In Book 2 of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon pointed out that the great Christological battles of the fourth century turned on a single letter. Were God and Jesus homoousios, meaning of the same substance, and or were they homoiousios, meaning of a similar substance. As theologians will tell you, rather a lot rides on this distinction but to those outside the church, including Gibbon, the difference appears insignificant and facile. The fact that the two words differ by one letter, the iota that happens to be the smallest in the Greek alphabet, makes the thing seems all the more ridiculous. Gibbon certainly thought so.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs also turns on a single letter, and one that is hardly less important that the early Church’s iota. Is justice based on rights or right? Or, put another way, should the hungry be fed because they have rights or because it is in the “right order of things” that they should be fed. Modern Gibbons will quibble at this – the hungry get fed either way – but as Wolterstorff points out, there is something more profound at stake: “the debate at bottom is over the deep structure of the moral universe: what accounts for what.” Do rights come from justice or does justice come from rights?
Wolterstorff takes issue with the idea, promoted by a number of eminent Christian scholars, that inherent, natural rights are a modern invention (dating from either the 14th or 17th century, depending on your historical taste), and the first part of Justice aims to show that the idea of rights is present in the canon lawyers of earlier Middle Ages, the Church fathers, Roman Jurists and, before them all, the Bible.
He recognises that “when one attends to the prominence of divine legislation in Israel’s life, everything points to the conclusion that we are dealing with a right order way of thinking.” Nevertheless, two observations in particular persuade him that rights of some kind were recognised in early Israel. First (and less persuasively), he argues that “the pervasive presence of social victims [such as the widow, orphan and alien] in Israel’s writings… is not typical right order talk.” In what appears to be a self-fulfilling argument, he contends that “social victims do not have the significance in right order thinking that Israel’s writers appear to give them.”
More persuasively, he shows that the writers of the Bible clearly assign rights to God and that because of who human beings are (as evidenced in Genesis 1, Psalm 8, etc.) it follows that we have rights too. Thus, “the proscription against murder is grounded not in God’s law but in the worth of the human being. All who bear God’s image possess, on that account, an inherent right not to be murdered.” This, Wolterstorff recognises, is not a fully formed doctrine of inherent natural rights but, rather, the raw material for later thinkers to develop just that.
Having argued that rights can be derived from biblical story, he proceeds to the no less ambitious task of showing that no other intellectual system is capable of providing sufficient grounding for rights. In answer to the question he poses himself in chapter 15, “Is a secular grounding of human rights possible?” he gives a resounding “No”.
Part two of the book gives a great deal of time to showing that “a theory of rights cannot be developed within the framework of [ancient] eudaimonism” (the theory that the virtuous or well-lived life leads to happiness) because “the conception of the good life with which eudaimonism works is not of the right sort to comprehend all the goods to which we have rights” (much of part two is written in this slightly abstruse tone). It was “the incursion of Scripture into the thought world of late antiquity made possible the rights culture that we are all familiar with.”
Part three continues the argument, maintaining that rights cannot be grounded in duties, and that even Kant’s approach, on which so much modern rights theorising is based, is inadequate. “The fatal flaw in Kant’s capacities approach”, Wolterstorff argues, is that “if we insist that the capacity for rational agency gives worth to all and only those who stand to the capacity in the relation to actually possessing it, then it is not human right that are grounded but the rights of those who possess the capacity.”
Returning to the Christian basis, Wolterstorff reasons that not even the imago dei of Genesis 1 is adequate for grounding natural human rights. Rather, he concludes, we need the Christian idea that “being loved by God [is what] gives a human being great worth.”
“If God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for. Bearing that property gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which nature human rights inhere.”
It will be clear that Justice is an enormously ambitious book, both in its breadth and objectives. It is not an easy read but it is an important one. It has already sparked much animated debate in the academy with conferences and journals being dedicated to discussing its arguments. As far as this reviewer is concerned, those arguments are instructive but not persuasive, but the book’s erudition and detail meant that by the end my predominant sense was of feeling ill-qualified to pass any judgement on it.
Whatever one makes of its arguments, Justice is a seminal contribution to Christian ethics and a useful riposte to those modern Gibbons to sneer at the idea that Christians have anything useful to say about the things that matter.
Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Nicholas Wolterstorff is published by Princeton University Press (2009)