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.