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I’ll Try to Resist Calling Him a F#@king Idiot

February 27, 2009


UPDATE: I’ve since posted a follow-up here.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s new book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, is receiving an awful lot of attention over at The Immanent Frame. For the life of me, I can’t understand why.

From the book’s description and from the reviews and comments at The Immanent Frame, apparently Wolterstorff’s central idea is that the only adequate justification for “rights” is a theist justification, and one apparently grounded in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. According to the blurb on the publisher’s website, the book claims that “no secular account of natural human rights is successful.”

I haven’t read the book—and I don’t intend to—but I don’t think I need to in order to make the following criticisms:

  1. What the hell does “successful” mean? Lots of non-theist rights claims have been advanced in support of rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, etc. Many of these non-theist rights claims have been “successful,” if by that we mean “popularly persuasive and effective at bringing about changes in our society.” If by “successful” he means “persuasive to all of the bourgeois white members of the American Academy of Religion and the American Philosophical Association,” then he’s probably right, but in a trivial sense. I could say much more about this (particularly about the important distinction between successful ideology and consistent philosophy), but I’ll leave it at that.
  2. At a time when there are heightened tensions between nations that directly or vaguely identify as Jewish and Christian and nations that directly or vaguely identify as Muslim, I don’t think we need another book that reinforces the idea that Judaism and Christianity are superior.
  3. After all of the imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism we’ve seen in the last two centuries, I don’t think we need another book that suggests that the intellectual traditions indigenous to Africa, South Asia, Asia, East Asia, etc. are fundamentally inferior and unjust when compared to the intellectual traditions dominant in Europe and North America.

Shame on The Immanent Frame for giving such serious attention to this book. Would they give the same sort of attention to a rigorous treatise on Hindutva? The fact that they’re taking this theological treatise so seriously is further evidence for the saturation of the discipline of religious studies with Christian privilege.

moralityBoth philosophically and ideologically speaking, I have a vaguely Humean view of the foundation of justice and ethics: ethical behavior is rooted in sympathy or emphathy. Bernard Williams rightly points out in Morality: An Introduction to Ethics that “reasons” or “justifications” (presumably of the sort Wolterstorff advances) are useless against sociopaths—no “rational” account of why they should be just or ethical or respectful of their fellow human beings will be successful if they’re incapable of sympathy or emphathy.

From this perspective, to achieve a just or ethical social order in the world we don’t need to believe that gods or goddesses have invested human beings with “inherent worth.” Instead, the ultimate “justification” is that you’ll cry when you see this:


7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2009 12:27 pm

    Dude, I like much of what you say here, but one of my friends suggested you’re from the “blog first, think later” school of thought. Perhaps a little more subtlety is required?

    By the way, that little book by Williams is great, isn’t it?

  2. February 28, 2009 4:24 pm

    Great blog and hope to have some time soon to come back and read more!

  3. March 1, 2009 6:44 am

    I’m reading this book, mainly because it is an attack on the eudamonic tradition of ethics (Aristotle, Aquinas, to Macintyre and Hauerwas and Milbank) that has been so popular in religious circles. This said, before opening it, I had to say it seemed like a question begging heap of junk, and I am utterly suspicious of anyone who uses the language of “only” to which I would have to reply “really?”.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 1, 2009 11:11 am

    Craig, that’s probably a fair enough objection. I was pretty angry when I wrote this one.

    Alex, you’ll have to let me know whether it is as bad as it seems, or if there are some redeeming qualities.

  5. zubi permalink
    March 13, 2009 6:56 pm

    By ‘successful’ the author of the book in question means philosophically sound. The blogger admits to not having read the book, but thinks that is no obstacle to stridently criticising it in public with four letter words, all based on a misunderstanding of a vague blurb. He even thinks such a method justifies his becoming “pretty angry”. This tells us much about the blogger; little about the book.

    The blogger adds a further comment that at a time of heightened tension between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions, it is wrong to argue in a philosophical work that these other religions but not Islam can adequately justify human rights. This shows both the blogger’s disdain for philosophical truth and rational debate, not to mention political courage: he thinks that a philosopher shouldn’t argue for what he or she regards as true, and especially shouldn’t criticise a particular world view, even if the criticism is sound, if it happens that the group holding that world view is sufficiently militant and threatening to others. (Hmm, it seems to me that in the 1930s there was a name for this attitude).

    Incidentally, Williams’ point cited by the blogger (that sociopaths are beyond reason) is irrelevant unless he is tacitly calling Muslims sociopaths. Nor does Williams’ point support a subjectivist or anti-realist view of ethics, anymore than the fact that some psychotics and idiots cannot think logically impugns the ontic status or rational basis of logic.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 13, 2009 8:41 pm

    Hi zubi! I appreciate your response. It’s good to find out someone is reading my blog, even if they think it’s nonsense. Here I’ll try to respond to your criticisms.

    About my misunderstanding of “successful.” You’ll see that the second possible meaning of “successful” I discuss comes pretty close to “philosophically sound”–I suggested “philosophically consistent.”

    However, a question to you is this: if by “successful” Wolterstorff merely means “philosophically sound,” and if that has nothing to do with being publicly persuasive, then what’s the purpose of his book? Human rights is, intrinsically, a public matter. This is one of my concerns with the Rawlsians: what use is it to have a political theory that says everything would work well if people only offered “public reasons” for their positions when this is clearly (in my opinion) not ever going to happen? That’s kind of like saying that the world would be perfect if people behaved perfectly. If the only coherent justification for rights lies in a theistic framework, then what usefulness does it have for a world full of people who are agnostic and atheist (or who believe in gods other than the Jewish or Christian gods)?

    In addition, I don’t, in fact, have a disdain for philosophical truth or rational debate. Much of my research and writing is performed in a philosophical mode. However, even claims that are “true” can serve terrible ideological purposes. In 19th century America it was often said that women were largely uneducated. While this was undoubtedly true at the time, it nevertheless was wrongly used to deny women the right to vote. Truth is a weapon, and true things can be used to attack the wrong people.

    The last thing I want to see happen, in a time when there are heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims, is to see American Christians use their perceived superiority in order to justify abusive military policies toward nations they perceive to be Muslim. (As you can see, this is the OPPOSITE of your suggestion that I’m afraid to criticize Islam.)

    Last, my point at the end of the blog entry about Williams is unclear, so I could understand why you might misunderstand it. The point I was trying to make was this: I think sympathy is the only “justification” for ethics or rights—no philosophical or theological justification will be sufficient to ground rights. No amount of Jewish or Christian theology will persuade sociopaths to respect the rights of others, in which case Wolterstorff’s claim that only Christian theology can justify rights cannot, in principle, be right.


  1. Someone Else Resisted Calling Him a F#@king Idiot « Missives from Marx

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