John Milbank, in his recent essay “Against Human Rights” (PDF), contends that Christian thought demands a notion and practice of justice as objective “right order,” and resolutely does not provide the theological basis for a doctrine of human rights qua the subjectively grounded rights of the claimant, as Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton UP, 2009). A political order grounded solely in subjective rights is, for Milbank, anathema to Christian justice.
Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Wolterstorff’
In short, I agree with Wolterstorff that, while there is no theory in this extremely diverse array of biblical texts, readers may “nonetheless sense a certain rhetorical unity pervading the great bulk of these writings.” We just disagree about what this narrative unity is. What if we said that the “red thread” (so to speak) which unites these tales is not a “frame” guaranteeing rights but rather the clear and repeated indication that humanity is faced with traumatic contingency, surprise, and uncertainty, and that they are at times (for this very reason) subjects of remarkable, even Promethean moments of invention?
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?
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 James K.A. 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.
It does certainly seem, as Simone Chambers points out in “Do good philosophers make good citizens?“, that Dr. Wolterstorff ultimately asserts, rather than adequately demonstrates, that only theistic belief can guarantee human rights in perpetuity for all humans. Why? I think it is because he knows that there is ultimately no philosophical demonstration possible for such a conclusion. [...]
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?
I want to re-emphasize the structure of my discussion about secular accounts of human rights. The project of trying to ground human rights is the project of trying to find what it is about human beings that gives each and every one a dignity sufficient for their possessing human rights.
I’ll close my contribution to this symposium with some broad brush strokes by suggesting that Wolterstorff’s project can be seen as a powerful, persuasive version of a Whig Calvinism, which, instead of ending up with a neoconservativism, ends up with a theistic liberalism.
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.