In the Western tradition there are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about justice; I call them "the right order conception" and "the inherent rights conception." After explaining the distinction and arguing in favor of the latter conception, I will then explore the concept of rights, and argue against the prevalent idea that natural rights are guarantees of autonomy and in favor of the idea that one's natural right to being treated a certain way is what is required by due respect for one's worth or dignity.
Keynote speaker Nicholas Wolterstorff’s opening address at the conference attempted to provide an answer to the basic question “Why Does Justice Matter?” He said that any reckoning with the issues of social justice and human rights could not meaningfully proceed as long as it had not arrived at some foundational convictions on this point. He went on to contrast several modes of language employed in the moral culture of our world – the justice and rights component, the duty and obligations component, the benevolence component, and the virtue component. All of these are complexly related but distinct, he added, such that it is possible to speak of one without invoking the others. He oriented his talk towards the question of what would be lost if the language of justice and rights (of having rights, and being wronged) were to disappear from our vocabularies. His thesis was that something of great importance would indeed be lost.
In an attempt to show what this might be, Wolterstorff explored two broad conceptions of justice that have had long philosophical histories. The first one, which has a tradition that runs as far as Plato’s Republic down to Rawls' A Theory of Justice, he called the “right order” conception. On this view, justice consists of people fulfilling their right roles within a larger order in such a way that the parts are ordered towards the rightness of the whole. In such a conception, rights are derived as an obligation, with general obligations applying to various types of people, rather than springing exclusively from the subject’s individual worth. He contrasted this with his own view that the very fact of being a certain person invokes the having of rights, which he called the “inherent rights” conception.
Focusing his talk on a notion of primary rather than reactive justice, Professor Wolterstorff pointed to some important aspects of rights: that one could possess them without actually enjoying them, that there are no stand alone rights (rather there is always only a right to something), that this to is a normative relationship, and that such rights are always to a life-good. “That to which we have a right is always to the good of being treated a certain way… as normative social relationships, it takes two to have a right,” he told participants. He elaborated further on there being life-goods that are nevertheless not legitimately our rights, and noted that the most powerful modern conceptions of legislating rights have tended to understand them as having something to do with personal autonomy. He claimed that while autonomy remains an essential component in rights thinking, taking it to be the whole or best ground for rights invariably leads to the possibility of demeaning some people and treating them with less respect and worth than their dignity would demand, depending on their abilities to exercise their autonomy.
He concluded his presentation by suggesting that justice as a unconditional, normative social relationship, vested in the inherent worth of a person, ultimately matters in two significant ways: first, this notion of justice can put a brake on paternalistic forms of benevolence; second, it can help redress philosophy’s almost exclusive focus on the actor/ agent dimension at the expense of the patient/ recipient dimension. Rights talk, he said, allows the patient or the “done-to” language to assume its rightful place in our accounts. While generosity has conditions, rights talk does not, he added. And while this can lead to its potential abuse by those who take it up with close-minded possessiveness, he reiterated that the inflexibility of rights talk remains a necessary part of how justice matters to us – as a true guardian of our intrinsic dignity.