Justice: Rights and Wrongs
by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Princeton University Press, 416 pages, $39.50
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a gifted moral philosopher and among the most eminent Christian scholars in any discipline. His project in Justice: Rights and Wrongs is to ground—to “account for,” as he puts it—the language, morality, and reality of human rights and for the “deep structure of the moral order.” The book is, in some ways, a work of righteous anger—an “attempt to speak up for the wronged of the world”—but it is unfailingly warm, inviting, and humane. The exposition is unapologetically theistic, but never awkwardly apologetical. Even those who are not trained philosophers, and who might not appreciate the significance of each move executed or every distinction drawn, can appreciate his defense of “our moral subculture of rights.”
“There are,” Wolterstorff insists, “natural human rights,” and “human beings, all of them, are irreducibly precious.” This is true, but how is it true? What makes it true? Wolterstorff concludes that “it is impossible to develop a secular account of human dignity adequate for grounding human rights” and challenges his readers to confront squarely the “unsettling question”—the challenge issued by Nietzsche—that this failure raises. In the end, Wolterstorff proposes that “being loved by God” alone “gives a human being great worth.”
In the first part of his book , Wolterstorff presents and defends his basic thesis that the “inherent rights” of human beings—not right order, not social utility, not preference-satisfaction—are at the root of justice. His aim is to engage and displace a particular narrative—a “story of decline”—in which “the dominance in ancient and earlier medieval times of the concept of the right and the conception of justice as right order” somehow slides down to the “dominance in modern times of the concept of rights and the conception of justice as founded in natural rights.”
In addition, he takes issue with those Christians for whom rights-and-justice talk seems to run counter to the gospels' message of agape. Wolterstorff concedes, of course, that much rights talk is “silly”; he does not ignore the too frequent slippage between inherent human rights and “possessive individualism.”
Nevertheless, he thinks it is a mistake to dismiss or resist inherent rights as atomizing emanations from the Enlightenment, fourteenth-century nominalism, or the grandiose narcissism that pervades so many Supreme Court decisions.
Drawing on the work of John Witte, Charles Reid, Brian Tierney, and others, Wolterstorff shows that the “story of decline” misses the mark in part because it ignores the canonists and lawyers for whom subjective rights were a constant concern. In several fascinating chapters, he makes the case that the decline narrative “has things exactly upside down” and that a recognition—albeit not a developed theory—of inherent human rights is present in the work of the Church Fathers, in the Christian Scriptures, and in the Hebrew Bible. “Moral victims, persons who have been wronged,” are ever present in our biblical inheritance, as are solicitude for the vulnerable, proclamations that God loves justice and “holds human beings accountable for doing justice,” and recognition of the “worth of persons and of human beings.” Recall, for example, Jesus' encouraging reminder that our heavenly Father cares for the birds of the air and that we, who are of more value than they, accordingly need not be afraid.
Wolterstorff then moves to an elaboration of his theory of rights and his account of those “life goods” to which we have rights. The discussion is dense, though the author is as amiable and helpful a guide as one could want. The key point of the book's middle part is to show that the development of a theory of inherent rights requires a break with the ancients' version of eudaimonism.
For Wolterstorff, justice-as-rights is focused on recipients, victims, and the wronged rather than on the flourishing and experiences of agents. When Augustine made his break after his conversion, he was confronted with the “command of Christ to love one's neighbor as oneself.” This command, in turn, suggests that the content of the theory of rights should be supplied by asking what respect for persons and acknowledgment of their worth require.
To wrong a person, then, is to “treat her in a way that is disrespectful of her worth.” But again, what accounts for human worth, or dignity? What makes it the case that a human being is the kind of thing that can be wronged in the way that justice forbids? It might be tempting to join thinkers like Richard Rorty in shrugging off the “outmoded” task of “rights foundationalism” and rely instead for the preservation of our “moral subculture of rights” on “sad and sentimental stories” that evoke “sympathy for the feelings” of others.
For Wolterstorff, this will not do; an “account of human dignity adequate for grounding rights” is required. He proposes, however, that no secular account is possible. A theistic account, however, is available: In a nutshell, the “relational property of being loved by God”—a property that has nothing to do with human capacities (which are not, after all, shared or distributed equally)—is what gives a human being great worth.
The conclusion and the heart of the argument will—as my colleague Paul Weithman has suggested—be familiar to all parents and children who have read The Velveteen Rabbit: “Natural human rights,” he concludes, “inhere in the worth bestowed on human beings by that love” and “are what respect for that worth requires.”
Finally, the “unsettling question”: If belief in what is required to ground human rights is destined to wane, then what? Our “moral subculture of rights” might well be pervasive, but it is also “frail.” If “secularization” is the expected course of things, then it is not clear how confident we can be in the future for justice. “This is,” Wolterstorff admits, a “melancholy conclusion, . . . if one believes the secularization thesis. . . . I do not believe the thesis.”
A decade ago in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden called on scholars to engage more seriously and openly the relations of faith, study, and learning and to resist any demands that, in the name of excellence, “they should think as though God did not exist.” Wolterstorff's Justice seems as fine a response to this call as one could want.
This is not a devotional book—it is not “Justice for Christians” or “A Christian Theory of Justice”—but it is deeply and pervasively informed by the author's understanding of, and comfort with, his Christian vocation to the integrated life of a scholar. His careful examination of the biblical sources for talk about justice, rights, and wrongs is not a tangent; he presents the Scriptures' messages not as curiosities to be displayed, as if he were an anthropologist just returned from an exotic land with baubles for his friends in the faculty lounge. He writes and thinks, naturally and rigorously, as a Christian and a philosopher.
For all of us who aspire to, or even just admire, the perhaps not so outrageous vocation of Christian scholarship, Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice is an inspiration.
Richard W. Garnett is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.