Emory Report
April 3, 2006
Volume 58, Number 25


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April 3, 2006
McDonald lecture explores bonds of rights

BY robyn mohr

On Wednesday, March 29, retired Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff gave a sneak preview of his new book, Justice and Human Rights, soon to be published by Harvard University Press.

Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale, discussed the moral terms and concepts of rights, as well as debated the difference between rights and justice. Wolterstorff also attempted to reconcile the different definitions of rights from religious, political and societal standpoints.

Wolterstorff came to Emory as part of the McDonald Lecture Series, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, which focuses on Christian jurisprudence. He was introduced by John Witte, professor of law and ethics and a former student of Wolterstorff’s at Calvin College.

Wolterstorff began by defining “rights” as normative social relationships—bonds that should always be viewed in regard to someone else.

“The bond,” he said, “is not generated by will or contention. It is already there. You cannot break the normative bond. You violate it.”

When one bears a legitimate claim on another, to violate this legitimate claim is a violation of rights, Wolsterstorff said, which can stem both from action and from failure to act. Rights are the boundary markers of society, and it is never acceptable to pursue good in life if it comes at the cost of demeaning someone else, he said.

“If in pursuing life goods, you deprive someone of that good to which she has a right, it is not allowed,” Wolsterstorff said. “Sometimes, by not enhancing the well-being of another, you are not giving her due respect and are therefore violating her rights.”

“Professor Wolterstorff sketched out, with remarkable efficiency, the complex interplay of rights and duties, liabilities and claims, justice and mercy, within a moral or normative framework,” Witte said. “Perhaps his most novel move was to show how the absolution of liability and guilt by a rights violator is related to—but not the same as—the vindication of rights and liberties by the rights victim.”

Rights, as Wolterstorff sees them, are the foundation of the human community. They need to be “brought to speech,” and discussion should focus on abuses of rights, rather than a debate of the rights themselves. Wolterstorff divides rights into two dimensions, the “recipient dimension” and the “agent dimension.”

“To eliminate rights talk would eliminate the ‘recipient dimension’ of the moral order,” said Wolterstorff, “and that would rid the ‘agent dimension’ of obligation.”

According to Wolterstorff, some people view rights as duties or obligations, and he defined “being guilty” as failing to do what you were obligated to do.

“[The lecture] was a devastating critique of those who would wish to reduce all rights to duties,” Witte said. “This was precisely the kind of subtle grounding of rights talk and sage debunking of rights denial that one would expect from a world class philosopher.”