The topic is the relation of justice and love, of long-standing interest to Christians and Jews, as well as to some moral philosophers. Wolterstorff’s approach is ground-breaking because of his learning, originality, and breadth of concern, and also because of his clarity and rigor. The persevering — serious-minded pastors, laypeople and academics alike — should read this book.
“Justice in Love” presupposes and expands on themes in Wolterstorff’s earlier book, “Justice: Rights and Wrongs.” The central claim is that people reading his book “take for granted [a] moral subculture of rights,” even though they are typically “oblivious to how extraordinary” it is. Above all, that moral subculture — the idea that people respect a set of “inherent natural rights” that define the equal worth of all human beings — constitutes the meaning of justice underlying their common experience.
In making his case, Wolterstorff highlights the importance of rights by exhibiting, through a masterful elucidation of ordinary examples, how pervasive is the commitment to protecting the intrinsic worth of each person. Certain inviolable rights must be assured for any person to flourish. Second, he contends that the moral assumptions at work here are unique. The ancient Greek theory of eudaemonism is incapable of supporting a belief in intrinsic natural rights, as is utilitarianism, and other modern philosophical positions.
Third, he proposes, more controversially, that his interpretation of rights-as-justice is deeply embedded in Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and that a theistic belief consistent with Scripture is the only position that can plausibly support the idea of inherent natural rights. That is because there are no particular attributes for distinguishing human beings as especially worthy other than the belief that intrinsic worth is bestowed upon them by a loving God.
These points set the stage for Wolterstorff’s discussion of love. Though aware of familiar forms of human love, he concentrates on agape, which, “in its essence, is equal-regarding love.” It is a distinctive form of “caring” for others that “incorporates justice” by respecting and promoting the natural and other derivative rights that constitute every individual’s worth. Wolterstorff emphasizes that agape does not contradict or undermine justice, though it may reform it. Promoting true justice — equal respect for the intrinsic worth of all — is the essence of caring love.
He argues that classical and modern philosophical positions are incapable of supporting the idea of agape, and he extensively criticizes modern theologians like Kierkegaard, Nygren, Niebuhr, and Ramsey for disjoining love from justice.
He concludes, again controversially, with a discussion of the relation of justice and love in Pauline thought. The emphasis is on the impartiality of God’s love based on the equal regard for the worth of all human beings. The conclusion supplements his argument in the earlier book in favor of a belief in a loving God as the basis for “justice in love.”
DAVID LITTLE retired in 2009 as professor of the practice in religion, ethnicity and international conflict at Harvard Divinity School and as an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.