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Justice: Rights and Wrongs [Kindle Edition]

Nicholas Wolterstorff
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Wide-ranging and ambitious, Justice combines moral philosophy and Christian ethics to develop an important theory of rights and of justice as grounded in rights. Nicholas Wolterstorff discusses what it is to have a right, and he locates rights in the respect due the worth of the rights-holder. After contending that socially-conferred rights require the existence of natural rights, he argues that no secular account of natural human rights is successful; he offers instead a theistic account.

Wolterstorff prefaces his systematic account of justice as grounded in rights with an exploration of the common claim that rights-talk is inherently individualistic and possessive. He demonstrates that the idea of natural rights originated neither in the Enlightenment nor in the individualistic philosophy of the late Middle Ages, but was already employed by the canon lawyers of the twelfth century. He traces our intuitions about rights and justice back even further, to Hebrew and Christian scriptures. After extensively discussing justice in the Old Testament and the New, he goes on to show why ancient Greek and Roman philosophy could not serve as a framework for a theory of rights.

Connecting rights and wrongs to God's relationship with humankind, Justice not only offers a rich and compelling philosophical account of justice, but also makes an important contribution to overcoming the present-day divide between religious discourse and human rights.

Product Description


"[T]his book is a formidable achievement, intellectually rigorous yet emotionally engaged, and combining meticulous conceptual analysis with a rich historical grasp of the roots of our moral culture. Its arguments offer a serious challenge to the complacency of contemporary secularism, implying as they do that our culture of rights could only have come into existence supported by a metaphysical framework that exhibits each human being, whatever their flaws and defects, as loved redemptively by God."--John Cottingham, Times Literary Supplement

"Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a magisterial book. In it . . . Wolterstorff has gotten justice right. This, in case the thrust of my terse comment wasn't plain enough, is a very high praise."--Miroslav Volf, Books & Culture

"For all of us who aspire to, or even just admire, the perhaps not so outrageous vocation of Christian scholarship, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice is an inspiration."--Richard W. Garnett, First Things

"Wolterstorff draws on a wide range of philosophical/theological/ethical material. He does a magnificent job of developing a sustained argument for the thesis that the only solid foundation for grounding human rights is biblical theism."--F. G. Kirkpatrick, Choice

"In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff reaches far back into biblical tradition and Greek philosophy to trace a distinctive vision of justice based on the worth that God confers on each person. For Wolterstorff, respect for human worth entails respect for human rights; this marks an important turn away from the tendency in recent theology to dismiss talk about rights as an Enlightenment innovation that is alien to Christian ethics."--Robin Lovin, Christian Century

"Justice is a seminal contribution to Christian ethics and useful riposte to those modern Gibbons to sneer at the idea that Christians have anything useful to say about the things that matter."--Nick Spencer, Third Way Magazine

"Justice: Rights and Wrongs is magisterial in scope, incisive and inventive in its argument. Wolterstorff stakes out a novel position in contemporary debates with an undeniable analytical rigor. . . . Wolterstorff's philosophical arguments . . . stand on their own two feet and genuinely break new ground in the field. Indeed, this text merits and should attract a very wide readership."--Stephen Lake, Philosophy in Review

"Wolterstorff has made . . . a tremendous contribution . . . to our philosophical acuity and theological discernment on these matters. . . . [R]ender him his due for an erudite and sophisticated account of why rights are not wrong."--John D. Carlson, Journal of Politics and Religion

From the Back Cover

"Wolterstorff's Justice is the most impressive book on justice since Rawls' A Theory of Justice. In a fresh and vigorous manner, Wolterstorff defends a conception of justice as inherent rights and argues for its superiority to a conception of justice as right order. The sweep of the book is breathtaking, ranging from a detailed discussion of justice in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to medieval, early modern, and contemporary theories of justice. Wolterstorff's most provocative thesis is that all existing secular as well as most religious attempts to ground a theory of justice fail. Even those who are skeptical about his theistic grounding of justice will be challenged by the clarity, rigor, and thoroughness of his arguments."--Richard J. Bernstein, New School for Social Research

