Wolterstorff on Justice: The Recent Outpouring


by Terence Cuneo

Roughly a decade ago, I recall Chris Eberle asking Nick Wolterstorff whether he’d consider revising his 1983 book Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Nick’s response was that he had new things to say about justice that went beyond what he had written before. Rather than revise, it would be better to start afresh.

At that point, Nick might have had a clear sense of what he had yet to say about justice. But neither Chris nor I did. Neither of us could have predicted that from 2008 through 2012, Nick would publish four books either directly concerning or closely related to the topic: Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, 2008),Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011), The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology(Cambridge, 2012), and Understanding Liberal Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy (Oxford, 2012). These works constitute the recent outpouring of Nick’s work to which my title refers.

Some of you will already be acquainted with some of Nick’s work on this topic. Still, it may prove illuminating to sketch the major themes of these books, noting how they hang together. What emerges is that central to Nick’s thought is the theme of honoring rights. Understanding the nature of justice, love, political authority, and liberal democracy requires that we see them as intimately connected with honoring both the rights of persons (including God’s) and the rights of human beings. It might also be worth emphasizing that by making rights central to his thought, Nick is swimming against powerful currents among Christian theologians, ethicists, and political theorists. Many of these thinkers want nothing to do with rights. They believe that rights are an invention of medieval nominalism or secular modernity. Nick argues that this is deeply mistaken. Rights have their home in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and their emphasis on the worth of human beings. To be sure, the scriptures do not use rights language. But, Nick argues, the idea that others have claims against us in virtue of their standing and worth is plainly there. Indeed, one of the great gifts of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the moral and intellectual life of the West, Nick maintains, is the
conception of inherent natural rights.

As its title indicates, the aim of Justice: Rights and Wrongs is to articulate and defend a rights-based account of justice. More specifically, it is to defend a view of justice according to which justice is ultimately grounded not in the various goods that constitute human well-being, such as the good of autonomy, but in the worth of individuals. This worth can be determined by various features that individuals possess. You might have worth in virtue of being a superb musician. I might have worth in virtue of being an excellent cook. We both have worth in virtue of being rational agents. If so, then we each have rights in virtue of the worth we possess on account of having these (and other) features. Many wonder, however, whether there are rights that attach to humans as such. Nick thinks there are. For we can wrong all humans, whether they are newborns or suffering from advanced dementia. Still, Nick is pessimistic about whether our best secular theories can account for these rights. In the last chapters of his book, Nick contends that human rights are best accounted for in a theistic framework. It is because God bestows worth on all human beings by loving them that they have rights of various sorts, such as the right not to be subject to bodily mutilation. It bears emphasizing, however, that Nick does not offer a theistic account of rights in general. He offers only a theistic account of that which grounds human rights.

Justice has two audiences: those who share Nick’s theistic commitments and those who do not. Justice in Love, in contrast, is directed primarily toward fellow Christians. Its central theme concerns the two “comprehensive imperatives” found in the writers of antiquity and the scriptures: to do justice and to love one’s neighbor.

Many in the Christian tradition have held that the two imperatives are inherently in conflict. Consider the Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, for example. Nygren defends a version of agapism according to which the love imperative swamps the justice imperative. Agapic love, says Nygren, excludes acting because justice requires it. The Christian is to act solely for the sake of love, by which Nygren means benevolence. For various reasons, Nick finds this approach entirely unsatisfactory. It would be much better, Nick claims, to have a view according to which we can act for the sake of both justice and love, one according to which the love and justice imperatives are integrated.
Much of Justice in Love is dedicated to fashioning this alternative.

The alternative to classic agapism that Nick develops–what he calls “careagapism”–has three basic components. Suppose we agree that we are beings that often care for the well-being of both others and ourselves. When we care for the wellbeing of others, care-agapism tells us, we are not to do so at the cost of wronging someone. Likewise, when we care for ourselves and seek justice for ourselves, we are not to do so at the cost of wronging anyone. Finally, we are never to seek to impose an evil on someone—to diminish her flourishing–as an end in itself. Imposing an evil on someone is permissible only when it is an indispensible means by which to realize significant goods in the life of that person or others. If Nick is right, these principles articulate–albeit in an abstract way–the core ethical vision of the New Testament in which justice constrains and informs love.

