It takes some time, I think, to figure out what Wolterstorff is after. At first glance, Justice is an internecine wrangle between theists (or better put, Christians). On the one side is Alasdair MacIntyre and his crowd, with their passively pious, neo-Aristotelian foundationalism. “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” MacIntyre concludes in his After Virtue, and I assume he is waiting still, whoever happens now to be sitting in the chair of St. Peter. On the other side, those like Wolterstorff who hope that Christianity might still have something to say in contemporary conversations about politics, justice, and human rights. Kozinski and Smith take up this wrangle in various ways. But it is a wrangle that I, standing over here, view with some detachment. What do I care whether Christianity can reconcile itself with a theory of inherent rights?
But the wrangle is, of course, just prolegomena to a vaunted Christian move, one that has been a primal reflex of apologists for the past three centuries. For it turns out, not only is Christianity amenable to modern concepts of inherent rights, it has, since the beginning, been the main vehicle of their elaboration. And by the beginning, Wolterstorff means across the entire Scriptural tradition, from the Old Testament, in Isaiah’s impassioned pleas for justice, to the New, in Christ’s expansion of rights claims to the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. Even here, though, I’m not sure how much I have at stake. Any modern agnostic, atheist, secularist, humanist, or what-have-you, would have no problem with discovering rights-talk (or even theory) in the Bible. After all, just because the Bible said it, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Now, though, we can see the expansion coming. Not satisfied with the discovery—pace MacIntyre—that the Bible is a source of rights, he needs to make the point—pace Martha Nussbaum—that it is the only source of rights from the ancient world, and then—pace “secularists” more generally—indeed the only source anywhere able to provide an account of human dignity sufficient to ground any modern concept of human rights.
Out the window it is with that so-called liberalism. Along with it, too, those inadequate secular accounts of human worth, from Kant to Dworkin, which only pretend to found modern concepts of universal human rights, while actually excluding from their magic circle those marginal figures most deserving protection, “those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, those in a permanent coma, the severely brain-injured” and so on. Only the idea of “being loved by God” is adequate to assign all human beings dignity enough to distinguish them as bearers of rights (versus, say, dolphins—God just doesn’t love them that way). Christianity reigns triumphant, alpha and omega. She stands at the origins of the modern world, implicated in all of her virtues, and none of her sins. And look, there she is again at the end, binding up wounds and nursing us back to health. The cake just gets better each time you eat it, I guess.
Even two cakes don’t satisfy the Christian appetite, however, as the patient reader will discover. Christianity gets to reclaim her “birthright” from those who “lack the resources for safeguarding it,” sure, but even this is not enough. A coup de grace awaits, secreted away at the end of chapter 16, the final touch without which a good apology would not be complete. Here, our author concludes, the “theist” (whom are we kidding now?) finally gets to hoist those secular rascals on their own petards. Because, as Wolterstorff says, if you do believe in natural inherent human rights—and yet find yourself unable to ground these rights in a secular fashion—then you must, ipso facto, ground them in God. And lo! God has appeared, summoned into existence out of the very structure of belief itself. Anselm would be proud, I suspect. We are all Christians now.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This book conducts its arguments with sustained attention, and its labors over the concept of rights, I found, as a naïve and impatient reader of philosophical thought experiments, persuasive. It is also filled with compelling exegetical work on Scripture, an area that I know and enjoy much better. I could not quite see, however, how these two projects stood in relation to one another. I wonder, for example, if and how the Bible can yet be made the object of aggressive philosophical inquiry. The first step would seem to be an adequate hermeneutics. Certainly something more is needed than just a blanket affirmation that the Bible can be treated as a philosophical unity (for this, let me refer you to Spinoza). Without it, Wolterstorff’s shifts in register between philosophical critique and textual exegesis are startling. The most striking example, for me, comes as he moves from his treatment of the Stoics—where he indicts their eudaimonism as philosophically incoherent—to that of Augustine, whose ethics of love Wolterstorff stresses, while passing lightly over the saint’s rapturous yet (to me) morally horrifying visions of our world as one gigantic colony of punishment and pain. The “Church of Christ…persecutes in the spirit of love,” our Bishop of Hippo was wont to say, which does put this love-thing in a slightly different light.
