I can remember learning many a song as a child at our evangelical church. One in particular started with “Welcome to agape-love”. If I’m remembering correctly, this song tried to instill a sense of God’s love for us as children, and how we were supposed to love others as God loved us. Simple and didactic enough, right? We were learning to inhabit the world of evangelicalism. We didn’t really question love; it was a given.

In Justice in Love (2011), a follow-up to Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2008), Nicholas Wolterstorff depicts a clash between the Greco-Roman concept of justice, and the Judeo-Christian concept of love. In contrast to my childhood sing-a-long, love has to be justified today. Justice can be unloving; love can be unjust. To take one instance Wolterstorff acknowledges as a major problem, love can mask itself in things like paternalism. But Justice in Love tries to show that, properly understood, love and justice are in harmony. Although his arguments do not rest on Christian presuppositions, it is fairly clear that Wolterstorff is trying to give an account of love and justice that will vindicate some central tenets of Christian faith (he was a professor of philosophical theology at Yale Divinity School, after all).

As Wolterstorff lays it out, we have four basic ethical options when thinking about justice and love: egoism, eudaimonism, utilitarianism, and agapism. His contention is that every ethical system outlines certain states or events as good, as well as certain actions or activities as good for particular persons, where those actions bring about wellbeing. He summarizes in the following way. The egoist conception of wellbeing (think Epicurus and Lucretius) is one where goods are sought as ends in themselves to bring about one’s own good, and where the well-lived life is animated by self-love. The eudaimonist (think Aristotle) conception of wellbeing is agent-oriented, like egoism, but the promotion of wellbeing is not self-orientated; others’ wellbeing is a constitutive good in itself, so that friendship can be a component in my wellbeing. This view of wellbeing is usually rooted in activity, in what I do, rather than happenstance. The utilitarian (think J. S. Mill) conception of wellbeing is grounded in the axiom that I should do whatever maximizes happiness, taking into account everyone’s wellbeing who may be affected by my actions.

Wolterstorff thinks these three options fail to reconcile justice and love. The egoist fails because she cannot offer a compelling reason for parents to promote the wellbeing of children. The eudaemonist fails because she cannot justify behavior such as that of the Good Samaritan. The utilitarian fails because maximizing utility may lead to the diminishment of an innocent person’s wellbeing. By contrast, the agapist conception holds that “we should sometimes seek to promote the wellbeing of another as an end in itself”. Agapists hold to the rule of the Good Samaritan parable: we should promote the life-goods of everyone who is a neighbor as an end in themselves.

If we see agape love as akin to God’s forgiveness, we must realize that forgiveness requires an awareness of rights and wrongs, justice and injustice. Wolterstorff sets out an account of what he calls “care-agapism”, or a view of pure benevolent love that takes justice as a constitutive component. He argues that the Good Samaritan parable shows the Samaritan coming to the aid of the mugged man, and that this was an intrinsic good in his life. Yes, the Samaritan diminished his own wellbeing in certain specific respects, but he did not thereby diminish his overall wellbeing. Moreover, this reading is in keeping with Jesus’ summation of the Law and Prophets, which Wolterstorff contends is a harmony of love and justice.

But what exactly does care add to agape? “Care combines seeking to enhance someone’s flourishing with seeking to secure their just treatment.” Care involves judgments about which states, events, and actions, in a particular person’s life, are good(s). This is love as care, not love as benevolence.

Wolterstorff proposes a grid for the application of care-love which consists of three rules and several corollaries:

Rule 1: Seeking to promote someone’s good or secure someone’s rights as ends in themselves should never be done at the cost of wronging someone.

Rule 2: One should seek to promote one’s own good and secure justice for oneself as ends in themselves, though never at the cost of wronging someone.

Epistemological Principle: When caring about someone, the beliefs one employs concerning their life-goods and rights, and concerning casual efficacy, should be beliefs to which one is entitled.