"The work of a first-rate philosopher at the top of his game, this book sets forth a distinctive and challenging theory of justice formulated in explicitly scriptural and Christian terms, yet in conversation with the leading alternatives in the Anglophone world. Not only does this book reflect the clarity and acuity of thought that characterize Wolterstorff's work, it also reflects the humane sensibilities of someone who has thought and felt deeply about these matters for a long time."--Jean Porter, University of Notre Dame

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 729 KB
  • Print Length: 412 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0691146306
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (26 Dec. 2007)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0032D97RE
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #610,451 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece! 7 Dec. 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
400 pages of mind blowing philosophical reflections on the question of "what is justice?". It took two months to read the whole book. I would read, stop, pause and reflect (and sometimes tweet quotes). Without doubt Wolterstorff is the leading moral philosopher of our time. I am about to start part 2 on Love and Justice. What more can I say, except to admit that I am Wolterstorffian!
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Challenge to Secularist Ethics, as well as Christian Eudaimonists! 14 Mar. 2010
By Thaddeus J. Kozinski - Published on
"This book is an attempt to speak up for the wronged of the world . . . . My speaking up for the wrong of the world takes the form, in this book, of doing what I can to undermine those frameworks of conviction that prevent us from acknowledging that the other comes before us bearing a claim on us, and of offering an alternative framework, one that opens up to such acknowledgements" (ix).

According to Nicholas Wolterstorff's highly acclaimed and landmark book Justice: Rights and Wrongs (comparisons have been made to John Rawls's Theory of Justice), any political framework not based upon "inherent human rights," that is, "normative social relationships . . . . in the form of the other bearing a legitimate claim on me as to how I treat her" (4) cannot do justice to the wronged of the world--any other framework must be, in a word, unjust. Secondly, this exclusively just political framework can only be grounded in theistic belief, both theoretically and practically, for human beings have the right not to be wronged only because they are all equally loved by God--and God Himself has the right to be obeyed, loved, and not wronged.

If contemporary academics, politicians, and talking heads think and speak of
human rights as attached to autonomous, atomistic individuals in virtue of their willful right to do what they want, this is not the fault of inherent human rights; it is due to ignorance to their true character, purpose, and genealogy, and of a corrupt, egocentric culture that has subjectivized, secularized, and privatized something that is God-given and intrinsically normative and social. For Wolterstorff, the misconstrual of a corrupted rights idiom and practice is one of the reasons for the unfortunate opposition to rights by many "right-order" and "eudaimonistic" theorists such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. However, there is a more philosophically foundational and historically complex reason for the great misunderstanding among Christian political philosophers and theologians about the nature of rights, and it is the correcting of this misunderstanding to which this rigorously and sophisticatedly argued book is devoted.

Wolterstorff constructs a compelling argument to show, with the help of the groundbreaking scholarship of Brian Tierney and Chares J. Reid Jr. on the prima facie evidence for the notion of subjective rights in the early medieval period, that not only can the notion of inherent human rights be traced back past Hobbes and Locke to William of Ockham and Thomas Aquinas, but it can also be found in medieval canon law, the writings of the Church Fathers, the New Testament, and even the Old Testament. Wolterstorff also claims that eudaimonistic ethics is ultimately irreconcilable with Christian ethics, and that Augustine was the first Christian thinker fully to break free from the charity- and rights-stifling, self-centered, "well-being" ethics of Aristotle and the stoics. Though his argument is very worth considering in virtue of its cogent presentation of the definite tension between a happiness ethics based upon the pursuit of "life-goods" and an obligation ethics bound up with loving one's fellow man because God does, Wolterstorff goes too far in a Nygrenian direction here and is not ultimately persuasive. He certainly does not do justice to St. Thomas Aquinas's masterful synthesis of eudaimonism and divine-law ethics, although he argues rightly that it is not easy to find a clear presentation of subjective right in Aquinas.