Maybe these odd juxtapositions come with the territory, though. As a non-philosopher, I readily confess that I don’t know whether it is necessary to prove that “no human being has a price” in order to come up with an adequate pragmatics of inherent rights. More precisely, I don’t know whether the affirmation of pricelessness needs a foundation or not, or what a foundation would even look like if it were found.
Philosophical praxis has not always been foundationalist, for starters, whatever Heidegger might say. But even if it were, I can’t imagine that foundations can be magically conjured by assertion, let alone authoritative Scriptural citation. Call me a sneaky secularist—and you won’t be the first—but I don’t see how the proposition “God loves us” can do extended philosophical work without establishing the predicates of God (benevolence? justice?) in a consistent idiom. The predicate of existence—“God is”—seems especially important. Certainly the medievals thought so, and one would expect, in a book like this, some of those good Anselmian proofs at the outset, rather than the end, of the argument. Clearly the relationship between theology and philosophy—strained at best since Spinoza’s day—still needs to be worked out, and Wolterstorff’s book might be more widely understood as an effort to do this. But it won’t do simply to insist on “dialogic pluralism,” as if the very language in which we conduct foundational disputes were not the crucial problem itself.
Here is what I do know, as a historian: there simply has never been a universalism—whether Christian or Kantian—that did not have a limit-case where its sphere of application grew fuzzy, where the Alzheimer’s patient (or the Jew) might not be summoned up as its bad conscience. And these universalisms have managed to muddle along, doing much good and much evil, critiqued from within and without all along the way. So what’s the big deal? Why do we need these foundations at all?
Wolterstorff anticipates this mundane and ad hoc response. As his book winds down, he waxes both melancholy and apocalyptic about the future of the so-called “West” (so interesting how this figure always comes back in moments of prophecy). What must we in the West expect to happen, he asks, when “the religious framework that gave rise to our moral subculture of rights gradually erodes”? No surprise: the disaster that hides in the shadows is the same one that prophets have always seen. But here we can respond as Pierre Bayle did to the apologetic doomsayers of his day, that a well-ordered society of atheists might well be a virtuous one. Or maybe not. It all depends.
One thing seems certain to me, though. It won’t depend on a philosophically complete theory of universal human rights—across our globe, people have lived and died for millennia without this—but on the way people actually treat each other. And if it takes Christianity to persuade you that human beings should be treated with respect, then, by all means, embrace Anselm. But if not, then I doubt that Wolterstorff is going to convince you to change your mind, one way or another.
“As his book winds down, he waxes both melancholy and apocalyptic about the future of the so-called “West” (so interesting how this figure always comes back in moments of prophecy).”
You can find this same sentiment expressed amongst many secularist themselves, hence why many of them welcome or seemingly would welcome Wolterstorff’s book. Habermas says things like Wolterstorff says (albeit with functionalist assumptions) quite regularly.
What Wolterstorff represents vis-a-vis Alasdair MacIntyre and his crowd, much of the post-secular crowd seemingly represents to the “traditional” secularist. And in this sense Wolterstorff and the post-secularist seem to have rejected the exclusivism that so often typifies the rancor between traditionalism and secularism (at least for the moment).
Here, our author concludes, the “theist” (whom are we kidding now?) finally gets to hoist those secular rascals on their own petards. Because, as Wolterstorff says, if you do believe in natural inherent human rights—and yet find yourself unable to ground these rights in a secular fashion—then you must, ipso facto, ground them in God. And lo! God has appeared, summoned into existence out of the very structure of belief itself. Anselm would be proud, I suspect. We are all Christians now.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of America’s Declaration of Independence. If ever there were an expositor of “rights talk,” it was Jefferson, who indeed, believed unalienable natural rights came from God. Jefferson also rejected, in no uncertain terms:
“The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.”
