Whose injustice? Which rights?

posted by James K.A. Smith

<p></p>As I noted in a previous post, much of Wolterstorff’s work on justice has been in part motivated by his location as a Christian philosopher and a professing member of the church.  And while I described that as a “diaconal” role, it has also been a prophetic role (though Wolterstorff would undoubtedly decline the mantle): he has been passionate about justice because he perceives so many fellow Christians have neglected it.

I think this passion—and this perception of the lack of concern for justice—is a significant part of the background to Justice: Rights and Wrongs.  And reading as charitably as I can, I think this passion—and the perception that arises from it—must be what explains some puzzling aspects of Wolterstorff’s book.  In particular, I note a couple of troublesome moves and habits in this project.

First, Wolterstorff (not unlike Jeff Stout) sometimes assumes that commitment to liberal democracy is the only way to care about justice; so a critique or rejection of the paradigms of liberal democracy or rights-talk is seen as a lack of concern for justice per se.  Thus when he sketches the influential narrative of MacIntyre and Hauerwas, he narrates it as “a hostility to justice and rights”—taking it to be the case that an opposition to rights talk is equivalent to an opposition to justice per se.  That seems clearly false to me (to adopt a Wolterstorffian locution!) unless one sets up the matter in a way that simply begs the question.  Or, to put this otherwise, Wolterstorff seems to assume that a rejection of “rights talk” must therefore be allied to some affirmation of the status quo.  Thus he tends to read MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and others—who are critical of rights talk—as if they are therefore apologists for the status quo (which is, we’d all admit, unjust).  But again, this clearly doesn’t follow.

In addition to somewhat begging the question, Wolterstorff I fear is targeting straw men. As noted in my first post, he is countering what he perceives to be a “hostility to justice and rights” in contemporary theological and philosophical quarters (Hauerwas, MacIntyre), as well as (I think) what he perceives to be a more broadly Christian aloofness with respect to issues of justice, particularly justice demanded by inherent rights.

This hostility to “justice and rights,” on Wolterstorff’s account, is rooted in and motivated by two (related) things: (1) a conception of justice as right order and (2) a narrative regarding the origin and emergence of “inherent rights,” which ties it to modern possessive individualism and Enlightenment conceptions of the polis. So he sets out to contest the narrative and the right order theories behind it.  Part I was thought to dispense with the narrative; Part II turns to the theoretical insufficiencies of right order theories of justice—which culminates in his critique of eudaimonism (which would require more careful, technical engagement than we can undertake here—I hope to do so elsewhere).

But why the fixation on “eudaimonism”?  I think we can make sense of his move in this way: eudaimonism is taken to be something like the general ethos of right order theories.  Therefore, pointing out the antithesis between eudaimonism and justice as rights is Wolterstorff’s way of pointing out what’s wrong with right order theories of justice.  But here again, I think there are two significant problems:

(1) This would make Part II an extended case of begging the question.  What motivates the project of Part II is Wolterstorff’s (correct) claim that “there is no theory of rights to be found in ancient ethical theory” coupled with his judgment that this “was no accident. The ancients conducted all their ethical theorizing within the framework of eudaimonism.  A theory of rights, so I contend, cannot be developed within that framework.” OK, maybe: but I don’t think that constitutes a critique.  It simply stipulates a conditional requirement: if one is going to develop a theory of justice as inherent rights, then eudaimonism is either inadequate to such a theory or, more strongly, incompatible.  But Wolterstorff does not provide sufficient warrant for the antecedent.  Instead, he assumes it in his critique.

(2) More significantly, Wolsterstorff exhibits a sly habit of substituting guilt-by-association for real, head-on arguments.  For instance (and most glaringly), chapter four opens with a brief alarmist reference to Hauerwas’s claim that “justice is a bad idea for Christians” and then mounts a devastating (and just) critique of Anders Nygren.  But what, exactly, does Hauerwas have to do with Nygren? It seems clear that in Wolterstorff’s mind, Hauerwas is offering us a warmed-over Nygrenism.  So he takes it that his critique of Nygren thus also dispatches with Hauerwas.  But Wolterstorff is very much mistaken in this regard; a critique of Nygren doesn’t even touch Hauerwas and is no substitute for a head-on engagement with Hauerwas.  (At least Stout actually reads Hauerwas and takes him seriously on his own terms.)  Wolterstorff seems to read Hauerwas as if he were a pietistic evangelical only concerned with “souls” and thus unconcerned with “justice.”  Thus Wolterstorff wryly (smugly?) notes that he does “not discern the ‘enthusiasm for justice and rights’ among contemporary Christians that Hauerwas claims to notice.”  But that is a caricature that fails to appreciate where Hauerwas makes such inflammatory claims.  Wolterstorff mistakenly allies Hauerwas to Nygren because he misplaces Hauerwas: Stanley’s target is liberal Methodists who confuse the Gospel with whatever currently constitutes the platform of the Democratic party, whereas Wolterstorff is reacting, I think, to the a-political quietism of evangelicals and/or the selective “law and order” focus of the Religious Right.

I think one sees a similar move going on in Part II: the multi-chapter critique of eudaimonism—which really boils down to a critique of Stoicism—is prefaced with a brief but significant reference to MacIntyre: “There are important contemporary eudaimonists; Alasdair MacIntyre comes to mind.” Wolterstorff then goes on to say that since all “contemporary” eudaimonists acknowledge their debts to ancient eudaimonism, Wolterstorff will just focus on ancient eudaimonism.  Again, we get a guilt-by-association dispatching rather than a head-on engagement: Wolterstorff takes it that his critique of Stoicism (and more cursorily, Peripatetic eudaimonism) just constitutes a critique of MacIntyre.  But again, I think Wolterstorff’s chosen targets don’t hit his intended targets.

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