Recently John R. T. Lamont (The Thomist, April 2009) and John Milbank (work-in-progress, (...) have argued persuasively that the work of Martin Villey, the French legal scholar and philosopher, demonstrates major flaws in the work of Tierney and Reid's historical narrative, and thus in Wolterstorff's thesis. According to Villey, terms such as ius, facultas--and even the quite modern sounding potestas--can certainly be found in the writings of medieval canon lawyers, decretalists, and theologians, but these terms by no means connoted anything like a subjective right. Rather, they indicated the rights of persons in relation to an objective right, in the context of id quod iustum est, meaning, not just a individual's just act, which could connote something distinctly subjective, but the inherently social and relational state of affairs or object brought about by just acts.

Wolterstorff's account of justice is arguably the best philosophical defense of inherent human rights published in decades. It is a superior work, not only in its rigorous argumentation, meticulous distinctions, and generous dialectical sensitivity, but also, and primarily, in its unapologetic and robust use of revealed theology. In this respect, the Calvinist Wolterstorff's mode of treating an issue as fundamental as the nature of justice is superior to the Catholic MacIntyre's, for the latter has always insisted on keeping his thought "theology-free," as it were, to the detriment of his otherwise incomparable philosophical thought. Philosophy alone cannot settle the issue of inherent human rights. Nevertheless, MacIntyre's purely philosophical position on inherent human rights as "nonsense on stilts" is, I think, the sounder position, for it is, especially in light of the recent scholarship of Milbank and Lamont, more reconcilable with both classical and Christian thought. If only MacIntyre would develop his philosophical thought on politics in the light of revealed theology, it could supply the kind of "alternative framework" Wolterstorff desires, and it would be much more effective in defeating our regnant, Godless, subjectivist liberalism.

As MacIntyre has shown, however universal and theologically mandated the right not to be wronged is in itself and in abstract thought, any such right, when actually existing in practice, in concreto, in a particularized form through legislative or customary articulation and practical application in the social and political life of this or that city, is in some sense socially and politically conferred. Inherent human rights do exist, but the term right just doesn't capture what they are, and perhaps it would be better to stop using the term altogether due to its inevitable connotations of subjectivity, conflict, ethical relativity, and egoism. Moreover, "rights" are never recognized and applied in the rough-and-ready reality of political life as abstract, inherent, individual, and universal, but only as social components of particularized, customary, and historical institutions and practices, and always within the context of particular and concrete social and political experience. Thus, a "right-order" framework for justice seems inescapable, even natural, and thus not to be condemned as unchristian and unjust, pace Wolterstorff. Perhaps some synthesis between inherent human rights and right-order justice, a mean between MacIntyre's perhaps extreme,e anti-right position and Wolterstorff's rights-as-trumps, is the more theologically and philosophically sound prescription.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Reading on Justice 17 Oct. 2008
By Christopher Eberle - Published on
Wolterstorff's "Justice: Rights and Wrongs" is the most profound reflection on justice, and the moral life in general, that I have ever come across. You can reasonably expect that a diligent and close read will transform your understanding of the most fundamental matters -- the nature of human rights, the (in)adequacy of secular accounts of human worth, the historical origins of our most basic normative conceptions, etc. There is a lot in here, some of it a bit dense, but it more than repays any effort you expend on it.

My suggestion: first read Wolterstorff's earlier book, "Until Justice and Peace Embrace," in which the author articulates a number of more concrete moral and political commitments, then read "Justice: Rights and Wrongs."
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars my right your wrong... 13 May 2008
By Nathan - Published on
A theistic theory of rights or even an argument for theism from the idea of rights is what this book presents... It does an excellent job on both accounts - I thought.