Care-agapism raises all sorts of questions. Consider forgiveness. Many believe that forgiveness requires us to forget about, even violate, justice. How could a view that tries to reconcile love and justice make sense of forgiveness? And then there is generosity. Citing parables such as the laborers in the vineyard, many Christians hold hat generosity also requires us to forget about justice. Justice in Loveaddresses these topics in detail, arguing that a proper understanding of both forgiveness and generosity allows us to see that neither is an abrogation or violation of justice. The last part of the book offers a striking interpretation of Romans according to which Paul’s central concern is the justice of God.

Justice and Justice in Love articulate and defend a theoretical framework for thinking about justice and love. The Mighty and the Almighty applies this basic framework to the issue of political authority. The Christian tradition generally holds that the state possesses authority over its citizens. It is, the tradition has generally held, divinelyappointed authority. But how should we understand the nature of this authority? More specifically, how should we understand both the relation of the state to God and the relation of the state to the church? These are Nick’s leading questions.

The Mighty and the Almighty engages with three prominent Christian answers to these questions: John Howard Yoder’s Anabaptist position, Augustine’s “two cities” view, and Calvin’s “perfectionist” position. The first rejects the idea that the state has divinely-appointed authority. The second view implies–at least in the hands of its contemporary advocates–that Christians are”resident aliens” living in a secular state. The last holds that the primary role of the state is to produce piety and virtue in its citizens. Nick rejects each of these positions, arguing that a close reading of Romans reveals that Paul articulates a view according to which God has assigned government the task of being a rights-protecting institution. The primary task of government, according to this understanding, is not to secure goods, such as making its citizens pious or virtuous; rather, it is to deter wrongs. Or to put the point a little differently, it is to secure the goods of deterring, punishing, and protecting against wrongdoing. St. Paul, admittedly, does not fill out this central idea in any detail. Nonetheless, it is, Nick argues, the best understanding of what he says. Moreover, Nick contends, we can faithfully extend Paul’s basic understanding of political authority. When we do, we can identify two of its implications.

First, the existence and nature of the church place limits on state action. For the church is not a branch or offspring of the state. It has a certain kind of autonomy vis-á-vis the state. And, second, when we combine what Paul says about the task and authority of the state with the political implications of the nature and existence of the church, we can identify an argument for a limited state. In fact, it is an argument for a state that is limited in the way that liberal democracies are limited. The thrust of the argument in The Mighty and the Almighty, then, is pointed. Christians of many sorts have been skeptical of liberal democracy, seeing it as, at best, a very imperfect compromise or modus vivendi. They sometimes lament the demise of a unified Christendom. Nick’s argument implies that these convictions need to be reevaluated. For at the heart of Pauline Christianity is the idea of the state as a limited, rights-protecting institution.

This picture of the state will be attractive to anyone who embraces liberal democracy. In Understanding Liberal Democracy, Nick advances two complementary lines of argument addressed primarily to those–Christian and non-Christian alike–who are sympathetic with liberal democracy. The main proponents of so-called public reason liberalism, such as John Rawls, identify what they take to be the governing or animating “Idea” of liberal democracy. The governing Idea of liberal democracy, these thinkers maintain, is that each citizen is to be as free as possible to form and enact his or her own life-plan. Everyone is to enjoy as much autonomy as possible. This is what justifies the limits of political authority in a liberal democratic state. Moreover, thinkers such as Rawls believe that this understanding of liberal democracy places constraints on the sorts of considerations to which citizens of liberal democracy should appeal when advocating coercive policies. Religious considerations, these thinkers maintain, should always be supplemented by nonreligious ones that are comprehensible to fellow nonreligious citizens. Both of these claims–the first concerning the nature of liberal democracy, the second concerning the proper conduct of its citizens–Nick argues, are mistaken.