See his letter to William Short, October 31, 1819.
Question, was Jefferson a “Christian”? (He actually thought of himself as one?) Can one reject those things and still be a “Christian”? If any of those doctrines were necessary for the doctrine of natural rights, I think Jefferson would have noticed. That leads me to conclude that whatever is a necessary grounding for a meaningful “rights theory,” (God may be necessary) those doctrines that Jefferson rejected are not. And those doctrines are the essence of Christianity. Hence “Christianity” is not the grounding of natural rights.
Rene Girard and Gil Bailie demonstrate that no one, and that includes even–or especially–those who claim that in virtue of their atheism or humanism to be above such bloody rituals, can escape the mimetic contagion of rivalrous passions that inevitably leads to communal participation in a scapegoating mechanism that serves to channel otherwise uncontrollable anarchic passions so as to preserve cultural order. This mechanism doesn’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist or that we have “gotten over” it. Bailie writes:
“The deviation of desire is the biblical equivalent of Pandora’s box. The ’sins’ of the world are a catalogue of the predictable behaviors of those swept up into mimetic intrigue and the soap opera it eventually produces. These sins include envy, lust, pride, greed, jealousy, avarice, and covetousness, each one famishing further a craving it cannot satisfy and swirling the sinner ever deeper into a vortex of luring, lying, swindling, pandering, betrayal, and violence. To sin is to succumb to the entangled nexus of rivalistic desires and thereby to fall ever more inextricably under the power of sin. As the sinful social melodrama grows more vertiginous, the accusations that remain latent at its outset become overt, one of which inevitably becomes the rallying cry in unison with which the social crisis enters its climactic stage. If left to run its course, this process will eventually culminate in a scapegoating episode of one kind or another, on the basis of which archaic societies were able to cure themselves of the ravages of rivalistic desire and establish a modicum of cultural stability.”
Only Christ can save us from participating in this mechanism, from scapegoating some person or group of persons. As the Pope suggested in his letter regarding the remission of the excommunications of the Lefebvrist Bishops, such scapegoating is alive and well in our “enlightened” age.
“At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.”
And this is the ultimate reason why atheism, agnosticism, pluralism deism, humanism–that is, anything but robust, public Christianity, supported by the state and celebrated in the culture–can permit truly universal and equal human rights, in theory or in practice. Only personal and cultural participation in the life of Christ can dismantle the scapegoating mechanism of all cultures. Gil Bailie writes:
“At the Cross the truth about the system of scapegoating, sacrifice and sacred violence, the truth hidden by myth and obscured and deflected by human cultures everywhere, is revealed. By exposing the SIN of the world, the revelation of the Cross makes facing the ’sins’ of the world an urgent and pressing necessity. A world gradually being deprived of its age-old method of ridding itself of ’sins’ is a world desperately in need of another way of dealing with the problem of sin. . . . The Cross is the source of real knowledge precisely because the gestalt of mob madness, ritual catharsis, and mythological misrecognition that the Cross exposes and deconstructs is the source of all human delusion, idolatry, superstition and religious mystification. When Jesus looked down from the Cross and said: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was revealing, not something peculiar to the crowd outside the walls of Jerusalem, but the obfuscating power of the spectacles of collective violence by which humanity has generated and regenerated its systems of social solidarity since the beginning of human culture. ‘If the modern mind fails to recognize the strongly functional nature of the scapegoat operation and all its sacrificial surrogates,’ writes Girard, ‘the most basic phenomena of human culture will remain misunderstood and unresolved.’
Wolterstorff argues it from another angle, but the conclusion is the same. The fruit of the Gospel revelation of God’s unconditional love for all men, a revelation that alone made possible the modern aspiration of universal human rights (in Maritain’s understanding of its hidden fertilization of western culture), can only be preserved in a culture whose roots descend to the cross and whose trunk ascends to the Resurrection and the Ascension. Skepticism about the need for Christ, and Christ alone, to prevent perpetual cultural and political scapegoating, without which universal human rights is dead on arrival in theory and in practice, is due ultimately to personal and corporate unbelief in the One who put an end to the need to scapegoat by His triumphing from the cross over the “king of this world.” One simply can’t be “neutral” on this question. Fully implemented and effective human rights, which is to say, the end of any and all cultural and political scapegoating, requires supernatural power. Atheism, or luke-warm Christianity for that matter, is utterly powerless to accomplish it.