Wolterstorff distinguishes between two understandings of justice one linked to right order the other to inherent subjective rights. He finds that the major issue between the two has been missed, where it was thought to be about the existence of rights per se it is really about different conceptions of rights - are they intrinsic to subjects or are they bestowed on subjects from some norm or god. The first few chapters present arguments from the old and new testaments to show that rights are not a recent enlightenment invention but go back along way and have a theological origin that is based on the worth of the person - what it is that accounts for the worth of a person is taken up latter in the book.

after the history of rights in the bible and surrounding literature he turns to continue developing his theory of rights by showing what sort of things we may have rights to -- the happenings that contribute to a good life... Sometime is spent defining what a happening is and what a good life is - all of which is very interesting and illuminating and challenging but it's presented in a very readable style ....

And then the reasons why secularism can't work as a foundation for rights was convincing - although, admittedly I was already convinced, but now I have some good reasons to back up my convictions anyway.. Plus all the 'rights' talk surrounding different issues seems to make more sense - or nonsense - now..
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A theistic analysis of primary justice 5 Dec. 2012
By A. Omelianchuk - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Nicholas Wolterstorff was the best philosophy book I read this last year. In what follows are my notes that summarize the main argument of the book.

Broadly speaking, Wolterstorff gives his theoretical account of justice in light of his career of activism on behalf of the `coloreds' in South Africa and Christians living in Palestine. The goal of his theory is to give us ears to hear the cry of pain, to help us see what justice is through the eyes of those who have suffered injustice.

His is an exposition of primary justice. Primary justice covers that which a person is due. It consists of distributive justice (how goods should be distributed in some social order) and commutative justice (how goods are exchanged via legal contracts). Rectifying justice is the justice that becomes relevant when there are breakdowns in primary justice-it calls for the righting of wrongs, so to speak.

There are two conceptions of primary justice (xii). The first is justice-as-right-order, which grounds justice in an objective matrix of obligations for the right ordering of society (11). The second is justice-as-inherent-rights, which considers a social order to be just insofar as its members enjoy the goods to which they have rights (35). Wolterstorff contends for the latter.

Inherent rights are had on account of the worth of the being who has them (11). But the worth need not be an essential feature of the person who has it. Suppose someone attains moral worth by virtue of performing some supererogatory act of charity. That would be an example of worth that is not essential to the person, because she might not have performed the act. Natural rights, on the other hand, are the rights of social beings that have not been socially conferred on them (33). Universal rights are those that everyone always has against someone or other. A human right attaches to the status of being human, being a member of the species Homo sapiens (315). Inherent rights can be all three.

That to which one has a right is always a good of some sort (135). More specifically, everything to which one has a right is an event or a state, a happening or a condition; rights are to states of affairs (137). The events or states to which one has a right are always happenings to oneself or conditions of oneself; in that way they are states of affairs of which one is a constituent (137-38). One does not have a right to actions of oneself. The right to walk on the New Haven Green is actually the right to not being hindered from walking on the Green (138). Nonetheless, the states and events to which one has a right consist of human actions or restraints from action toward oneself. The possession of a right always has the following structure: X has a right against Y to Y's doing or refraining from A (261).

The events of one's life and one's history begin at the same time, that is, when one comes into existence. One's life then ceases with one's death, whereas one's history continues as long as time continues. The events and states to which one has a right all belong to one's history; only some belong to one's life. (141). The goods to which we have rights are such that they positively contribute to the non-instrumental worth of one's life and one's history--that is, they are good for a person's life or history (143).

Wolterstorff thinks that the degree of non-instrumental worth that a person's life or history possesses is determined by the states of affairs that comprise that life or history. In that way, states of affairs are good or evil to varying degrees (143). What is needed, then, is a vision of one's life and history that goes well (225). And Wolterstorff thinks the goods that constitute of a well-going life or history is are those God desires for that life or history (236).

Wolterstorff's takes a lot of time to explain why the ancient normative theory of eudaimonism won't serve as a framework for a theory of rights. A theory of rights cannot be developed within eudaimonism's framework, because eudaimonism's conception of the good life cannot accommodate all of the goods to which we have rights. (136) There are goods to which one has a right that make no contribution whatsoever to how well one's life is lived (148). For example, the right to being paid on time or the right to walk freely on the New Haven Green (176). A second problem is that eudaimonism has the wrong sort of rule of application. It is too agent-centered; it needs to be patient-centered. When the choice confronts me whether to perform some action the question I should not ask is, "What contribution will this make to my own life being well lived (177)?" I am to do what you have a right to, period. Instead of the agent's happiness determining his action, the worth of the recipient is to determine what the agent does (178).

