Look elsewhere for agonistic social ontology: A response to Smith

posted by Nicholas Wolterstorff

<p></p>As Jack Marsh noted in his response to James K.A. Smith, there’s deep irony in Smith’s response to me.  He attributes to me a “Hobbesian construal of intersubjectivity which sees human relationships as, at bottom… competitive and conflictual.”   He loudly professes to reject such a construal of intersubjectivity.  Yet he opens his discussion with a flourish of pugilistic metaphors—“bob and weave,” “haymakers,” “glancing blows.”   Are the metaphors perhaps a surface indication of Smith’s covert Hobbesism?

More seriously: Smith concedes that, on my understanding of rights, sociality is of the essence of rights; it takes two to have a right.  So I’m glad that’s no longer at issue.  What’s now at issue “is not whether rights are social, but how.”  Smith holds that to affirm natural inherent rights is to presuppose a conflictual, agonistic, social ontology.   To speak of such rights is to buy “into a social ontology that makes ‘against-ness’ essential to sociality.”

Well, if it is indeed the case that “the social ontology of rights talk generally assumes that, at bottom, the kind of relation between social entities is conflictual or competitive,” then I dissociate myself from that generality.  No guilt by association here; I don’t hang out with Hobbes.   The agonistic social ontology that Smith attributes to me is not mine.  To affirm natural inherent rights is not to presuppose such an ontology, nor does my account of such rights presuppose such an ontology.   Nothing Smith says shows anything to the contrary.

I hold that rights are correlative with obligations.  But to attribute obligations to a person, be they natural obligations or whatever, is not to presuppose a conflictual social ontology; I assume Smith agrees.  So how could attributing rights to a person presuppose such a social ontology?   Or am I mistaken in my assumption?  Does Smith think that attributing obligations to people does presuppose a conflictual social ontology?

My affirmation and account of rights do not presuppose that conflict is “essential to sociality.”  They presuppose instead that people have worth and dignity, and that there are ways of treating them that do and do not befit their dignity.   Of course there is a great deal of conflict in social relations; but conflict is not, on my view, “essential” to social relations.   And rights are components of social reality whether or not the situation is conflictual.   That’s because people have worth whether or not the situation is conflictual.  I do not agree with the dictum of Reinhold Niebuhr, that justice is only relevant in situations of conflict, not in situations of what he called “frictionless harmony.”  People have rights in situations of frictionless harmony.   Part of what makes a situation harmonious is that people are being treated by their fellows as they have a right to be treated.    And as to the fragment of a sentence from page 293 that Smith quotes, if you read the whole of the paragraph from which this fragment comes, it will be clear that I am not affirming that where no one is wronged, no one has rights.

Ah yes; but what about that little word “against” that I used?   Perhaps my affirmation and account of inherent rights does not presuppose a conflictual agonistic social ontology.  But the fact that I speak, in formulaic fashion, of having a right against someone, reveals that I do in fact subscribe to such an ontology.

It does nothing of the sort.  Since I do not accept an agonistic social ontology, my use of “against” cannot reveal that I do.  It no more reveals that I do than does Smith’s use of pugilistic metaphors reveal that he is a closet Hobbesian.  I never liked using the word “against” in this context.  But when writing the book, I couldn’t think of a good alternative in idiomatic English.  When talking about obligations, I regularly spoke of having an obligation toward someone.   It seemed to me non-idiomatic to speak of having a right toward someone.  I could have used “with respect to.”  But “with respect to” is one of the most bland and colorless terms in the English language.  I suppose I should have put up with its bland colorlessness and spoken of having a right with respect to someone.

It appears to me that some of those who embrace a right order conception of justice have an idée fixe that leads them to believe that anyone who affirms inherent rights must also embrace an agonistic social ontology.   They find it impossible to believe that I am not committed to such an ontology.  Wolterstorff has to be suffering from an inexplicable obtuseness on this point.  Either that, or he’s dissembling; he doesn’t have the guts to ‘fess up to his agonism.

Neither.  It’s true that many of those who affirm inherent rights embrace a conflictual social ontology.  I do not.  Compare: many of those who have affirmed a right order conception of justice have embraced an authoritarian and hierarchical picture of social reality.  I do not charge all the former with really doing the latter, no matter their protests.

The real issues lie elsewhere.  Do human beings have worth?  I hold that they do.  If they have worth, why isn’t that enough to give them the right to be treated in a way that befits their worth?  I hold that it is enough.   No conferral is needed in addition.

Tags: , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

8 Responses to “Look elsewhere for agonistic social ontology: A response to Smith”

  1. avatar Valerie McKenzie says:

    One can see a similar response to Smith in John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (2003, Cambridge University Press). David B. Hart does essentially the same thing when answering Smith’s review in the Scottish Journal of Theology. Now Wolterstorff is saying that Smith has done it again… Hart, Webster, and Wolterstorff… who’s next?

    Perhaps this is what makes academics fun—like sports.

  2. To Valerie McKenzie: What’s the “it” I’ve done again? (That could be a long list.) I’ve not seen the Webster bit (and I’ve never written on Webster), and I don’t recall Hart singling out any “it.” As I recall that exchange, we had a reasoned discourse. And at least in the oral version of it, I remember at least one concession on Hart’s part. In any case, no doubt I’m guilty of “it”—but it would help my sanctification to know which “it” you have in mind.