Fully implemented and effective human rights, which is to say, the end of any and all cultural and political scapegoating, requires supernatural power. Atheism, or luke-warm Christianity for that matter, is utterly powerless to accomplish it.
The problem as I see it is (and yes, I am aware of Wolterstorff’s argument) human rights are not a biblical concept. They may be at best “a-biblical” (that is compatible with the Bible teaches); but they are NOT what the Bible teaches. So to tack on metaphysical notions of human rights (as they are understood by America’s Founders, for instance) to the biblical God brings the Bible and the purity of the historic Christian faith down. It essentially “Mormonizes” orthodox Christianity by adding things (i.e., unalienable rights to life, political liberty, property, equality, conscience) that are not written of in the Bible.
Jefferson’s unitarian Deity (which I argue is the Deity of not just Jefferson, but Washington, J. Adams, Madison, Franklin and many others) whatever you might think of the concept, is at least the more authentic grantor of human rights.
I agree, with MacIntyre, that the concept of human rights does not have a Biblical genealogy, even that it is, as he says, “nonsense on stilts.” But that is beside the point in this discussion. What no doubt underlies the aspiration for human rights is a certain ethos and spirit, including a moral universalism, a belief in the “dignity of the human person,” and a sense that each person should be loved compassionately, even the most unlovable. This ethos and spirit, along with its cultural and political manifestations and applications, would be non-existent without the Incarnation and the Gospel. This is simply indubitable. Taylor makes the same point in his “A Catholic Modernity” speech, in which he argues that humanism is of Gospel provenance, and without the Gospel, it becomes, well, nasty. “Human rights” as the only decent and logical political application of this ethos and spirit can certainly be debated (and Robert Kraynak does this excellently), but what cannot be debated is whether the ethos and spirit is intrinsically biblical—it is. More precisely, it is inherently a New Testament phenomenon.
The problem for the moderns who want the ethos and spirit without the God-Man who invented it is that, while scapegoating has been done away with by the Gospel, its legacy has not been done away with by the modern, secularist proponents of human rights. Indeed, they cannot do away with it. It is one thing to inherit an ethos and spirit from a formerly Christian civilization, and then try to build on it without that which created the ethos and spirit of that civilization, namely, Christ and His Church. But it is another thing to attempt to actually be authentically Christian in one’s politics without Christ and the Church, that is, to effect a true political, non-exceptional, universalistic humanism that manages to halt the perpetual diabolic (division through stoking anarchic passions) and satanic (unification through ritualistic scapegoating) mechanism, and the apocalyptic violence that ensues when this mechanism fails. Indeed, as Bailie argues, because the scapegoating mechanism doesn’t effectively work anymore after Christ (we’ve “outgrown” our ritualistic violence—well, not quite—there’s still the anti-sacrament of abortion that remains), the only two possibilities that are left are, without Christ, an exponentially escalating apocalyptic violence, or, with Christ, a civilization of love—true love, not the humanist, secular, nation-state’s parody of it, (see William Cavanaugh), of which Obama, the abortion-loving president donning the mantle of compassion and “change,” is the present-day apotheosis. Be assured: the insane and unChristian violence posing as some kind of Christian crusade for freedom that we saw in the Bush administration is nothing compared to what is to come. Things will only get more apocalyptic as secular liberalism tries to prevent the violence it is based upon (though it must never permit this violence to be publicly recognized—one must never “get to close” to the sacrificial victims else the sacrifice fail), producing only more violence.
I would suggest that the posting by Thaddeus is pure superstition an exercise in psycho-babble (babel).
Even more so because it is dressed up in seemingly sophisticated language.
