Nicholas Wolterstorff. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton University Press, 2008.
This is an important book, but also a bit of a frustrating book. Wolterstorff is a well-known Christian philosopher, long-time professor at Calvin College, more recently at Yale University, and currently in residence as an active retiree at the University of Virginia.
I really like his argument. He grounds justice in human rights and he grounds human rights in the inherent worth of each person. He presents the case for seeing such an understanding in the Bible. I love that he brings the Bible to bear on this discussion, though his presentation is a bit disjointed. He summarizes his interpretation of the biblical bases for a strong view of human rights, but then kind of leaves it behind as he turns to the philosophical tradition. It feels more like he is using the Bible as an illustration than as a fundamental source.
Probably because I am not a philosopher, Wolterstorff’s long and winding journey through philosophical argumentation did not hold my attention. I like where he ends up, but I did not find the process particularly enlightening. One big surprise for me was his utter lack of attention to the political philosophers of recent years who have tackled the theory of justice (John Rawls gets a brief footnote early on, Ronald Dworkin gets a passing mention; Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, William Galstone are all completely ignored). I found this lack to be surprising. By not engaging the political philosophers, Wolterstorff allows his discussion to remain on a highly abstract level once he leaves his biblical discussion.
It turns out that this book is part one of a two part work. In the midst of writing on justice, Wolterstorff realized that he needed a thorough treatment of love. He briefly addresses love here but promises a second volume that deal with it in much more detail. I look forward to this second book and believe that some of the problems I have with Justice: Rights and Wrongs (especially how abstract and philosophical it is) will be alleviated when the full work is complete.
One of the most attractive aspect of this work in my mind is Wolterstorff’s openness about his own commitments–he’s profoundly committed to social justice (having been active in anti-apartheid activism and supporting Palestinian rights in the Middle East) and he’s a deeply committed Christian who seeks to view everything through the eyes of his faith convictions.
His argument about justice, human rights, and human worth is profound and deserves careful attention. He provides bases for a Christian perspective on many of the pressing issues of our day that challenge injustice and oppression. Hopefully Wolterstorff himself and others will continue to push out implications of this understanding of justice and apply it to actual on the ground issues.