Divine love and human dignity
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Christian philosopher now teaching at Yale, has a new book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, which has been reviewed very favorably in the TLS by John Cottingham. The reviewer says that the book “swims against the tide of the prevailing secularized conception of philosophy. While it is unmistakably a contribution to mainstream philosophical debates about justice and rights, ir refers frequently and unashamedly to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. What is more, it accords God a central place in the argument.” After reviewing the Old and New Testaments for what they have to say about justice, Wolterstorff is said to argue the “remarkably ambitious thesis: that without these texts, and the Christian world-view that arose out of them, the framework for formulating a theory of rights would simply not have been available.” Cottingham remarks: “It would be hard to deny the decisive influence of Christianity on the development of Western moral thought, but the majority of contemporary moral philosophers would nevertheless strongly resist the suggestion that our modern conception of justice and rights requires a theistic underpinning.” But that is W’s claim: “it is impossible to develop a secular account of human dignity adequate for grounding human rights.” In his view, “‘God loves… each and every human being equally and permanently’; and if this is true then ‘natural human rights are grounded in that love’; since they ‘inhere in the bestowed worth that supervenes on being thus loved.’” Cottingham concludes:
On any showing, this 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. The conclusion, if valid, is a disturbing one, given that acceptance of the Christian metaphysical framework appears to be steadily eroding. If that is the case, and Wolterstorff’s account is correct, then the future outlook for our culture of rights looks bleak.
(The late philosopher Leszek Kolakowski maintained a similar position on the linkage, historical and conceptual, between religious beliefs and human rights.)
There is an interesting interview with Wolterstorff at The Christian Century here.
Perhaps “Commonweal” could arrange a review?