Rights versus Right Order: Two Theological Traditions of Justice and Their Implications for Christian Ethics and Pluralistic Polities
- Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics
- The Society of Christian Ethics
- Volume 36, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2016
- pp. 79-100
- Additional Information
Recent religious reflection on the nature of justice divides largely along two camps: Nicholas Wolterstorff and others perceive strong compatibility between Christian thought and justice-as-natural rights, while “right-order” theorists committed to premodern notions of justice, such as Oliver O’Donovan, challenge the theological integrity of rights. Much is at stake in this debate. O’Donovan worries that Christian enthrallment with justice-as-rights betokens conceptual desperation. Wolterstorff argues that justice-as-right-order discounts human dignity. There is some truth to each claim, although each thinker also overlooks important constructive possibilities. This essay offers an extended critique of justice-as-rights, identifying crucial missing biblical and theological features. It then sketches out a contemporary right-order account that responds to Wolterstorff’s concerns about human dignity. The insights uncovered in this theological debate extend beyond Christian ethics in ways that reconceive the pursuit of justice in religiously pluralistic polities.