The central claim of Nicholas Wolsterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is that justice is based on natural human rights that inhere in the worth of human beings, a worth that is bestowed on each and every human being through God’s love. He contrasts this view of “justice as inherent rights” with an alternative notion of “justice as right order,” the view that was espoused by pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and dominated philosophical thinking until relatively recent times. Wolterstorff’s is a specifically Christian conception of the foundations of justice. He traces its origins to Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and argues that the widespread acceptance of human rights that has been achieved in the twentieth century would probably erode if the theistic grounding of those rights were to be discarded in favor of secularist views.
Wolterstorff’s book is a challenging, serious, sustained reflection on the foundations of justice. He wrestles with a wide range of difficult issues, often with considerable success. Yet the net result with which the reader is left seems to amount to something less than the sum of its parts. I shall point to a handful of difficulties, touching on both his historical narrative (which occupies roughly half the book) and his philosophical argument.
One of the book’s major claims is that the idea of rights that apply equally to all human beings originated in the literatures of ancient Judaism and Christianity, not in pagan sources. Wolterstorff is certainly right that justice is a central theme in Hebrew Scriptures. But he also argues that justice is one of the main themes of the New Testament, an argument that runs counter to the widely shared view that the New Testament focuses much more on love than on justice. Is this claim correct?
I think not. Wolterstorff rightly notes that the New Testament contains numerous instances of words based on the Greek term diké, which is the root of a family of words that are normally translated by variants of the word “justice” but are in the New Testament commonly translated by the word “righteous” and its variants. Yet a careful examination of the very texts he cites to support his claim about the centrality of the theme of justice to the New Testament points in the opposite direction, namely to the conclusion that a central aim of the New Testament was to supplant ideas based on justice with ideas clustered around love. For example, Wolterstorff highlights a passage from Luke that is borrowed, with revisions, from Isaiah. He argues that since the original passage from Isaiah explicitly invokes justice, the reworked passage in Luke must have been intended to evoke the idea of justice in its early readers, who would have been familiar with the book of Isaiah. Yet what seems most significant in the passage from Luke is the omission of any reference to justice, an omission that readers familiar with Isaiah would likely have understood to be deliberate. Wolterstorff is right that the writers of the New Testament were able to “think in terms of justice”—indeed, I know of no one who denies that they were able to do so—but it does not follow that justice was one of their central themes. The more plausible reading is the more familiar one that love, not justice, is the central theme of the New Testament.
Wolterstorff is right, of course, that Christianity is a major source of the idea that each and every human being possesses a great deal of inherent worth. This proposition is relatively uncontroversial. His account of the development and spread of ideas about justice would have been more accurate, however, if he had given due credit to ancient Stoic thinkers who argued, beginning before the advent of Christianity and apparently with no influence from Hebrew Scriptures, that every human being by nature is capable of giving and receiving justice, as well as to the enormous role that was played by Roman law in the dissemination of ideas about justice.
Wolterstorff rejects all secularist attempts to provide a foundation for the idea of justice, including a family of attempts based on the notion that human beings possess a capacity for rational agency, a family of which Kant’s moral theory is the most prominent member. It is true that arguments that justice is founded in the capacity for rational agency are not free of difficulties. But some of his central complaints about this line of argument strike me as tendentious. He suggests that some human beings have this capacity to a greater degree than others, and that some, such as infants and those suffering dementia, do not have the capacity for rational agency at all. I agree that some human beings have more fully developed powers of reasoning than others. But Kant’s argument is based on the capacity for rational agency, a capacity that in his view creatures either do or do not possess, not on the developed power to reason well. Indeed Wolterstorff himself suggests that humans and only humans have a capacity for what he calls “moral agency.” It is not clear that he has drawn a real distinction between his view and Kant’s.
Wolterstorff goes to considerable lengths to distinguish his view of justice as inherent human rights from the idea of justice as right order, but his effort leaves this distinction much murkier than he seems to realize. His chief exhibit among theorists of justice as right order is Plato, for whom, Wolterstorff observes, justice is identical to right social order. As all careful readers of Plato’s Republic know, however, the definition of justice as right social order is actually preliminary to Plato’s real definition of justice as a rightly ordered soul, i.e. a soul in which the appetites and emotions are subordinated strictly to reason. Like Plato, Wolterstorff vigorously endorses the idea that some human beings are deformed by virtue of their failure to place their appetites into a proper, natural order; this idea is central to his critique of utilitarian attempts to ground justice in the satisfaction of desires. Wolterstorff, then, appears to endorse a conception of right order within persons that is very similar, at least on the evidence of his book, to Plato’s conception of justice.
The task Wolterstorff evidently sets for himself in this book is to give an account of the foundations of justice. He has accomplished that task, and his account will likely appeal to many readers who are theists. It will not appeal to readers who are not theists, unlike the theory of justice developed by John Rawls, whom Wolterstorff brushes aside (and misreads) in less than three pages toward the beginning of his book. The widespread acceptance of the discourse of human rights in the twentieth century was neither the product of nor linked to a vast increase in acceptance of Christian teachings, and Wolterstorff’s argument that erosion of the latter—or at any rate, of adherence to theism—would result in the demise of that acceptance seems to me far-fetched. Although more secularist (and more substantive) accounts of justice like Rawls’s are far from flawless, the wager they place is more likely to yield intellectually persuasive answers to questions about justice than is Wolterstorff’s approach.