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.

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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/