition, to post-Enlightenment theories of natural rights and modern theories of human rights. It explores the problematic positioning of women before the law, using Antigone and the French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges as examples. By showing how these women appealed to a higher concept of justice based on divine law to challenge existing laws, it asks to what extent modern feminist theorists might discover a resource for thinking through issues of women's human rights in relation to law, society and nature. This entails considering the arguments of jurisprudence, including feminist jurisprudence, and the relationship between legal positivism and natural law. It also involves a critical evaluation of postmodern theorists who deny the significance of the material world on the one hand, and of natural law theorists who posit an essential and unchanging moral law based on an appeal to natural law on the other. This mutual criticism opens up an unexplored path which may lead to a holistic and coherent theory of human rights capable of accommodating woman as subject while also offering a positive re-evaluation of the relationship between nature and culture in the light of the environmental crisis.

Although rooted in the Christian natural law tradition, the research seeks to demonstrate that a post-Christian society shaped by Christian values has much to gain from a critical reclamation of natural law and its capacity to inform concepts of the good life. However, if this is to take seriously the questions of women, the environment and social justice, then it must go beyond the arguments of Christian communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre, to offer a more radical and far-reaching reappraisal of the relationship between Christianity and secular culture, based on a revitalised doctrine of creation which affirms the significance of the material world, including the sexed human body, as a good creation capable of being orchestrated in a way that allows for the mutual and interdependent flourishing of human society and the natural world.

This approach seeks to cultivate a dialogue in which secular and theological perspectives and arguments are invoked as resources for the development of a theory of women's rights capable of responding to the challenges of both secular and religious concepts of justice, gender and and equality before the law.
Description This research began as an investigation into natural law and women's human rights, considering the interpretation of natural law in selected philosophical and theological sources, and asking how a critical engagement with aspects of the natural law tradition might contribute to the theorisation and practice of women's human rights. As the research developed, I realized that I had the material for two books rather than one.

Having done a substantial amount of work on Hegel and on approaches to human rights in feminist theory and philosophy, I began to explore Lacanian approaches to Thomas Aquinas from the related perspectives of gender, nature, law and language. I found this a rich and fruitful seam of research which has been explored more by continental theorists than by those working in the Anglo-American theological tradition. There is a recognition among a small number of scholars of the extent to which French postmodern theorists are influenced by medievalism, and there have been several studies of Lacan's Thomism, but there has to date been no attempt to bring feminist theological and theoretical perspectives to bear on such research. A Lacanian approach has enabled me to tease out deeply complex aspects of Aquinas's thought, focusing primarily on the Summa Theologiae, and to raise questions which are I believe of fundamental importance for shaping a theological and ethical response to the crises facing contemporary culture in the form of environmental destruction, changing concepts of sexuality and gender, and different forms of violence and exploitation.

I am currently completing the first book, which is contracted to Oxford University Press and is provisionally titled Divinising the Void: Theology, Nature and Gender after Postmodernity. I shall then begin editing the rest of the material in order to produce a book on natural law and women's human rights, which will build on and further develop the insights and arguments of the first book.

The main research findings are as follows:

New possibilities emerge for Thomist theology when the Summa Theologiae is read from a Lacanian perspective.

A Lacanian approach brings to light neglected and negated aspects of Aquinas's thought in a way which opens up the Thomist tradition to potentially radical new interpretations, while providing significant evidence of the extent to which Lacan's psychoanalytic theory can be read as a sustained challenge to Thomist theology.

Feminist theorists tend to elide the medieval theological tradition from their analyses of the western intellectual tradition, in a way which limits the scope of their research and obscures vital aspects of the development of changing constructs of gender, nature and sexuality.

Natural law is a complex and multi-facetted tradition which has been too readily dismissed by feminist theorists as a potential resource for the development of the idea of women's human rights capable of accommodating differences of culture, religion and history without negating concerns that are common to all women.
Exploitation Route I have already made extensive use of this research in a non-academic context as follows:

Contributing to study days, public lectures, media debates and other events aimed at non-academic audiences and focusing on questions of religion, sexuality and gender and on issues relating to the role and representation of women in religious communities.

Working closely with a major religious NGO (Cafod), to contribute a theological perspective to their development programmes and educational materials with a particular focus on issues of gender and women's rights.

Writing on the research issues for non-academic publications such as The Tablet, the online journal Open Democracy, and The Guardian. For example, I contributed eight weekly pieces on Thomas Aquinas to The Guardian's online forum 'How To Believe', based on the research.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Other