Another part of Wolterstorff's argument is that rights aren't grounded in duties, and he argues that divine command theory fails as a general account of the source of moral obligations. Begin with DCT's premise that claims all moral obligations are generated by God's commands (273). That is, there are no moral obligations without God's commands. But Wolterstorff thinks that there is a moral obligation that exist apart from God's commands. Since God has a standing right to our obedience by virtue of the power and authority that inheres in the worth of his being, we have a standing correlative obligation to obey God regardless of whether he commands us to do something or not (274). Yet this standing obligation is not itself generated by the God's commands. Therefore, God's inherent rights, not his commands, are the ultimate grounds for moral obligation.

Wolterstorff thinks rights are grounded in respect for worth. If they weren't and they are grounded in a set of objective duties instead, we could not make sense of what it means for a victim to be wronged; we could only talk of perpetrators acting wrongly. Following Jean Hampton, Wolterstorff thinks that to wrong X is to treat X in a way that disrespect X's non-instrumental worth. There are three ideas at work when we judge that someone has been treated disrespectfully. First we assume that people have non-instrumental worth; if they didn't, we could not speak of treating them disrespectfully. Second, we assume that some of our actions towards others have respect-disrespect import; that is to say, they are instances of treating people as if they had a certain worth. Third, we assume that the respect-disrespect import may not fit the actual worth of the one who is the recipient of the action.

In determining whether there can be a secular grounding for human rights, Wolterstorff searches for a dignity-bestowing property that will include all human beings and exclude all non-human animals. Kant's capacities approach names the property being a being that has a capacity for rational agency as that dignity-bestowing property. The problem is that this excludes some humans (e.g. infants and people with dementia) and includes some non-human animals (e.g. chimps and dolphins). All Kant's approach can do is bestow worth on those beings (human or nonhuman) that have the capacity, and it cannot be tweaked to accommodate the times when the being has it in its development without running into the same problems (333). The same is true for other capacities we might come up with, because capacities are second-order functional properties dependent on first-order realizers. If one's constitution fails to realize those capacities, then they are left out of the scope of human rights.

Instead, Wolterstorff thinks worth is bestowed by God. Start with his idea of bestowed worth, that is, non-instrumental worth that something has by virtue of standing in some relation to something other than itself or an aspect of itself (355). Through this relation, Wolterstorff is able to find a worth-imparting relation human beings have with God that makes no reference to human capacities (352). Being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth (353).

The book ends on a pessimistic note as Wolterstorff thinks that justice-as-inherent rights cannot be sustained in our post-Christian culture. While we are fortunate to live in a time that honors them, secular accounts of human value that tie one's value to one's capacities ultimately erode the dignity of those at he margins of life.
1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For Christian College Professors Only 4 May 2014
By not me - Published on
"Justice" is a well-written and methodical work of academic philosophy. It might even be wise, at least by the standards of academic publishing.

I do wonder, though, what readers the author had in mind. Secular philosophers will be put off by the lengthy exegesis of biblical/Augustinian texts, and by the conclusion that human rights require a theistic grounding (when no argument is given for the truth of theism). Non-academic Christians, on the other hand, will be put off by the book's sometimes belabored argumentation and its detailed engagement with recent academic literature. Incredibly, in a book of almost 400 pages, the author does little to develop and flesh out the practical, legal, and institutional content of human rights; instead, his focus is on the grounding and logical structure of rights. In a world broken by injustice and inhumanity, Christian philosophers need to do better than this.

Note: Readers interested in the nexus between religion and human rights should check out the books written by law professor Michael Perry. Unlike "Justice," they are short, direct, and powerful. And anyone interested in justice needs to read John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice" and relevant works by John Finnis.
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