It takes some time, I think, to figure out what Wolterstorff is after. At first glance, Justice is an internecine wrangle between theists (or better put, Christians). On the one side is Alasdair MacIntyre and his crowd, with their passively pious, neo-Aristotelian foundationalism. “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” MacIntyre concludes in his After Virtue, and I assume he is waiting still, whoever happens now to be sitting in the chair of St. Peter. On the other side, those like Wolterstorff who hope that Christianity might still have something to say in contemporary conversations about politics, justice, and human rights. Kozinski and Smith take up this wrangle in various ways. But it is a wrangle that I, standing over here, view with some detachment. What do I care whether Christianity can reconcile itself with a theory of inherent rights?
But the wrangle is, of course, just prolegomena to a vaunted Christian move, one that has been a primal reflex of apologists for the past three centuries. For it turns out, not only is Christianity amenable to modern concepts of inherent rights, it has, since the beginning, been the main vehicle of their elaboration. And by the beginning, Wolterstorff means across the entire Scriptural tradition, from the Old Testament, in Isaiah’s impassioned pleas for justice, to the New, in Christ’s expansion of rights claims to the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. Even here, though, I’m not sure how much I have at stake. Any modern agnostic, atheist, secularist, humanist, or what-have-you, would have no problem with discovering rights-talk (or even theory) in the Bible. After all, just because the Bible said it, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Now, though, we can see the expansion coming. Not satisfied with the discovery—pace MacIntyre—that the Bible is a source of rights, he needs to make the point—pace Martha Nussbaum—that it is the only source of rights from the ancient world, and then—pace “secularists” more generally—indeed the only source anywhere able to provide an account of human dignity sufficient to ground any modern concept of human rights.
Out the window it is with that so-called liberalism. Along with it, too, those inadequate secular accounts of human worth, from Kant to Dworkin, which only pretend to found modern concepts of universal human rights, while actually excluding from their magic circle those marginal figures most deserving protection, “those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, those in a permanent coma, the severely brain-injured” and so on. Only the idea of “being loved by God” is adequate to assign all human beings dignity enough to distinguish them as bearers of rights (versus, say, dolphins—God just doesn’t love them that way). Christianity reigns triumphant, alpha and omega. She stands at the origins of the modern world, implicated in all of her virtues, and none of her sins. And look, there she is again at the end, binding up wounds and nursing us back to health. The cake just gets better each time you eat it, I guess.
Even two cakes don’t satisfy the Christian appetite, however, as the patient reader will discover. Christianity gets to reclaim her “birthright” from those who “lack the resources for safeguarding it,” sure, but even this is not enough. A coup de grace awaits, secreted away at the end of chapter 16, the final touch without which a good apology would not be complete. Here, our author concludes, the “theist” (whom are we kidding now?) finally gets to hoist those secular rascals on their own petards. Because, as Wolterstorff says, if you do believe in natural inherent human rights—and yet find yourself unable to ground these rights in a secular fashion—then you must, ipso facto, ground them in God. And lo! God has appeared, summoned into existence out of the very structure of belief itself. Anselm would be proud, I suspect. We are all Christians now.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This book conducts its arguments with sustained attention, and its labors over the concept of rights, I found, as a naïve and impatient reader of philosophical thought experiments, persuasive. It is also filled with compelling exegetical work on Scripture, an area that I know and enjoy much better. I could not quite see, however, how these two projects stood in relation to one another. I wonder, for example, if and how the Bible can yet be made the object of aggressive philosophical inquiry. The first step would seem to be an adequate hermeneutics. Certainly something more is needed than just a blanket affirmation that the Bible can be treated as a philosophical unity (for this, let me refer you to Spinoza). Without it, Wolterstorff’s shifts in register between philosophical critique and textual exegesis are startling. The most striking example, for me, comes as he moves from his treatment of the Stoics—where he indicts their eudaimonism as philosophically incoherent—to that of Augustine, whose ethics of love Wolterstorff stresses, while passing lightly over the saint’s rapturous yet (to me) morally horrifying visions of our world as one gigantic colony of punishment and pain. The “Church of Christ…persecutes in the spirit of love,” our Bishop of Hippo was wont to say, which does put this love-thing in a slightly different light.
Maybe these odd juxtapositions come with the territory, though. As a non-philosopher, I readily confess that I don’t know whether it is necessary to prove that “no human being has a price” in order to come up with an adequate pragmatics of inherent rights. More precisely, I don’t know whether the affirmation of pricelessness needs a foundation or not, or what a foundation would even look like if it were found.
Philosophical praxis has not always been foundationalist, for starters, whatever Heidegger might say. But even if it were, I can’t imagine that foundations can be magically conjured by assertion, let alone authoritative Scriptural citation. Call me a sneaky secularist—and you won’t be the first—but I don’t see how the proposition “God loves us” can do extended philosophical work without establishing the predicates of God (benevolence? justice?) in a consistent idiom. The predicate of existence—“God is”—seems especially important. Certainly the medievals thought so, and one would expect, in a book like this, some of those good Anselmian proofs at the outset, rather than the end, of the argument. Clearly the relationship between theology and philosophy—strained at best since Spinoza’s day—still needs to be worked out, and Wolterstorff’s book might be more widely understood as an effort to do this. But it won’t do simply to insist on “dialogic pluralism,” as if the very language in which we conduct foundational disputes were not the crucial problem itself.
Here is what I do know, as a historian: there simply has never been a universalism—whether Christian or Kantian—that did not have a limit-case where its sphere of application grew fuzzy, where the Alzheimer’s patient (or the Jew) might not be summoned up as its bad conscience. And these universalisms have managed to muddle along, doing much good and much evil, critiqued from within and without all along the way. So what’s the big deal? Why do we need these foundations at all?
Wolterstorff anticipates this mundane and ad hoc response. As his book winds down, he waxes both melancholy and apocalyptic about the future of the so-called “West” (so interesting how this figure always comes back in moments of prophecy). What must we in the West expect to happen, he asks, when “the religious framework that gave rise to our moral subculture of rights gradually erodes”? No surprise: the disaster that hides in the shadows is the same one that prophets have always seen. But here we can respond as Pierre Bayle did to the apologetic doomsayers of his day, that a well-ordered society of atheists might well be a virtuous one. Or maybe not. It all depends.
One thing seems certain to me, though. It won’t depend on a philosophically complete theory of universal human rights—across our globe, people have lived and died for millennia without this—but on the way people actually treat each other. And if it takes Christianity to persuade you that human beings should be treated with respect, then, by all means, embrace Anselm. But if not, then I doubt that Wolterstorff is going to convince you to change your mind, one way or another.