John Milton on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

In the nature of my investigation into rights, rights history, justice, and ethics:

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/tenure/index.shtml

‘This authority and power of self-defense and preservation being originally and naturally in every one of them, and unitedly in them all, for ease, for order, and lest each man should be his own partial judge, they communicated and derived either to one whom for the eminence of his wisdom and integrity they chose above the rest, or to more than one whom they thought of equal deserving. The first was called a king, the other, magistrates: not to be their lords and masters (though afterward those names in some places were given voluntarily to such as had been authors of inestimable good to the people), but to be their deputies and commissioners, to execute, by virtue of their entrusted power, that justice which else every man by the bond of nature and of covenant must have executed for himself, and for one another. And to him that shall consider well why among free persons one man by civil right should bear authority and jurisdiction over another, no other end or reason can be imaginable.’

‘For as to this question in hand, what the people by their just right may do in change of government or of governor, we see it cleared sufficiently, besides other ample authority, even from the mouths of princes themselves. And surely they that shall boast, as we do, to be a free nation, and not have in themselves the power to remove or abolish any governor supreme or subordinate, with the government itself upon urgent causes, may please their fancy with a ridiculous and painted freedom fit to cozen babies; but are indeed under tyranny and servitude, as wanting that power which is the root and source of all liberty, to dispose and economize in the land which God hath given them, as masters of family in their own house and free inheritance. Without which natural and essential power of a free nation, though bearing high their heads, they can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves and vassals born, in the tenure and occupation of another inheriting lord, whose government, though not illegal or intolerable, hangs over them as a lordly scourge, not as a free government — and therefore to be abrogated.’

– John Milton

More on Rights and Justice

After some thought, it seems that justice is grounded in rights, and  rights are grounded in worth and respect for worth. This, I think, gives the best grounding for rights. I also think that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives the best account of human worth – but I am interested in hearing from those who do not agree on this matter.

Questions to consider: If rights are not grounded in worth, what are they grounded in? Is there a better account of human worth than the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Is a Secular Grounding of Human Rights Possible?

Here’s a fantastic discussion/debate on the topic of grounding human rights:

It’s long and technical, but well worth your time. If you click the link and go to YouTube, each different topics beginning time is marked to make navigation a bit easier.

More on Rights

I’m still not feeling well enough to really go deeper into rights-history, so for now here’s what I’ve been thinking of:

Is a secular (non-theistic) grounding of human rights possible? Can one ground rights in a solid way without recourse to some kind of theistic belief? For those who may not know, I myself am fully convinced that only a theistic account of rights/worth provides the grounding needed for a solid theory of rights.

Beginning to Delve into Rights-History

A few preliminary thoughts:

My goal here is basically to test Nicholas Wolterstorffs thesis that the concept of natural human rights originated not with the Enlightenment, and not in the middle ages, but in the Old Testament. I’ll probably refrain from developing any theories of rights (I’ve done that, albeit not very well, elsewhere) here – this is primarily going to be a historical exercise.

Brian Tierney’s book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Natural-Rights-University/dp/0802848540/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339860404&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+tierney) does what I think is an outstanding job showing that the idea of rights goes back at least to the middle ages – I won’t be defending that thesis because honestly, I think it’s pretty hard to argue with.

There is no room for doubting the idea that justice is a major theme of the Old Testament – particularly in the writings of the Prophets. The question is, however, does this concept of justice contain a primitive idea of rights that developed into what we recognize as rights today?

For inherent, natural rights to be valid, it seems that humans must have worth – humans with value have a right to not be treated in a certain way. This is a thesis of Wolterstorffs that I agree with – that rights are grounded in worth.

‘…I conclude that if God loves a human being with the love of attachment, that love bestows worth on that human being; other creatures, if they knew about that love, would be envious. And I conclude that if God loves, in the mode of attachment, each and every human being equally and permanently, then natural human rights inhere in the worth bestowed upon human beings by that love.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ pp. 360)

If this is in fact the case, that rights are grounded in worth, then the Old Testament is a treasure-trove of primitive rights ideas – not full-blown theories, obviously. The Old Testament writers were not jurists or lawyers developing legal theory. But a central idea of the Old Testament is that human beings have worth. If the thesis above is true, thenby default the Old Testament is implicitly saying that human beings also have  rights.

This leads to an interesting question: can rights be grounded without worth bestowed by God? In other words, can a solid, well-grounded secular theory of rights be developed?

Some Resources on Rights

I’m not feeling well enough to delve into the more academic inquiry into rights at the moment – so here’s a few resources to lay the groundwork and context for the more serious inquiry.