Rule 3: One should never seek to impose some evil on someone (i.e., diminish the person’s flourishing) as an end in itself; one should seek to impose some evil only if doing so is an indispensable means to promoting greater goods in the life of that person and/or others, only if one should be promoting those greater life-goods, and never at the cost of wronging someone.

Attitudinal corollary: One is never to take delight in imposing evil (diminishing flourishing) on someone; when necessary to do so, one is to do so with regret.

Ethical corollary: Be open to recognizing the obligations that the needs of the other place upon one, and do not allow any in-group/out-group classifications to deafen one’s ear or harden one’s heart.

These rules and guidelines spell out what Wolterstoff finds distinctive about care-agape: “Care differs from benevolence in that one can care about oneself; it differs from advantage-love in that one can care about another; and it differs from both in that the good it seeks to bring about includes not only the flourishing of oneself or the other but due respect for the worth of oneself or the other. It is because of this last feature that care includes seeking justice.” Moreover, it is in virtue of our worth as human beings that we have coterminous rights. Universal human rights, which Wolterstorff outlines in a much more limited sense than, say, the United Nations Declaration, are grounded on our dignity. (In turn, our dignity as human beings is grounded on the fact that we resemble God in nature, not our capacities. I’m going to leave this argument to one side.)

The shortest way to summarize Wolterstorff’s position is to say that he does not think that care-agape violates justice. For instance, in the case of forgiveness, based on genuine repentance, the cycle of destructivity that so often follows wrongdoing presents the possibility of a renewed relationship. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness entails friendship. I can forgive a person for a wrong deed, and resolve not to hold that deed against them, but that does not mean I have to engage that person as if they never wronged me at all. Prudence might dictate otherwise. Nor does Wolterstorff think that care-agape threatens the basis of liberal democracy. He suggests that it leads a person to affirm the rights of citizens, to affirm their dignity and worth, and so provides the basis for coming to terms with collective democratic decision-making.

Justice in Love closes with an account of God’s justice as presented in the New Testament. While he observes that Jesus showed no partiality to those he came into contact with, the bulk of Wolterstorff’s reflection focuses on the Apostle Paul’s “Letter to the Romans”. He follows the relatively recent interpretation (think N. T. Wright and the “new perspective”) which reads Romans as a letter about justice, not, as a powerful line of thinking since Martin Luther has had it, as a letter about salvation. To Wolterstorff it’s clear that Paul thinks God’s justice is an impartial gift. God’s love is just love in that it is given equally to all. God’s justification of mankind is not one of imputation, then. “Justification on the basis of faith – alternatively expressed, the awarding of eternal life on the basis of having patiently done good, on the basis of honoring and acknowledging God – has always been part of God’s way of dealing with wayward humanity.” On this reading of Paul, God has impartially forgiven both Gentiles and Jews; this, in turn, was fully disclosed or revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Because of God’s love and grace there are thus no valid, or no just charges against us. If God is the judge, he has not excused or pardoned humanity; rather, he has dismissed the charges on account of faith. By uniting justice and love God declares his peace with us.

Given the implicit scope of a topic such as justice and love, this is a clearly written and, mercifully, quite a concise book. Though it follows from a previous book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, it can be read as a standalone volume. Even if one were to take issue with Wolterstorff’s arguments, he has written in such a way as to invite helpful debate and criticism. It is hard not to appreciate such writing, particularly as some of his readers will be Christian academics who aren’t philosophers, as well as lay Christians interested in the subject. While Justice in Love is readable, it doesn’t shy away from sophisticated philosophical arguments. Obviously these won’t always be convincing to all readers. For instance, I’m inclined to think that Wolterstorff’s relatively terse reply (at least here, in this book) to rival philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre or theologians such as John Milbank on the subject of rights will leave them rather unsatisfied; though, in fairness to Wolterstorff, he engages with his chosen interlocutors head-on, such as Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice in Love certainly deserves a wide reading, both by those interested in the subject of justice generally, and, more particularly, by Christians who might wish to reflect, with the aid of a lucid philosophical text, on the relationship between two concepts central to their faith.



Justice in Love by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Eerdmans, 2011, 306pp.


About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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