All Too Alienable

Rights and Wrongs
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Princeton University Press, $24.95, 416 pp.

In the 1970s the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff witnessed first-hand what happens when a people tries to replace justice with goodwill. In order to justify their position, the Afrikaners insisted that they were “a charitable people” and their policies would eventually work toward the common good. Here Wolterstorff saw, “as never before, the good overwhelming the just” and benevolence used as an “instrument of oppression.” The only cure for this, he believes, is to ground justice in the inherent rights of each person. Being kind to the poor is not adequate to the problem. We require an ethic that ensures the poor get what is due them.

In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Wolterstorff elaborates this argument, while contesting the widespread claim that the best way to ground the concept of justice is in the “right ordering” of the human community and the well-lived life within such a community (so-called eudaimonism). Justice, he thinks, must always start with rights, and rights derive from the inherent value of the human person.

Wolterstorff divides his argument into three parts. In the first, he contests the common claim (associated with the political philosopher Leo Strauss) that “rights talk” is a product of the Enlightenment. According to this view, the modern individual has become obsessed with what is due himself alone and forgetful of his responsibility to the culture in which he lives. In response, Wolterstorff argues that there is a case for...

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About the Author

Gary A. Anderson is the Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from portions of the author’s new book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013).