Jan 11, 2010

Justice – book review beginning

Nicholas Wolterstorff: Justice - rights and wrongs (Princeton Uni. Press.)
I’ve recently been thinking about natural rights as they might apply to an essay I’m currently writing on medical ethics. I’ve realised that the (arguably) central tenet of classical liberalism; a basis for much of our law, ‘The Harm Principle’; seems to be effectively grounded only when natural rights are taken seriously. It is easy to repeat the mantra that there is no justification for interfering in a rational agent’s life excepting the situation where the agent is harming someone else, but why harming someone else should be a problem at all, in a utilitarian approach in particular (perhaps, after all, the pleasure taken from the harm is rather large and the harm is relatively small) is not so clear unless such agents actually have worth and hence rights. A question about the provenance of rational agency is also raised, but that is another issue and is I suppose dealt with elsewhere. Of course perhaps these rights are somehow ‘capacity-based’ – yet Wolterstorff argues effectively I think against such approaches, largely based on their unjustified exclusivity.


  1. Hey - apologies for the general lack of comments. Life seems busy. Even though it shouldn't be with one subject. Anywho I was wondering what you meant by "capacity-based"? And also what do you mean by "unjustified exclusivity". Though perhaps I should just read the book.

  2. Hey hey; I got a bite! It's all I do this for really. You don't, you know, have a moral obligation to comment - or do you...? Hmmm, I could write something on that... Capacity-based: based in a capacity, e.g. "sentience" or similar. It was a while since I read that bit (I'm going back & forth and technically have over 10 books on the go (not to mention the ones I start randomly in the lib-ry), so I'm not sure how much I'm absorbing.) He doesn't spend that much time (many pages) critiquing secular groundings, because not much time is spent on developing a grounding, apart from a few essentially capacity-type approaches, it seems. Unjustified exclusivity - the capacity approaches exclude some 'people' without justification e.g. frequently, infants. As that was just the start of a book review, I intend to finish it sometime. Cheers. Oh, & I mite visit ur lecture sometime esp if to-do-wit game theory.

  3. Hmm, do I have a moral obligation to comment? I shall ponder that one.
    I (sort of) see what you're saying. What about secular approaches that try to ground natural rights in their social functionality (I'm not sure if these exist, but that's how I would approach it). Though I suppose you'd still need to make some assumptions about human nature - hence the sentience bit perhaps.
    I'm not quite sure why you'd want to re-live econ 201 but sure, feel free to drop by! I might come to philosophy again this friday.

  4. Intriguing - 'social functionality', eh? So something like "they're useful, so they exist"? Curious, curious - I catch the scent of an argument for theism hiding in the long words on either side of this path. Not that I think it is necessarily a good argument; I'd have to hear more. He does mention utilitarian/consequentialist approaches, perhaps that's what you're getting at. I suppose it might raise/lower the question to another level, i.e. why is something which is 'good'/useful socially (that is, concerning other *people*) 'good'? I'll update you if I work it out. On the other note, game theory has its uses.