“Deviation of desire”?
Only us right-thinking Catholic Christians know what is good for everyone. Therefore all of humankind must submit to the “authority” of the “magisterium.”
Ms. Caldwell: Do you have an argument you would like to offer? For, I am at a loss regarding how to respond intelligently and appropriately to your “suggestion,” since it contains only insinuation, “scare” quotes, and a caricatured, straw-man depiction of my position, which is essentially the position of Rene Girard and Gil Bailie. Rene Girard and Gil Bailie’s work on the scapegoating mechanism is precisely the antidote to superstition, both the religious and secular kinds. May I “suggest” that you read their work before casting aspersions in the dark.
I wonder if John Paul II was “superstitious” as well?
How about Simone Weil?
And finally, Plato. Was he a psychobabbler? Here’s a “right-thinking” man who surely knew “what was good for everyone,” for he was the first ever (aside from the Hebrew prophets) to teach accurately about the Good itself and it’s rejection by men:
The Great Beast is the scapegoating beast, the source of, yes, dare I say it, “sacred violence.” Only God’s grace can save us from such violence, from the “great beast,” as even Plato the pagan saw. An “overlapping consensus” can’t do it and, pace Mr. Sheehan, we are not all Christians now, and that’s precisely the problem. This is not “Catholic” truth, but just plain truth, though it takes a firm rejection of the great beast to see it. Those under the sway of the great beast cannot see the plain truth about the violent, scapegoating nature of all non-authentically-Christian cultures (meaning those that actually practice what they preach), especially their “enlightened” secular, progressive, pluralist regimes in which the great beast wears the mask of “reason” or “tolerance” or “change.” As Plato said (pre-echoing the “Magisterium”): “Whatever is saved and becomes what it ought to be, so long as cities have their present structure, if one means to speak truly, must be considered saved by the effect of a predestination which comes from God.”
I don’t share your perspective but I can see (and respect) the “ideal” world from which you come. The problem I have with it is, it’s not what the American Founding/natural rights are all about (as I see it).
Thus, why should your Roman Catholic ideas be read into the Founding any more than any other competing sense of ideas. I could just as easily see (and HAVE seen) uber-Protestant fundamentalist ideas “read in” to the concept of “natural rights,” ideas that are pregnant with very anti-Roman Catholic sentiments.
Now, we wouldn’t want that, would we?
“The problem I have with it is, it’s not what the American Founding/natural rights are all about (as I see it).”
Who said anything about the American Founding? We are searching and arguing about the nature of rights , what is true or not about them, are we not?, not what fits with any theoretical, practical, cultural, or political tradition or regime, no matter how venerated or venerable the tradition, the personal representatives of this tradition, and regime is.
Who’s “reading ideas into the American Founding anyway”?
And, as I have shown, the ideas I have been expressing regarding scapegoating and the need for divine intervention to avoid it, pace liberalism , are shared by Plato, a pagan, and Simone Weil, a Jew. So much for the effectiveness of dismissing them with the magical incantation of “Roman Catholic.”
Oh, I see, it’s an “ideal” world I am advocating, meaning “unreal.” Got it. I am glad you respect my fairy tale.
The knee-jerk anti-Catholic bigotry evinced by some of the bloggers on this blog is very sad. One would not think it would be prevalent on such a sophisticated philosophical and ecumenically minded website as this, one taking the lead from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age , the latter being a wonderful attempt to put a stop to such narrow-mindedness and fear when it comes to religious conversations. Yet, as he has mentioned in some interviews, he himself has has gotten much flak for daring to present even a hint of a defense of his Catholic beliefs in Chapter Twenty.
Well, I have simply made my position known as well, but instead of rational argument, or thoughtful and sympathetic questions as to why I might hold the positions I do, the responses have been vitriolic, accusatory, and insinuating.
