Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is meant as a defense of the language of human rights against charges, on the right, that individual rights are the engine and expression of social atomization, which obscures the obligation to produce well-ordered societies, and charges, on the left, that there are no such things as natural rights. Wolterstorff’s argument is that our language of rights is derived from a Jewish and a Christian tradition in which God has rights, and, because we are made in the image of God, we must experience each other as having inherent rights, too. He gestures at making his argument in secular terms—that is, he is momentarily willing to entertain the possibility that the oldness and embeddedness of this imago dei tradition may not guarantee it eternal life, and that perhaps we should look for something to replace it. But he does not believe anything can. As he writes in the book’s epilogue:
Our Judaic and Christian heritage…declares that all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being made in the image of God and of being loved redemptively by God. It adds that God holds us accountable for how we treat each other—and for how we treat God. It is this framework of conviction that gave rise to our moral subculture of rights. If this framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we will slide back into our tribalisms.
He puts it more starkly in a related passage, aimed at diminishing the Kantian tradition and the pretensions of Enlightenment to a theory of justice: “To wrong God is to wrong someone of vastly greater worth than [a] rational human being.”
I quote immediately from the end of Wolterstorff’s book because, frankly, the route by which he gets there turns out to be unimportant. I suspect he would agree. The book is written in seventeen chapters (not including an introduction and the epilogue), and along the way he treats us to learned investigations on the meanings of justice in Jewish law, on Augustine’s relationship to the Greek philosophical tradition, and on the history of twelfth-century humanist legal scholarship, to name a few high points. But none of these really matter to the argument of this book, which is organized to dispense with its examples as soon as they are raised. To take a central instance: in his chapter on the character of justice in the Old Testament, Wolterstorff carefully elucidates the probable contextual meanings of the Hebrew word mishpat (“righteousness”), cautiously moving in the direction of claiming that it indicates not only a “rectifying” justice, but also an inherent notion of justice—but he sets the entire chapter’s argument aside when he arrives at Genesis 9:6:
Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
By a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
For in his own image
God made mankind.
Ignoring that the passage endorses capital punishment, Wolterstorff draws this highly syllogistic conclusion:
Once one has said that God has worth, that that worth grounds God’s right to worship and obedience, and that human beings likewise have worth, it proves impossible not to continue in this line of thought and hold that human beings have rights on account of their worth.
This is but one of many examples. Everywhere in Justice Wolterstorff’s interest in theological and philosophical history collides with his desire for syllogism, or for causal necessity, or for foundational or axiomatic truth. He is always rushing headlong toward the moment when, blessedly, “it proves impossible not to continue” toward the terminus of thought—indeed, for the moment when we can lay down thinking altogether—even if, lost in the rush, the relief of having arrived at a foundation obscures from the mind its having reached a parallel conclusion, like the sanction of state violence.
The problem with intellection of this kind is that it tends always toward regress or tautology, or, more precisely, that it waffles manically between the two. This produces the unnerving spectacle of a philosopher straining to set thought aside:
Suppose God has commanded me to do A and that I now ask, what makes it morally obligatory for me to do what God commanded—not just prudent but obligatory?
So far as I can see, the only answer is that, by virtue of God’s “office” or “position” with respect to us, God has the power (potestas) and authority to place me and my fellow human beings under moral obligation to do something by commanding us to do it…
But obviously, we cannot now say that that standing obligation of ours was in turn generated by some command of God’s—specifically, by God’s command to obey God’s commands. That would set us off on an infinite regress. God’s generation of moral obligations on our part …presupposes the existence of standing moral obligation on our part.
This is a flawless argument, if you find it argumentatively productive to suppose a God who commands as a first step in presupposing a God who commands.
As I see it, there are two ways to respond to this style of thinking when it takes book form. One is to try to understand the relationship between the style of the writing and the content of the argument. The style is quite striking: here Wolterstorff imagines he is establishing that the only ultimate worth is the worth bestowed on things by God, by way of this excursus on really tasty soup:
…when I ask what is good about the soup’s flavor, I am assuming that there is some aspect of the soup’s flavor that is itself good and that the goodness of that aspect contributes to making the soup’s flavor good. Perhaps what is good about the flavor is its being definitely but delicately lemony. Being definitely but delicately lemony is of non-instrumental worth and contributes that worth to the worth of the flavor, and thereby in turn to the worth of the soup.
We can press the same question yet again, now about the aspect of the flavor that we have identified: what is good about the flavor being definitely but delicately lemony?…the food is non-instrumentally good on account of the non-instrumental goodness of that aspect of the food that is its flavor. Its flavor is non-instrumentally good on account of the non-instrumental goodness of that aspect of the flavor that is its being definitely but delicately lemony. At some point we are confronted with some aspect that is non-instrumentally good but not on account of the non-instrumental worth contributed to it by some aspect that it has; it is non-instrumentally good, period.
It is alarming to discover, in the movement of these extraordinarily repetitive and single-minded sentences, how little difference it makes to Wolterstorff when and on what terms we finally arrive at a non-aspectual, essential goodness in his soup: at the molecular level, the atomic level? It hardly matters. The analytic impulse, which mimics investigation, is in fact chomping at the bit to toss aside investigation so as to be able to announce, with nothing behind it for authority but sheer repetition—you might say, sheer force—that it’s just good soup, “period.”
Which brings us to the second, regrettably more necessary way to interpret thinking like this, which is to track its hapless relation to authoritarianism. Wolterstorff’s Augustinian framework, as well as his analytic method, induce him to take positions asymptotically close to those he opposes. It is lovely to hear that we are all made in the image of God; it is less so to be reminded that, for the Augustine Wolterstorff admires, “every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake, but God is to be loved in reference for His own sake.”
Wolterstoff’s book has been praised as “the most impressive book on justice since Rawl’s A Theory of Justice.” That may be so; as a literary critic I am at an unfortunate remove from the work of my colleagues in political philosophy. But a book like this is hard for me to read except symptomatically. I read it as an expression of a crisis—not in the concept of justice, but in the centrist liberalism that, as long as it insists that the criterion of theory is to find solid ground, has no solid ground on which to distinguish itself from the right flank it wants to reject.