1.8 Evening Public Lecture “Must Love and Justice Forever be at Odds?”

Nicholas Wolterstorff

The dominant theme in almost two millennia of discussions in the West about the relation between love and justice is the theme of tension or incompatibility: if one treats someone as one does because justice requires it, one is not acting out of love, and if one acts out of love toward someone, one is not treating them as one does because justice requires it. I will point to the paradoxes that this view yields, and then present a way of understanding love (and justice) such that love incorporates justice rather than being in tension with it, while also often going beyond what justice requires.

The two comprehensive imperatives to “do justice” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are central to the moral culture of the West. And yet they can be experienced as somehow opposed to each other, as if to obey one necessarily compromises one’s commitment to the other. Taking up this tension as an important conceptual problem that must be reinterpreted, especially for people of faith who have to negotiate the work of love within the fight for human rights and social justice, Dr. Wolterstorff’s lecture examined their alleged conflict and offered a new way to rethink their relationship.

He described the justice imperative as a historical inheritance from both the Roman/Greek (or Athens) strand and the Judeo-Christian (or Jerusalem) strand, while the love imperative comes directly and almost exclusively from the latter. Their dual bequest has continued to spark strong interest in the ethical literature and imagination of the West over the precise nature of their relationship. According to Wolterstorff, most writers have typically taken either the view that justice and love are inherently conflictual or (the weaker claim) that they may sometimes contradict each other. This sense of their opposition, he claimed, is located roughly in the conviction that generosity and benevolent paternalism can sometimes be unjust, and that forgiveness violates justice.

In order to clarify the nature of this opposition, he distinguished between two subsets within moral justice – primary justice (which he took to subsume both the distributive and commutative kind) and reactive justice (which involves acts of just response to injustice). He also distinguished between two historically operative senses of love as attraction and love as gratuitous benevolence. His primary thesis was that both the primary and reactive variants of justice are felt to be in tension with love, but only love in its second sense – as gratuitous benevolence, and that this conflict results from a misinterpretation of what love means.

Arguing against a line of theological writers from Kierkegaard and Nygren to Brunner and Niebuhr, who he saw as responsible for strengthening the popular conception of love as gratuitous benevolence, Wolterstorff suggested that this idea is both exegetically untenable and systematically incoherent. Forgiveness itself would be impossible without first paying attention to issues of justice and injustice, he argued. Nevertheless this attention does not have to devolve into the primary motivation for forgiveness. Citing textual evidence that justice in the Torah is an example of love or a summation of one’s just dealing with another, rather than its opposite, Wolterstorff concluded that Jesus plausibly had in mind something other than gratuitous benevolence in his injunction to love – namely, a conception of love that encompasses justice without being merely reduced to it.

Building on his own view that justice is grounded in rights that are themselves an interweaving of the phenomena of well-being (or how your life is going), and dignity (or how you are to be valued as a person), Wolterstorff claimed that love, conceived of as a disposition of care, closely attends to both these aspects. In doing this it fulfills rather than compromises justice. Thus justice does not exhaust care, but well-formed care will at the very least do what justice demands.

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