God, Rights, and Justice

‘The assumption of Israel’s writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God. We not only fail in our obligations to God. We wrong God, deprive God of that to which God has a right.

‘Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom… God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that.’

God holds human beings accountable for doing justice; and God himself is committed to justice, both in the sense that God does justice and in the sense that God works to bring it about that human beings treat each other justly. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 91, 83, 89)

Our obligation is twofold: to our fellow human beings and to God. By treating our fellow human beings justly is to honor that which to God has a right. Treating others justly is to honor their natural human rights, which are grounded in both the imago dei as well as God’s love for all human beings – when we honor this right, that is doing justice, and that is how we bring about shalom.

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/

 

Rights

I’m doing some reading on the medieval development of the idea of natural rights, as opposed to the notion that they developed as a result of secular though – fascinating subject. Nicholas Wolterstorffs book ‘Justice; Rights and Wrongs’, develops the theory further, that the idea of rights is found in the Old and New Testament. Some more posts (probably brief posts) on the subject will probably be forthcoming.

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.

Existence, Reality, Love, Christ and God

We have seen in previous posts how Dietrich Bonhoeffer connects being human to being in Christ – that in being in Christ, one truly is human.

‘Human beings are called to share the suffering of God in a godless world. Therefore we must really live in the godless world; and may not make the attempt to somehow conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously; we mus live in a “worldly” fashion, which means we are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions. ‘Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, or, on the basis of some methodology, to make something out of ourselves (a sinner, a penitent, a saint); rather, it means to be a human being. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world. This is the reversal: not to think first of our own needs, questions, sins, and anxieties, but to let ourselves be pulled into the way of Jesus, into the messianic event that is now fulfilled (Isa. 53:4-5).’
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Karl Barth makes a similar point in his magnum opus ‘Church Dogmatics’:

‎’The Christian life begins with love. It also ends with love, so far as it has an end as human life in time. There is nothing that we can or must be as a Christian, or to become a Christian, prior to love. Even faith does not anticipate love. As we come to faith we begin to love. If we did not begin to love, we would not have come to faith. Faith is faith in Jesus Christ. If we believe, the fact that we do so means that every ground which is not that of our being in love to God in Christ is cut away from under us: we cannot exist without seeking God. If this were not the case, we should have failed to come to faith. And the fact that it is so is a confirmation that our faith is not an illusion, but that we ourselves as men truly believe.

But there is nothing beyond love. There is no higher or better being or doing in which we can leave it behind us. As Christians, we are continually asked about love, and in all that we can ever do or not do, it is the decisive question. Love is the essence of Christian living. It is also the ‘conditio sine qua non,’ in ever conceivable connexion. Wherever the Christian life in commission or omission is good before God, the good thing about it is love. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, pp. 371-372.)

Barth here is referring to Christians – but I will be using this in conjunction with Bonhoeffers thought in just a moment (see 1B below).

Theologian and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his monumental book ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs,’ that the worth of human beings and natural rights is grounded in love – affectionate love from God.

‘…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)

So here we have:

1A. Existence grounded in reality. (Bonhoeffer)

1B. Reality grounded in Christ. (Bonhoeffer)

1C.Existence grounded in seeking God. (Barth) Even though Barth here is intending this to refer to the Church, I am taking it one step farther and applying it to human existence on a universal level.

2. Worth of existence and natural rights grounded in the love of God. (Wolterstorff) This has more to do with ethical thought than ontological existence. See 2B below.

3. My assertion, then, is this: that apart from participating in reality and seeking God, there is no human existence. People exist, but not in their truly human form.

2B. While those not participating in reality/seeking God are not truly living in a human sense, they do in fact have worth bestowed upon them by God by His love for them as well as natural rights.