Nicholas Wolterstorff’s calm, careful, humble response to my posts might make me look like an overly pugilistic polemicist. But I think he’s just from a different school of pugilism. (As a Canadian and long-time hockey player, I think pugilism is a great way to spend a Friday night, with beers afterward.) Wolterstorff is a careful student of the “bob and weave” school of philosophical polemics, turning ill-advised haymakers into merely glancing blows. I, on the other hand, tend to be a student of the George Foreman school of philosophical polemics (and frequent user of his grills to boot!): I’m easily sucked in by rope-a-dopes. Why stop now?
While much of Wolterstorff’s response amounts to bob-and-weave, his reply helps to clarify some points. But on other points, it feels like Wolterstorff has a slick cornerman who has applied copious amounts of Vaseline to help criticisms slip off his argument, deflecting them elsewhere. In Foreman-like form, let me continue to flail on just two points.
First, with respect to my charge of a covert “individualism”: Wolterstorff hears this as if I was charging him with solipsism. Thus, he makes the charge seem ludicrous by rightly pointing out that, in his account, rights are a “species of normative social relationships,” indeed, that “sociality is of the essence of rights.” In short, an utterly lone entity would not bear any rights precisely because rights are a social property. But the charge of “individualism” is not synonymous with solipsism. What’s at issue is not whether rights are social, but how. Or, perhaps less clumsily, my concern is not that Wolterstorff lacks a robust sense of sociality but rather that rights talk assumes a kind of sociality that is problematic. At stake here, we might say, is the shape of his “social ontology.”
So the operative term in my critique is not just “individualism,” but the qualifier, “atomistic.” The social ontology of rights talk generally assumes that, at bottom, the kind of relation between social entities is conflictual or competitive. In short, if rights are taken to be the basic building block in our account of justice, Hobbes will never be far off. I find this fundamentally conflictual or agonistic ontology to be implicit in the very way that Wolterstorff defines rights: X bears a right “against” Y. Now, Wolterstorff might think it an over-reading to hear this “against” as anything other than a semantic formulation. But many of the right order theorists he criticizes think there’s more at stake than that. Such a semantic formulation bubbles up from the social ontology that rights talk assumes. (And, incidentally, though I won’t further insist on these terms, I think this is what’s at stake in debates between individualists and communitarians. An “individualist” is not guilty of solipsism, but of construing intersubjective relations as derivative, secondary, or artificial [and usually conflictual], whereas communitarians begin from an “organic” picture of intersubjective relations that doesn’t see conflict or competition as basic to these relations. I continue to find John Ruskin and William Morris to be eloquent on these matters.)
This difference at the level of social ontology might explain why Wolterstorff and right order theorists sometimes seem to be talking past one another. I think Wolterstorff is correct that “right order” theories generally tell a declining narrative about the emergence of inherent-rights-talk. But I think he misdiagnoses what concerns them about this. It’s not just that rights are guilty by association with things like individualism and secularism; rather, right order theorists who are wary of making rights talk fundamental are concerned about the matrix of commitments that undergird such a picture of justice, viz., a Hobbesian construal of intersubjectivity which sees human relationships as, at bottom (or “naturally,” in Hobbes’ language), competitive and conflictual. Thus rights-talk is consistently accompanied by “against-ness” (see Justice, pp. 7, 54, 94, 108, 176, and passim).
So it is true that the “disagreement between right order theorists and inherent rights theorists has to do with the deep structure of the moral order.” But the right order theorist also thinks there’s an even deeper disagreement at the level of what I’m calling “social ontology.” I don’t think you can make inherent rights the fulcrum of your account of justice without buying into a social ontology that makes “against-ness” essential to sociality. (There are theological issues in the ballpark here, too, but I’ll bracket those here. We should also attend to the core issues concerning the shape of the “normative context” for rights. But that requires a level of technical, philosophical precision that I think is best pursued elsewhere.)
Second, with respect to Wolterstorff’s (lack of) direct engagement with MacIntyre and Hauerwas: Wolterstorff contends that he does not charge MacIntyre and Hauerwas with “hostility to justice and rights.” Further, he “does not charge MacIntyre with hostility to justice,” nor does he charge Hauerwas with hostility to justice. In terms of explicit criticisms, this is clearly the case. But I invite other readers of the book to judge whether or not my suspicions are misplaced. I’m not ready to relinquish my claims in this regard. (I might note that a forthcoming review of the book by Daniel Bell in Pro Ecclesia will articulate similar concerns.)
It’s on this point that I think Wolterstorff’s bob-and-weave is most evident. Let me note two bobs and a weave:
(a) Wolterstorff’s response claims that MacIntyre and Hauerwas were not his targets when he articulates concern about those who exhibit “hostility to justice and rights.” Then who are the targets of this criticism? Sometimes it feels as if Justice is battling some phantom menace. Furthermore, if the upshot of the book is that, ultimately, only inherent rights can properly secure justice, and if MacIntyre and Hauerwas reject inherent rights (as they clearly do), then wouldn’t it follow that they don’t adequately or properly affirm justice? Or let me put this another way: doesn’t Wolterstorff really think, at the end of the day, that right order theories of justice are unjust?
(b) I think Wolterstorff is being coy about the invocation of Hauerwas in the Nygren chapter. If he doesn’t think there’s some connection between Hauerwas and Nygren—or at least some connection between Hauerwas and the errors of “agapism”—then why does the chapter open with this brief cameo by Hauerwas? I’m not the one making the connection between Nygren and Hauerwas; it’s Wolterstorff’s opening of the chapter that seems to be making some connection. So the burden is not on me to show that Hauerwas has significant things to say about love and justice; the burden is on Wolterstorff to explain why Hauerwas even appears in this chapter. (There’s the additional issue of why one would be engaging Nygren now, since I can’t think of anyone signing up for his dichotomous paradigm. But again, I think Wolterstorff suspects some connections here that he doesn’t make explicit.)
(c) Finally, Wolterstorff extends an invitation: “If some present-day eudaimonist, MacIntyre included, has developed a version of eudaimonism that provides the conceptual resources for an account of justice as inherent rights, I invite Smith to point me toward that.” No thank you, is my reply. This generous invitation is covertly colonizing; it misses my point and MacIntyre’s disagreement. I’m not at all suggesting that MacIntyre can, as a eudaimonist, provide the conceptual resources for justice as inherent rights. The point is that he doesn’t want to. For reasons, I think, not unlike the “social ontology” argument above, MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, and others refuse to see inherent rights as the basic building blocks of justice. So I’m not disagreeing that MacIntyre is rightly associated with eudaimonism; nor am I disagreeing that eudaimonism cannot generate the conceptual resources for a theory of justice as inherent rights. Rather, I’m arguing that the eudaimonist doesn’t want to frame justice in terms of rights. So to fault the eudaimonist for not being able to generate an account of justice as inherent rights is not even a glancing blow; it misses MacIntyre altogether.
Wolterstorff’s way of framing the debate has loaded the deck in such a way that one has to play with “rights” cards. At that point, the MacIntyrean eudaimonist will just refuse to play. He won’t feel defeated (as Wolterstorff would interpret it) because he sees Wolterstorff as playing an entirely different game.
Alas, the bell.