There is a better way to go. The animating idea of liberal democracy, Nick proposes, is not that articulated by Rawls but instead this: citizens have equal right to full political voice, this voice to be exercised within (i) an explicit or implicit constitution that imposes limits and guarantees on government and (ii) a legal order that protects citizens against impairment of their right to full political voice by their fellow citizens. Nick calls this the “equal political voice” interpretation of liberal democracy. According to this understanding of liberal democracy, citizens are free to advance whatever reasons for coercive policies they deem appropriate. Sometimes these will include >religious considerations; other times they will not. While we strive for consensus on which coercive policies to implement, the reality is that we cannot expect it. That, in part, is why we vote. Voting, of course, carries with it the possibility of losing the vote. Fundamental to the ethos of liberal democracy, Nick maintains, is learning to live with
that reality.

Earlier I noted that Nick’s work is animated by the conviction that we need to understand justice, love, political authority, and liberal democracy in terms of rights. This unifying theme, I trust, is evident in the description I have offered of Nick’s recent work. My own view is that this work is an extraordinarily powerful and perceptive
treatment of these topics—a treatment that advances the discussion about them far
beyond its prior state. In what remains, I would like to reflect briefly on the way Nick approaches these topics, which I believe is strikingly different from the way in which most philosophers–Christian philosophers included–do.

Anyone who has read Justice knows that it is a wide-ranging book. In addition to philosophy of the usual sort, there are forays into theology, medieval intellectual history, the history of late antiquity, and even a little sociology. What I find most striking about this book and its companions, however, are the sections devoted to biblical exegesis. It goes without saying that most secular philosophers pay no attention to the scriptures. When Rawls writes about justice, for example, he does not engage with what Jesus or St. Paul say. But it is worth emphasizing that most Christian philosophers are, in this regard, not that different from Rawls. Typically, Christian philosophers do not offer sustained interpretations of scriptural themes–interpretations, for example, around which they develop theories of justice. Often they address the question of whether their views on a given topic are consistent with the scriptures. But that’s different than engaging the scriptures, as Nick does, with an eye toward discerning what they say or imply about a given topic, such as the nature of justice or political authority, and then developing views that extend and are deeply consonant with what the scriptures say or imply.

On this occasion, I won’t hazard a guess as to why this is so, although I believe there are explanations for it. Suffice it to say that Nick’s approach is different. For Nick’s views are developed, in large measure, by engaging in close and sympathetic readings of the biblical texts. Moreover, these readings are informed by and engage with important work in biblical studies, although they often differ with them sharply. Nick’s approach, I need to add, does not assume that simply consulting what the scriptures say about a given topic is enough to make substantial progress on it. On some matters, after all, the scriptures are mute. On other topics, it is extraordinarily difficult to discern what the scriptures say or imply. Controversy looms at every turn. Rather, the approach that animates Nick’s work is that we Christian philosophers can fruitfully engage the scriptures in much the same way that scholars of ancient philosophy engage Plato and Aristotle: as first-rate minds saying important things about matters of the utmost importance.

Nick’s recent work on justice has left quite an impression on me. It has had the effect of making the scriptures come alive, allowing me to see ways of reading the text and themes that I had previously failed either to notice or to sufficiently appreciate. Perhaps most of all, Nick’s recent work has for me brought into much sharper focus the distinctive ethical vision of Christianity, with its understanding of love, justice, and forgiveness and their subtle interrelations. When I compare this vision to that of the ancient Greeks, with their emphasis on self-fulfillment, or to that of contemporary consequentialism, with its stress on maximizing value, it strikes me as remarkably compelling. And that is as it should be. An ethical vision should be compelling. It should be such that it can command our allegiance. The enduring contribution of Nick Wolterstorff’s recent work on justice, I believe, is that we are now better able to grasp this vision, to let it speak to us and be our guide.

Terence Cuneo teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.