I am finding “Justice: Rights and Wrongs” by Nicholas Wolterstorff to be a challenging but wonderfully stimulating book. As a non-philosopher, I struggle to keep up with him, but the bits I do grasp I find to be most insightful. His argument is that justice must be based on inherent rights and not just right order. And he argues that secularism fails to provide a proper grounding for human worth and dignity.
Most attempts at grounding human rights attempt to ground them in human dignity, and most attempts, in turn, adopt what may be called the capacities approach. In other words, it is the possession of certain capacities, particularly the capacity for rational agency, that give humans their dignity and their rights. But what of those who have lost that capacity? What about those with Alzheimer’s disease or those in a permanent coma or the severely brain-injured or those who never achieve psychological maturity? And what about higher mammals like dolphins who seem to possess rational capacities? Do they have human rights? Wolterstorff concludes that whatever capacity one selects, it will turn out that some human beings do not possess the capacity.
So he turns in a different direction. What gives us worth and dignity and rights is the fact that we are made in the image of God and that God loves us.
What we need for a theistic grounding of natural human rights, is some worth-imparting relation of human beings to God that does not in any way involve a reference to human capacities. I will argue that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for. Bearing that property gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere.
On the last page he comes to what he calls a “melancholy conclusion”:
Our Judaic and Christian heritage neither denies nor overlooks the flaws of humankind ….But in face of all the empirical evidence, it nonetheless declares that all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being made in the image of God and of being loved redemptively by God. It adds that God holds us accountable for how we treat each other – and for how we treat God. It is this framework of conviction that gives rise to our moral subculture of rights. If this framework erodes, I think that we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also erode and that we will slide back into our tribalisms.