Jan 22, 2014

Some Analytic Thoughts About Justice and Love

Long, long ago in a faraway land (India, to be precise) I posted extensively on my blog about Nicholas Wolterstorff's extraordinary book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton 2008). (Go here to read a post linking to a video of Wolterstorff and with instruction on how to access those earlier posts.)
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In 2011 Wolterstorff published a follow-up volume, Justice in Love (Eerdmans 2011). I've read Justice in Love in fits and starts but recently came back to it as I was writing a review of Law and the Bible. (The review should come out late in the spring of 2014 in the Journal of Law and Religion.)

In my review I wanted to assert that love and justice are different categories. Many Christians, especially those influenced by the Anabaptist tradition, believe that love, at least as they understood it to have been taught by Jesus, trumps justice. Such a view at best is confused and at worst can lead to untoward results. But why believe me when one of America's leading philosophers makes the argument?
All along we have taken for granted that to seek to promote the good in someone's life as an end in itself is to love that person. ... Love for another seeks to secure that she be treated justly by oneself and others--that her rights be honored, that she be treated in a way that befits her worth. ... To treat her as one does because justice requires it is to love her. (p. 93)
But what about agape love? How does that Greek term for love used frequently in the New Testament relate to justice?
New Testament agape [seeks] to promote a person's good [along] with seeking to secure due respect for her worth; it seeks both as ends in themselves. Love thus understood incorporates eros, or something closely akin thereto. Eros is attraction love, the love of being drawn to something on account of its worth, attracted to it, sometimes even mesmerized by it. (p. 93)
In other words, eros is not a second-class version of love. It is an anachronism to read the connotations of the contemporary English word "erotic" into first-century Greek. Indeed, Wolterstorff argues as much when he concludes that
Treating someone as one does because justice requires it is a way of acknowledging her worth. Thereby it is eros or a near kin of eros. ... Agape incorporates eros.  (p. 93)
There is, of course, more to love (or, more precisely, more kinds of love) than attraction on account of the worth of its object. And there are certainly more virtues than love that Christians should seek to inculcate, mercy and forgiveness chief among them. Yet, attraction on account of worth is a form of love and love of any sort should seek the good of its object. Thus recognizing the rights of another--justice--is an example of love.


  1. Three questions on your post:

    1) You write: “I wanted to assert that love and justice are different categories.” I am confused about how this statement relates to the rest of the post, which might seem to reject or substantially to qualify this position. Viz. you later conclude “Thus recognizing the right of another – justice – is an example of love.” If justice is an example of love, then justice and love don’t seem categorically different. Rather, on your account, the relationship between justice and love seems like the relationship between playing Pac-Man and playing a computer game; both belong to the same category of amusements. Loving and doing justice are both forms of righteousness, perhaps. But perhaps instead, you just meant that justice is a different “category” than love in the sense of justice’s being a species of love rather than the whole genus, or an individual member of a category rather than the category itself?

    2) Similarly, you criticize the Anabaptists in that they hold, that “love, at least as they understood it to have been taught by Jesus, trumps justice.” Obviously, if one were to maintain this, it would be on the basis that love and justice were different and thus could come into conflict. Against this, you cite Wolterstorff’s account of justice as an instance of loving. But this seems to conflict with the idea that love and justice are categorically different, which you initially suggest.

    Depending on how you answer the question above, something like the Anabaptist position might be affirmed in the following sense: “if something is not in the genus, it is not species of the genus either.” Since love is the genus, a concession that something is not loving trumps any contention that it is just, i.e. a species of the genus; or more simply, “love trumps justice.”

    3) Surely, there is something to be said on the Anabaptists’ behalf about how Christ-like love is in conceptual tension with a definition of justice-love like Wolterstorff’s: “Love for another seeks to secure that she be treated justly by oneself and others – that her right be honored, that she be treated in a way that befits her worth.” Jesus did not love by treating others as they deserved to be treated but by treating them better than they deserve to be treated.

    1. Some quick comments:

      1) The verb loving includes the due regard of another's worth, including his/her rights. Love is not the rights themselves. Love is the properly motivated recognition of those rights, which is primary justice, and the implementation of those rights, typically as a form of corrective justice. We can, of course, recognize rights as well as primary and secondary justice for a variety of other reasons but love will/should entail the ground of that recognition.

      2) I was responding to a contention of the authors of Chapter 6 of Law and the Bible. To your point, you are correct that they must have assumed that love and justice were of different--and conflicting--species. You are also correct that on such an account love could trump justice. I should have been clearer that while the former is correct, the latter is not for the reason in 1) above.

      3) Drawing on Lewis's The Problem of Pain, Wolterstorff identifies what he calls "love of benevolence, love that seeks to promote the good of a person as an end in itself." Such a love will often ground the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, clemency, etc. but it should not create or justify injustice. Love may and often should ground forgiveness of wrongs done to oneself but unless a wrong--an injustice--has been done there's nothing to forgive. As Lewis puts it, "Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them; but Love cannot cease to will their removal."