The central claim of Nicholas Wolsterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is that justice is based on natural human rights that inhere in the worth of human beings, a worth that is bestowed on each and every human being through God’s love. He contrasts this view of “justice as inherent rights” with an alternative notion of “justice as right order,” the view that was espoused by pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and dominated philosophical thinking until relatively recent times. Wolterstorff’s is a specifically Christian conception of the foundations of justice. He traces its origins to Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and argues that the widespread acceptance of human rights that has been achieved in the twentieth century would probably erode if the theistic grounding of those rights were to be discarded in favor of secularist views.
Wolterstorff’s book is a challenging, serious, sustained reflection on the foundations of justice. He wrestles with a wide range of difficult issues, often with considerable success. Yet the net result with which the reader is left seems to amount to something less than the sum of its parts. I shall point to a handful of difficulties, touching on both his historical narrative (which occupies roughly half the book) and his philosophical argument.
One of the book’s major claims is that the idea of rights that apply equally to all human beings originated in the literatures of ancient Judaism and Christianity, not in pagan sources. Wolterstorff is certainly right that justice is a central theme in Hebrew Scriptures. But he also argues that justice is one of the main themes of the New Testament, an argument that runs counter to the widely shared view that the New Testament focuses much more on love than on justice. Is this claim correct?