Most of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is devoted to building a strong case for a theistic and, more particularly, a Judeo-Christian grounding for human rights. A smaller part of the book is devoted to making an exclusionary claim on behalf of this grounding. Not only does theism offer a strong—indeed, the strongest—justification of human rights, it offers the only justification, according to Wolterstorff. Secular philosophy is simply not up to the job. There are two parts to Wolterstorff’s defense of his theistic account of inherent human rights as the only coherent account of human rights. First he argues that no secular philosophy has been able to offer plausible and persuasive grounding. Here he canvases the main secular contenders and finds them all wanting. The second claim, less developed but in many ways more important, is that the future of human rights depends on theism (perhaps Christianity) staying alive and well within public discourse, as without it our commitment to strong and universal human rights for all humans may erode. Wolsterstorff seems to think that the second claim follows from the first, but I am going to try and pry these two claims apart.
Like Jonathon Kahn, I suspect that for secular thinkers, the great strength and clarity of the first three quarters of the book will be over-shadowed by the dismissal of secular thought at the end of the book. Kahn calls these claims incendiary and polemical. He argues that they undermine, perhaps destroy the possibility of a pluralist dialogue. In effect he charges Wolsterstorff with being a bad citizen rather than a bad philosopher. I want to pursue this idea. I want to engage the arguments at the end of the book from the point of view of their contribution to public discourse in a democracy. Kahn implies in his criticism of Wolterstorff that it should not matter where one finds convincing grounds for human rights; if we really care about bringing justice and equality into the world, we should embrace rather than attack all allies in this task. But it is not so easy to divide the philosopher from the citizen.
The first thing to note about Wolterstorff’s exclusionary argument is its extremely sweeping nature. “It is impossible to develop a secular account of human dignity adequate for grounding human rights.” Even Wolterstorff seems to be taken aback by the extravagance of “impossible” and adds: “to speak more cautiously: given that, after many attempts, no one has succeeded in developing such an account, it seems unlikely that it can be done.” The difference between the claims contained in these two sentences is one of kind, not degree. The implication of the first sentence is that one does not need to evaluate each secular attempt to ground human rights. All one needs to do is show that theism is a necessary condition of grounding human rights. The second sentence implies that one is open minded (if doubtful) on this question and will take a look. While Wolterstorff claims to be pursuing the second strategy, the very thinness and brevity of the discussion of secular grounding leads one to suspect that he really believes the first. But he never actually lays out what the necessary argument might be. Even if we found Wolterstorff’s arguments on behalf of inherent human rights fully plausible on both exegetical and philosophical grounds, there is nothing in any of these arguments that make secular foundation eo ipso false. In other words, there is no reason why someone might not find both Wolsterstorff and Kant persuasive on this question. Some truths are mutually exclusive: you cannot believe in the truth of God and deny his existence at the same time, although one can believe these things at different times, indeed within seconds. Wolterstorff’s account of the dignity inherent in God’s love and Kant’s account of the dignity inherent in the “capacity for normative self-government” (to borrow a phrase from Christine Korsgaard) are not mutually exclusive. Nothing in what Wolterstorff has to say has convinced me that I must choose one or the other, although one suspects that that indeed is what Wolterstorff believes. Thus, although Wolterstorff appears to believe that no grounding works without God, he does not directly defend this proposition in the book. Instead he approaches the question indirectly by trying to show that all attempts to do it without God have failed. But to make this case he would need a much bigger book.
The discussion of secular philosophy is brief and almost perfunctory. The care for detail, especially exegetical detail, that characterizes the first three quarters of the book is absent in the discussion of secular philosophy. This is particularly true for the sections on Kantianism, arguably the strongest contender to offer a secular defense of universal dignity. Wolterstorff argues that because Kantians ground dignity on the capacity for rational action (or in the capacity to have purposes or to be autonomous, or to choose one’s life plans, or for normative self-government—there are many ways to articulate this idea), certain humans who fail to met this threshold, for example the severely impaired or Alzheimer’s sufferers, will fall outside the protection of human rights. As David Johnston pointed out in his post, this is a tendentious reading of Kantianism. One piece of evidence to support the tendentious nature of this reading is that not one single Kantian that I know has come to this conclusion. Indeed, Kantians often defend their view precisely on the grounds that only deontology of this sort (as opposed to utilitarianism) can protect each and every human being no matter what empirical circumstance they find themselves in. There is no assessment test in Kantian ethics. We are all human, including those who have lost the ability to exercise human capacities. It is especially important in these cases that they be treated as ends and not means. Could all those Kantians have gotten Kant wrong? Are they kidding themselves? Will they eventually see that the framework does not coherently include the severely impaired and then be forced to concede that this group has no strong claim to the protection of rights? The reason why this train of thought is important is that it seems that something along these lines must be going through Wolterstorff’s mind in making his second overarching claim. This is the claim that the future of human rights depends on keeping the theist foundation alive and well in our culture. Wolterstorff thinks that no matter what Kantians might say, the logic of the argument is clear and this means that universal human rights are at risk if we leave its grounding up to secular philosophy. This second part of Wolterstorff’s exclusionary claim is not, strictly speaking, a philosophical argument. Instead, he is making a prediction about the course of public debate and cultural identity in the event (which he seems to think is inevitable) that we will see the true nature and limitations of secular groundings of human rights. Is this a plausible claim? Before answering this I want to switch to the question of citizenship because, as I argue below, highlighting the weaknesses of secular arguments and claiming that those weaknesses jeopardize the future of actual human rights are two different things.