  3. avatar Sue Caldwell says:

    Perhaps Wolterstorff should look to the Calvinist government of the apartheid era in South Africa and ask himself how many rights a person with brown skin enjoyed.

    And how much was their worth and dignity was taken into account, too?

    And what about the rights, worth and dignity of the Anabaptists who were slaughtered like vermin on the command of that “great christian mind,” Calvin.

  4. avatar Valerie McKenzie says:


    “James K A Smith has offered a reading of what I suppose I should call my rhetorical method, or perhaps my evangelical method. I am grateful for, and fascinated by, how very strong a reading it is—by which I mean, how very powerfully he draws my work into the orbit of his own theological sympathies. His is a perspective I would be foolish not to take very seriously. However, I cannot help but note that it is also the case that occasionally he seems to wish to locate me in a stream of theological reflection where I find it hard to swim.” P. 611. David Bentley Hart, “Response to James K. A. Smith, Lois Malcolm and Gerard Loughlin” (p 610-623) in: New Blackfriars Volume 88 Issue 1017, (September 2007), p. 611.

    “Thus I would never—as Smith clearly would have me do—reject talk of natural law, or even of natural religion.” p. 612.

    “Much use is made of Derrida in J.K.A. Smith’s somewhat undifferentiated critique of some aspects of the theology of Scripture in The Fall of Interpretation (InterVarsity, 2000)”. John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, p. 40.

  5. Ad McKenzie: the charge of “eisegesis” only holds if one thinks there is such a thing as some sort of “unbiased” reading. I do not. Following Heidegger, I contend that every reading is—and has to be—a “reading into” to some degree. However, that’s not to say that such readings shouldn’t be fair. However, a “fair” reading does not necessarily have to be one that “agrees” with the author. So, in short, these snippets don’t have me at all worried.

    Ad Caldwell: In fact, Wolterstorff was a strong critic of the South African regime; indeed, that was one of the cases that really made him passionate about justice. And I take it that he thinks precisely what was lacking in such a case was an account of justice as inherent rights. However, he doesn’t think this is intrinsic to Calvin’s thought. Rather, following John Witte, Jr., I expect he thinks that this is an aspect of Calvin that was missed by the South African bastardization of Kuyperian sphere-sovereignty.

  6. avatar Valerie McKenzie says:

    ” […] if you read the whole of the paragraph […]” — Wolterstorff.

  7. Looking at it pragmatically, isn’t the nub of the issue that, from a (properly radical) Christian perspective, it is fine to respect the ‘rights’ or ‘dignity’ of others—indeed, the demand to love would go far beyond that—but when the Christian begins to focus on ‘his/her’ rights, things get a little thorny. The principles of charity and self-sacrifice, so central to the Christian tradition, do not sit well with talk of ‘my rights’—unless we are talking of waiving those rights for the good of others. For example, the merciful actions of Bishop Myriel towards Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, when the latter was caught with his stolen possessions, illustrate wonderfully the way in which the Christian is sometimes called to forego his own claims to justice, for the good of another. Does not grace consist precisely in this?

    So, from a Christian perspective, is it not that:

    [1] when speaking of our posture towards others, talk of respecting their rights or dignity does not go far enough; it falls short of the call to love, and…
    [2] when speaking of our own individual rights—while we do not deny that, as creatures of God, we have dignity—the Christian is called to look beyond that dignity to ‘esteem others higher than themselves’, and to sometimes give up what he/she has a ‘rightful’ claim to, for the good of others?

    Can we find a Christian grounding for ‘rights talk’? Probably, to some degree. Does this do the radicality and alterity of the Christian gospel justice? No, I would suggest not. For me, this is where Wolterstorff’s account falls a little short. The final question is how the radical demands of the Gospel can be applied (if they can at all) to the politics of a fallen world, to best achieve peace, justice and proper freedom in this age. Hasn’t that always been the question?

  8. avatar Jon Rowe says:

    Ad Caldwell: In fact, Wolterstorff was a strong critic of the South African regime; indeed, that was one of the cases that really made him passionate about justice. And I take it that he thinks precisely what was lacking in such a case was an account of justice as inherent rights. However, he doesn’t think this is intrinsic to Calvin’s thought. Rather, following John Witte, Jr., I expect he thinks that this is an aspect of Calvin that was missed by the South African bastardization of Kuyperian sphere-sovereignty.

    Well it’s interesting to know that Wolterstorff is a “Calvinist.” My understanding of Calvin and the early “Calvinists” (though admittedly, I don’t know as much about Kuyper as I do about Calvin, Rutherford and Knox) is that their understanding of “rights,” to the extent that they had ANY at all, was not meaningful and certainly not the source of “rights” that were central to the American Founding (i.e., the Declaration of Independence).

    I’ve already quoted Rutherford on why Calvin was justified in executing Servetus simply for speaking his unitarian conscience on the Trinity, so now I’ll quote Knox:

    “Ye will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God’s judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24.”

    Whatever Calvin or Calvinism is, it was not the source of the “rights talks” upon which America’s Founders relied. In many ways, Calvinism served as a theological obstacle to the American Founding.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.