Does someone have a rational argument to make regarding my (and Gil Bailie’s and Rene Girard’s, and implicit in Simone Weil’s thought) claims that secular, rights-based liberalism cannot prevent discriminatory and even violent scapegoating, or, alternatively, apocalyptically-escalating violence, and that right-based liberalism is the fruit of a Christ-generated ethos that can’t be sustained without Christ. I would say that this is pretty much the thesis of John Milbank, an Anglican.
Calling all this superstition or an “unreal” ideal simply won’t due.
“and that right-based liberalism is the fruit of a Christ-generated ethos that can’t be sustained without Christ.”
How can this be true if “Plato, a pagan, and Simone Weil, a Jew,” would agree with you. They certainly were “without Christ.”
I don’t see “rights-based” liberalism as the fruit of Christianity in any traditional or orthodox sense, but coming from some “other” place.
And I am not convinced by the evidence that traditional orthodox Christianity of whatever bent (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, or capital O Orthodox Christianity) is necessary to sustain such liberalism.
But I do understand Dr. Kraynak’s case that traditional religion is necessary to prevent rights from making too broad a claim against a Burkean moral traditionalism. In that sense, rights need to be downplayed. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a “rights oriented” government that permits folks to “do their own thing” as it were, then stress rights as much as you want.
That’s where I am coming from.
Thanks for the clarification about where you are coming from, Jon.
I think Michael Gillespie’s new book Theological Origins of Modernity is essential reading for the topic of rights. He argues that modernity is a product of, and never quite escapes from, medieval nominalism. In other words, the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment “discovery” of rights, in its secular form, is just one political mode of trying to deal with the ghost of the nominalist god. Secularism has not and cannot exorcise him, for it only makes him stronger because more obscure. There is a sense in which rights are meant to ensure one’s security from the arbitrary, inscrutable, and untrustworthy god that Ockham bequeathed to us, though this god, or his ghost, is not recognized as that which one is trying to protect oneself against. There is another sense, Milbank’s sense, in which rights are one way of imitating this god, since he is a social monad, autonomous, pure will and agency (no receptivity and essential nature), and arbitrary.
In any event, the modern “individual” who claims rights is a product of, because a deliberate and conscious rejection of, both the classical and Christian notions of politics and man’s relationship to God and society. Pierre Manent explains this well in his The City of Man .
In short, what one rejects is what one cannot do without. Ultimately, Modernity, as William Cavanaugh has shown in Theopolitical Imagination , is parasitical. The ghost of Christianity cannot be exorcised by merely another version of its ghost, however humanized this ghost appears. All that modernity can do is recognize its dependence, and either submit or continue to futilely rebel. What Christianity should do is to recognize in modernity a misguided child, neither a pure enemy nor a parallel friend, and offer it paternal guidance, realizing that it shouldn’t be too proud to learn something from its child, however rebellious and misguided.
Thank you all for your insightful comments. I have greatly enjoyed this blog and the responses.
Being a novice in this arena, I was nonetheless wondering how inherent rights, or predication about anything metaphysical or ethical is authoritative apart from God as the source of all things, including truth and knowledge. The alternative appears to be the opinion of one constrained by his or her own perspective, resulting in pure relativism and ultimately skepticism. How does one limited to thoughts and senses have the capacity to speak authoritatively on these issues?
Jefferson had opinions, borrowing portions of Scripture suitable to his liking, rejecting others, but on what basis? And what made his choice of what is true or false in the Bible more authoritative than the choice of another?
Those speaking of inherent rights borrow from somewhere, their culture, tradition, schools of philosophy, et al, but where do their conscious or unconscious sources get their authority? And if the source of their opinions are not ultimately authoritative, what is? Can the finite human being, here today and gone tomorrow, transcend finite earthly existence to objectively explain the meaning of it?
I am at a loss to understand the basis of truth with respect to any of the issues discussed in this thread if there is no ultimate authority to which all opinions (and they are opinions) are ultimately judged, including the opinions of a magesterium. It does seem like we are kidding ourselves, especially if one believes in atheistic evolution. Perhaps the next hungry lion or crocodile you meet will be convinced of your inherent rights.
Great post! It’s the elephant in the room no one wants to address!