Is it a violation of dialogic pluralism to articulate such a sweeping dismissal of secular moral philosophy? If Wolterstorff was truly a practitioner of dialogic pluralism, should he have exercised epistemic restraint, as Khan implies? Did he really have to undermine secular philosophy in order to make his case? Presumably Wolterstorff believes what he says is true. He really does think that secular philosophy cannot come up with a persuasive grounding. Simply stating that secular philosophy is deeply flawed in this respect is not a violation of dialogic pluralism. This is what philosophers do. Impugning logic, questioning coherency, and identifying weak arguments is how the conversation proceeds and there is no reason why those activities should stop at the border between secular and theistic philosophy. In the argument against Kantians, I think the claim must be bad philosophy, not bad citizen. Perhaps bad philosophy is too strong; perhaps I will only say not enough philosophy. The charge that Kantians cannot really ground equal dignity is serious. It deserves more care and thought. But Justice: Rights and Wrongs is already a big book with lots of very serious and careful argument, and I can understand that, at the end, it was not the time or place to launch into another such discussion. But this is an argument for perhaps leaving out the discussion of secular philosophy.
Perhaps one might argue that Justice: Rights and Wrongs is not simply a contribution to a conversation among philosophers. It is also a contribution to a public dialogue about human rights and thus a conversation among citizens. Here one might argue that because human rights are the sorts of things that are instituted and enforced by governments, we need to approach the conversation from the point of view of what we could agree upon, and not from the point of view of establishing what we think is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But when asked by Kahn in his post why we need to bring up these deep philosophical differences between secularist and theist if we all just want to fight for human rights, Wolterstorff answered by drawing a pretty stark line between what he is doing and what human rights activists are doing:
[O]ne can certainly struggle for human rights without being able to offer a grounding for those rights; that is the situation of almost everyone who does struggle for human rights. And one can hold that every human being, no matter how impaired, has worth sufficient for grounding human rights even though one finds oneself at a loss to explain what gives them that worth. Nothing inconsistent in that. My worries are about the long haul. What if the secularists among us cannot give an account of what gives even severely impaired human beings an inviolable worth? What if only theist can give that account?
At first, Wolterstorff appears to be saying that we can ignore the question of foundations in practically oriented political conversations. A secular Kantian and theist can work side by side to draft a bill of rights or a constitutional amendment without having to challenge each other on the deeper reasons why they believe in rights in the first place. Wolterstorff appears, then, to be introducing something like the Habermasian distinction between the broad informal public sphere, that shapes and is shaped by culture, and the political sphere in which actual policy is worked out and implemented. We do not need to (and perhaps we ought not to) raise divisive questions where there is an overlapping consensus on human rights. (Presumably this is not the case with regard to people who reject human rights as an appropriate vehicle for justice.) So if we do not need to set secular philosophy straight to pursue human rights in the short run, why make the arguments? Wolterstorff answers, “for the long haul.”
There seem to be two ways to understand the long haul. One follows the Habermasian model alluded to above. Here one argues (and indeed, I would argue) that the theistic grounding of human rights is a rich source of meaning and truth and it would be a severe loss, perhaps even a disaster, if this source of support for human rights were deleted from our political culture. Of course people who find the theist account persuasive will probably not find the secular accounts persuasive, and arguing why they do not find the secular accounts persuasive can also enrich the debate and keep these multiple sources alive. On this view, human rights are strengthened by the multiplicity of paths to get to them. I do not have to agree with arguments I find implausible, nor do I have to refrain from explaining what it is that I find implausible about them, but I do have to refrain from dogmatism. It seems to me that Wolterstorff’s argument borders on the dogmatic because, rather than saying he does not find the secular account persuasive, he says that secular accounts are not persuasive. The long haul for Wolterstorff involves the certainty that secular arguments cannot and will never be able to properly sustain human rights. It is the “never” that is problematic. I see no grounds for making such a sweeping claim about the course of human thought and philosophy. I see no reason why one would want to. I especially do not see why one would want to if the overarching concern is with the protection of the impaired.
Wolterstorff is worried about a very particular set of potential public policies. He is worried that secularists will somehow see that their arguments do not really include the severely impaired and, when they see this, the severely impaired will lose protection. The argument makes a very strong link between deep truth claims and quite specific public policy. Wolterstorff is implying that the category of the severely impaired will become something like the category of the fetus. Only the theist, and perhaps even only a theist who holds the view of God’s love that Wolterstorff articulates, can stay true to the proposition, “human beings, all of them, are irreducibly precious.” Forget about what secularists say, how they act, their stated convictions and moral commitments. Their philosophy is bad, and therefore they will be unable to sustain the practice. This is the deeply problematic assumption, for which no evidence is given, that underlies Wolterstorff’s claim that human rights depend on keeping theism alive and well. This claim does not follow from the philosophical attack on secular arguments, which while I disagree with them, I find enhance rather than detract from the debate. The claim that only theism can sustain the practice and protection of human rights in the long haul is a stand-alone claim about the secularist’s moral commitments. It assumes that the moral commitment to the principle that all humans have dignity will disappear if the philosopher cannot make the slam dunk case for it. Thank goodness moral commitment does not work that way.