reviewed by Timothy A. Beach-Verhey
In the wake of the inhumanity that characterized the early part of the 20th century (and most of human history), the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was an historic achievement. Today the global culture of respect for human dignity, which it advanced, faces significant resistance. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs fundamentally reframes the debate, defending human rights against not only its theological and philosophical critics but, perhaps more importantly, its secular proponents.
Mindful of cultural and religious diversity, most champions of human rights sought a secular foundation for it, believing this had the most potential to be generally persuasive. In response, critics have argued that the language of human rights is fatally entangled with the Enlightenment and its false assumptions about reason, religion, and human nature. The contemporary culture of human rights, in their estimation, is inextricably entangled with the socially, culturally, and religiously destructive consequences of modern possessive-individualism. Wolterstorff moves deliberation beyond a stalemate over the virtues and vices of modernity by arguing that human rights emerged from a Christian social consciousness rather than a modern, individualistic mindset.
In an impressive display of intellectual archaeology, Wolterstorff shows that the language of rights was operative in Western culture long before the Enlightenment, tracing its presence through the 12th century canon lawyers back to the Church Fathers themselves. Focusing on St. John of Chrysostom’s conviction that failure to provide for the poor is an unjust deprivation of what is rightfully theirs, he argues that the concept of inherent natural rights, which precede and take priority over all cultural conventions and social arrangements, is evident in the earliest Christian thinkers.
By carefully tracing the development of Augustine’s thought, Wolterstorff shows how the biblical command to love God and neighbor displaced and re-oriented the Eudaimonism that he inherited from classical culture. Throughout his life, Augustine argued that happiness (eudaimonia) was the aim of humanity. Nevertheless, by the time of City of God, he had subordinated this self-oriented aim to the other-oriented demands of Christian compassion. Against the idea that it is aligned with the socially destructive forces of modern individualism, Wolterstorff argues that the culture of human rights grew from social sensibilities provoked in the ancient world by the emergence of Christianity.
According to Wolterstorff, not only is the Western culture of human rights inherently social, it is also necessarily theistic. He notes that secular attempts to ground human rights always prove problematic because they base human dignity on some human capacity. Kant, for example, locates human dignity in the capacity to reason. The very young, many of the very old, and the mentally disabled do not possess this capacity, however. Do they lack intrinsic worth? In addition, human beings clearly possess the capacity to reason in different degrees. What then accounts for their equal dignity? Wolterstorff fears that in a society based on a Kantian conception of human dignity “the less rational among us will be systematically demeaned” (p. 391). Other secular accounts, he argues, fall prey to similar difficulties. Human rights cannot be located in any human capacity; they must be bestowed by a transcendent source—a God whose equal love for all human creatures grounds their universal dignity and worth.
Wolterstorff is not arguing that only Christians can or do embrace human rights. Neither does he offer a rational justification of theism. At its heart, this volume is arguing for a new way of conceiving public discourse about human rights. Rather than a foundationalist approach, Wolterstorff is in favor of what he calls “dialogic pluralism.” In accordance with his work on “Reformed epistemology,” he assumes that people’s most profound convictions are not rationally founded. Human reasoning has a more Anselmian character: it extrapolates and critiques convictions that are already given. Public discourse therefore is not a matter of proposing universal foundations, but of discovering common aims and sharing intellectual resources. As he puts it, “though agreement is not the condition [of public discourse], it remains the goal” (xi). Through this volume, Wolterstorff aims the current discourse in a more productive direction, arguing that Christians and critics of modern individualism have reason to embrace the culture of human rights and that proponents of human rights have reason to appreciate the role that religious convictions can and must play in its sustenance.
In the final pages of the book, Wolterstorff inverts a common premise within the current debate. He argues that the complete dominance of secularism would doom the culture of human rights. We are in the midst of a religious resurgence, however, which may bolster human rights. That this reversal of prevailing assumptions seems sensible shows just how far Wolterstorff has taken the reader in this volume. But it leaves the impression that religious faith is always the champion of human rights and that secularism is always its nemesis. Like its opposite, this view is overly simplistic. While religious faith has generated support for universal human rights, it has also aligned itself with the human tribalism that undermines it. Similarly, while secularism’s support of human rights is ambiguous, its original impulse was resistance to the brutal religious and cultural tribalism that were at odds with it. A more realistic and nuanced discussion depends upon thick descriptions of the particular expressions of religious faith or secularism in distinctive historical contexts.
In this impressive work, Wolterstorff fundamentally reframes the debate about human rights in the West. He puts an end to the tired, futile battles between liberals and communitarians and between religion and secularism by challenging their shared assumptions about the history and nature of human rights. In an age when the West is losing faith in individualism, secularism, and universal reason, Wolterstorff points the way toward a more historically accurate understanding of human rights that is better suited for a post-modern, post-secular age. More importantly, he helps Christians understand the implications of Christ’s command to love the neighbor for contemporary existence.
Timothy A. Beach-Verhey is director of programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.