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Yale professor speaks on importance of moral order of justice

Robert Singer | Friday, September 25, 2009

Moral language containing a concept of justice that describes the rights and duties rooted in human dignity must be used if we are to correctly assess international, domestic and daily conflicts, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University, said.

Believing and acting on a moral order of justice based on human dignity is important because of the crimes that occurred in South Africa during the Apartheid era, Wolterstorff said.

During this era, Afrikaners, the descendents of Dutch settlers from the colonial era, excluded Blacks and mixed-race people – known at the time as “Coloureds”- from participating in political life and withheld numerous rights from them. The stated goal was to segregate the races to allow for racial harmony and distinct cultural identities.

Wolterstorff said he traveled to South Africa in 1976 for a conference and listened to the grievances of the oppressed peoples after hearing the arguments of the Afrikaners.

“It was at that point that the so-called Blacks and the-so called Coloureds began to speak up,” he said. “After these loud exchanges, there was a kind of muted quality to what the blacks and the colored were saying. They spoke movingly of the indignities daily heaped upon them.”

Wolterstorff said he was surprised by the Afrikaners’ response. He said they claimed talking about the justice of the situation was irrelevant, because their intentions were good.

“The response of the Afrikaners took me completely aback,” he said. “They did not contest the claims of the Blacks and the Coloureds. Instead, they responded by saying that justice was not the relevant category. Benevolence was the relevant category.”

The Afrikaners justified the oppressive system by citing the many works of private charity they had provided for the Blacks and mixed-race peoples, Wolterstorff said.

“Then they insisted that the whole system of Apartheid was motivated by benevolence,” he said. “The system of Apartheid was aimed at encouraging each nation to find its own cultural identity and language and to flourish in its own way. They spoke scornfully of the American way of mixing everyone up.”

Wolterstorff spoke of a lesson learned from the experience.

“One reason it is important to have the concept of justice available to us is that it allows us to put a stop to paternalistic benevolence,” he said.

Wolterstorff explained how rights pertain to justice.

“I think that a right is always the right to the good of being treated a certain way,” he said.

“Rights are social relationships grounded in worth. You can’t have rights all by yourself,” he continued. “Although you have rights against me, I have rights against you. It’s for taking note of the worthy of others and indeed of oneself.”

Rights should do more than ensure people’s autonomy, according to Wolterstorff. They should go beyond protecting the individual liberty of “forming a plan of life and acting on it.” He said rights should be based on the worth and human dignity of all people.

There are two dimensions to justice, according to Wolterstorff, the “agent” dimension and the “recipient” dimension.

“On the one hand there is the moral significance of what one does, and on the other hand there is the moral significance of how one is done unto,” he said.

“This is what I’ve come to think. The language of rights is for bringing that recipient dimension of that moral order to speech,” Wolterstorff added.

In the situation of an abused spouse, he said, the agent dimension focuses on the actions of the guilty husband while ignoring the moral claims of the victim.

“It’s not just that he is guilty, she has been wronged,” Wolterstorff said. “I think a great deal is lost if we can’t call into attention what others have done unto us.”

Wolterstorff said viewing justice in terms of rights allows us to appreciate people’s dignity.

“The second orientation requires that I be open to your worth in that the first does not,” he said. “The second orientation requires a de-centering of my self. I am, as it were, no longer in moral control in the situation. I am, as it were, a moral listener in the situation.”

Relating this concept of justice to the Apartheid era, Wolterstorff said the Afrikaners “were so focused on the own goodness and dignity” that they could not see the crimes they were committing against the Blacks and mixed-race peoples.