Justice: Rights and Wrongs

Justice: Rights and Wrongs

Justice: Rights and Wrongs

Justice: Rights and Wrongs


Justice and rights are the most contested part of our moral vocabulary, contested not only, or even mainly, by philosophers, but within society generally. To publish a discourse on justice as rights is to plunge into a hornet's nest of controversy.

Few people oppose talk about responsibility and obligation—therapists who believe that guilt feelings are a bad thing, philosophers who see no acceptable way of accounting for obligation, that is about it. Lots of people pay little attention to their own obligations; few declare themselves opposed to talk about obligations. So too with virtue and love. Though many care little about either, few express opposition to talk about them.

Justice and rights are different. Opposition to rights-talk is common. Some of those opposed are also opposed to talking about justice; they connect the two, rights and justice. Others want to pull them apart. Justice is fine; it is talk about rights that is bad.

Why this hostility? Let us take a brief survey, starting with justice. Large swaths of American Christians believe that in the New Testament love supplanted justice—except for retributive justice. Jesus did not teach, in the second of the two commandments, that we are to treat people justly; he taught that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the nowclassic book, Agape and Eros, published in the early 1930s, Anders Nygren worked out the idea in detail. After interpreting the love ascribed to God in the New Testament, and enjoined on us with regard to our fellows, as the love of pure impartial benevolence, he declared that what we learn from Jesus' words and deeds is that where such “spontaneous love and generosity are found, the order of justice is obsolete and invalidated.”

This attack on justice, coming as it does from within my own religious community, is not one that I can ignore; most secular academics would be inclined to ignore it. I think that is a mistake on their part. Americans continue to be a religious people, dominantly Christian; we must expect consequences for our culture and society as a whole if many among us

Translated by Philip S. Watson (London: SPCK, 1953), p. 90.

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