This is an excellent (and short) essay by Brian Tierny which briefly details the medieval development of the concept of natural rights: http://www.medievalists.net/2012/06/10/the-idea-of-natural-rights-origins-and-persistence/

Nicholas Wolterstorffs outstanding book, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’: http://books.google.com/books?id=SMUBIUt4PEYC&pg=PA109&lpg=PA109&dq=nicholas+wolterstorff+justice+in+the+new+testament&source=bl&ots=CFv4D9ci9w&sig=OiXGxlqgywVyPVX40JWF8jrZwY0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=f49oT7OuMsiusgL304yVCQ&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false

And lastly, my own musings on the topic of rights, ethics, justice, etc:

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/category/ethics/

 

The Wounds of God

Can we wrong God?

Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his books ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’ and ‘Justice in Love’ that we can in fact wrong and even wound God by failing to treat people justly. Wolterstorff ties these notions together by pointing out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached. Wolterstorff draws upon the thought of John Calvin to fortify his thesis – in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues that because of the image of God engraved on each person, ‘God deems Himself violated in their person’. Roughly, to harm a person is to harm God. ‘…no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God Himself.’ Wolterstorff develops this though in more detail but that’s the basic idea.

This relates to the doctrine of impassibility that I’ve been thinking on lately – Wolterstorff does not hold to the doctrine. Calvin, however, makes a small but crucial point: ‘God deems Himself violated in their person.’ So in a sense, it seems that Calvin and Wolterstorff are at odds. Calvin says that God ‘deems Himself’ violated or injured, while Wolterstorff argues that:

‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (‘Justice in Love’, p. 154)

Wolterstorff does not make Calvin’s distinction that it is God who ‘deems Himself’ injured – at least so far as I can tell. Wolterstorff would hold that God is indeed wounded by our treating fellow humans unjustly, while Calvin holds that God ‘deems Himself’ injured. There is a substantial difference here.

Thoughts on Justice

‘It is not the abstract entity ‘justice as such’ that God loves. What God loves is the presence of justice in society. And God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society – loves them, too, not with love of admiration but with the love of benevolent desire. God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, that each and every shall experience what the Old Testament calls ‘shalom’. Injustice is perforce the impairment of ‘shalom’. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 82)

This is an understanding of ‘justice’ I like – one with breadth and nuance. Here, justice is not simply rendering to each his due, as it was for the great Roman legal minds. Wolterstorff defines justice as something Christians are called to actually practice – justice is something we do and are called to do.

In the book quoted above, Wolterstorff brilliantly shows how the themes of justice are central in both the Old and New Testaments – part of it can be read here, and I highly recommend it as a brilliant work of exegesis: http://tiny.cc/rsn5bw

Here’s another thought on justice from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

‘God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men.

Justice is not important for its own sake; the validity of justice and motivation for its exercise lies in the blessing it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to Me, I swill surely hear their cry…if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exod. 22:22-23, 27).

When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the words denouncing his crime did not proclaim: “You have broken the law.” Instead we read: “And…the Lord said: What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground.’ (Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘The Prophets’, p. 216)

Both Heschel and Wolterstorff both ground their concepts of justice not in the abstract (even if their wording and language is fairly different – one is an analytic philosopher and another a rabbi/mystic) but in God’s love and relation to all of mankind – and both see justice as something we practice, something we do and are called to do. This is where justice-talk in Christianity needs to go – justice seen as something we are called to practice, instead of an abstract concept somewhere out there that serves political ends. Bonhoeffer’s ethical though follow similar lines, and the reason I find these thoughts so attractive is that they move past the ideas of justice and ‘the good’ as being things somewhere out there that we strive to do in every circumstance and bring them down into concrete relation living.

Grounding justice and ethics in relationship and in love provides, so far as I can see, the strongest framework for these subjects – and is the direction that Christian ethical thought needs to take if it’s going to have any relevance in the world.

Some Thoughts on Justice, Rights and Worth

‎’Only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred, but such talk informs the thought of most of us whether or not we are religious, for it shapes our thoughts about the way in which human beings limit our will as does nothing else in nature. If we are not religious, we will often search for one of the inadequate expressions which are available to us to say what we hope will be a secular equivalent of it. We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgement these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each of them is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.

Where does that power come from. Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaborations of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children. (Raimon Gaita, ‘Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice,’ p. 23-24, quoted in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, p.324-325)

Gaita is not himself a theist – but this is an interesting observation. I do think that Christian theism can offer the most solid account of rights/justice/ethics, and that while there are secular accounts, most of them seem to fail at providing a solid grounding.

The above has the feeling of someone who has taken seriously the thought of people like Nietzsche and has the consistency to see the consequences of such thinking. Religious thought, and in particular Christian thought, seems to offer the strongest and most powerful account of human worth, rights and justice.