Grounding Justice

The first thing you need to know about
this book is that the title does not
do it justice. Nicholas Wolterstorff,
professor emeritus of philosophical theology
at Yale, has not sought to tell us
what justice requires, like John Rawls
in A Theory of Justice, but to answer a
deeper question: what cosmic support,
Justice Cover
if any, grounds justice? His answer is
in the first instance the excellence and
majesty of God, which give Him inherent
dignity and worthiness of respect
as his right. Secondarily, by virtue of
bearing His image, all of humanity has
a subordinate inherent dignity that also
commands a certain respect. Indeed,
Wolterstorff’s “ur-principle” holds that
it is wrong to “under-respect” anything
at all, including human beings for their
very humanity, the particular merits of
people, and even majestic mountains and
well-executed double-plays. This principle
of respect supports a notion of inherent human
rights.

Beginning with Part I, “The Archeology
of Rights,” the focus of Justice moves
gradually from history–the genealogy of
inherent natural rights against the West’s
prior philosophical background in eudaimonism–to Part III, “Theory: Having a
Right to a Good.” Eudaimonism, the outlook
of the classical Greek philosophers,
the Stoics, Aquinas, and indeed most of
the pre-modern West, is inhospitable to
inherent rights, as Wolterstorff tells it, because
it minimizes the significance of what
happens to us for the worth of our lives.
Eudaimonism teaches that happiness is
our “natural end,” what we naturally seek.
If true earthly happiness is to be possible in a cruel world, it must be independent of
what we suffer and dependent only on our
goodness; i.e. our dispositions and choices.
This means that rights, which are claims
against others to how they are to treat us,
cannot affect real happiness and so serve
no purpose. Compassion will be a virtue,
desirable as a constituent of our happiness,
but it is not a duty owed to others as befitting
their inherent human worth. Note
here incidentally that eudaimonism upholds
a very high-minded conception of
true happiness as nonetheless a real possibility.
For Wolterstorff no theory of rights
could take hold in the West until Augustine
broke eudaimonism’s grip by citing the infinite
vulnerabilities of earthly happiness
and insisting on the unreality of the highminded
conceptions of the philosophers.

Nonetheless, eudaimonism still sustains
what Wolterstorff calls “the contemporary
polemic against justice as rights.”
Modern conservatives like Leo Strauss
(Natural Right and History) and Alasdair
MacIntyre find in eudaimonism a bulwark
against moral relativism, owing to its conception
of a fixed human nature; a place to stand against utopianism, which seems to
invent natural rights for every human woe;
and, for those whose taste runs to cultural
pessimism, resources for a “declinist” narrative
of Western history. In fact, in these
narratives a sure sign of moral and intellectual
decay is the emergence of notions
of natural rights. The conservatives trace
them to bourgeois Enlightenment individualism,
or to late medieval nominalism, or
to 12th century canon law, indeed to anything
rather than the Scriptures to which
Wolterstorff traces them.

For Wolterstorff the biblical writers
take for granted without theorizing that
we are accountable to God for how we treat
others, that His anger at sin is righteous,
and that we need His forgiveness. They
thereby acknowledge His claims against
us, based on His excellence, glory, etc. Likewise,
when Jesus requires His followers to
forgive others, He acknowledges our rights
against others. The commandment to love
our neighbors as ourselves, so contrary to
inclination, is based on the respect due to
bearers of God’s image. A lengthy examination
of divine command theory issues in
the conclusion that only the “ur-principle”
of normative respect for excellence can account
for inherent rights; divine commands
and power will not do.

Wolterstorff is arguing for high-level
principles, with little explicit attention to
practical implications. One might wish for
more on what respecting inherent human
worth looks like, but like respect in general,
its expression is too dependent on circumstances
to be definitively articulated.
Wolterstorff insists on inherent rights to
food and education, for instance, but what
these amount to is obviously dependent on
circumstances and subject to innumerable
qualifications. But there is no missing
the challenge the theory poses to popular
American alternatives. Most bluntly, certain
sorts of human misery, whether self-induced,
caused by the wrongs of others,
or just “bad luck,” demand to be rectified,
and neglecting to do so is an affront to
inherent human worth and to God. Likewise,
honoring certain goods in our lives,
like our ability to walk across New Haven
Green without being mugged, will normally
be the due public expression of respect
for human dignity. Moreover the range of
these rights, defined by the image of God,
excludes distinctions by capacities (for example;
the disabled and unborn), ethnicity,
and so on, and thereby challenges every
culture and political position. Finally,
inherent human worth underwrites these
requirements, and where individual and
private initiatives are inadequate to meet
them, other means must be found to do so,
even political means.

A. Chadwick Ray is professor of philosophy at Central
College in Pella, Iowa.