Monday, August 9, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (I)


Note: The other day I was going through some old files from my time in Germany and I found this translation of a lecture by Josef Pieper on the nature of justice and human rights. I’m not exactly sure anymore why I went to the trouble of translating it (other than that I really like Pieper), but I think that some of our readers might appreciate it. It’s a bit long, so it will appear in five parts.

The original text is Josef Pieper, “
Das Recht des Anderen,” in Über die Schwierigkeit, heute zu glauben. Aufsätze und Reden (Munich: Kösel-Verlag, 1974), pp. 224-242.


In the years immediately following the Second World War, as is well known, a UNESCO committee was assigned the task of preparing a new formulation of “human rights.” During the committee’s consultations something strange, but noteworthy, happened. The Chinese delegate, a philosophy professor from the not yet Communist China, brought it to the committee’s attention that his country’s language did not even have a word for what they were discussing; the concept of “human rights” was not found in the Chinese tradition. What was meant by the term was, of course, not a completely foreign idea, but was viewed from a different perspective. From which perspective, I will speak about that in just a minute.

I suspect that this information—which was presented with obvious embarrassment—caused not a little wonder; perhaps a few more or less plausible historical-sociological explanations were immediately available. It seems to me, though, that we should not brush this matter aside too quickly. What is actually worth consideration is that the matter does not look all that different in our own great European intellectual tradition. The ancient doctrine of justice (whether we ask Plato—who is not just anyone; the Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has called all of Western philosophy a collection of footnotes to Plato, which is a little too extreme for me—whether we ask Plato or Aristotle or Cicero or Augustine or the law book of the Roman Empire, the Corpus Juris Civilis, or the great teachers of medieval Christendom)—the ancient doctrine of justice spoke very emphatically of what was inviolably due to each man; but by the same token it also never developed a doctrine of “human rights,” at any rate not formally.

It would be quite meaningful, it seems, to recall a few aspects of this doctrine of justice—forgotten, but especially relevant today—in an essay which will necessarily be more aphoristic than systematic.

The “ancients” (by which of course I mean not the dead, but the “greats,” the great witnesses especially of our own tradition), the ancients, when they speak of justice, never consider the man who has a right, but rather the man who has a duty. The just man’s concern, they say, is to give what is due, not actually to receive it; and to be deceived about what is due to oneself is something completely different from withholding, detracting from, or taking away what is due to another person. “This sentence has already been repeated many times,” says Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, “but it can always be repeated without harm: the man who commits injustice is worse off than the man who suffers injustice.”

The ancient doctrine of justice is, once more, not primarily a statement of rights, to which one is entitled and should lay claim; rather, it is the statement and explanation of obligations, of rights to be respected—whereas the later, more familiar doctrine of human rights, does not appear to focus on the man with obligations, but on the man with rights. Of course, obligations and the man who is obliged are not completely neglected, just as the man with rights is not completely neglected in the old doctrine of justice. However, there is an unmistakable, characteristic shifting of the accent—it may be hard to interpret, but it is still worth taking notice of it.

This shifting of the accent forces itself upon one, with no special attention necessary, if one just leafs through the Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN: “Every man is entitled to. . ., every man has a right to. . . life, freedom, security, the protection of the law, to freedom of movement, to freedom of assembly, to work, to relaxation,” and so forth. This obvious change in perspective, whatever it might imply and however it should be interpreted, interests us not for the sake of a moralistic and quite problematic praise of “the good old days.” Of course, it begs the question whether the proclamation of rights, which appears so aggressive at first, does not rather come from a basically defensive attitude, or even one of resignation—because, strictly speaking, justice belongs only to those who are capable of granting or denying what is due, through which action each person receives what is his due. Is it not more daring and aggressive, but also more realistic, to make room for this old view of justice by attempting to activate the person who is obliged to fulfill a duty, that is, everyone? Such an attempt will naturally lead to nothing, if one limits oneself to talk. It depends on presenting, in a convincing way, the basis for obligation and the inviolability of what is due.

For according to the ancients justice is essentially something second; it depends on a condition and rests on a foundation: someone else is there, to whom something is inviolably due. One can also formulate it this way: When the ancients speak of a right, then it is always and exclusively the “other’s right” which they mean. The question why, how, and on what grounds something is due to the other, every other person with whom I deal—this question is very decisively answered in their doctrine of justice and with a radicalness which both appears worth thinking about and which it is possibly vital to recover. Finally, in our recurring experience, the appeal to “human rights” does not achieve anything. And insofar as human nature is understood as the ultimate justification of this right, it is no wonder that it is so. Of course, Nikolai Hartmann is right when he says that justice has to do with respecting “the person’s sphere of freedom”; and, of course, something is inviolably due man because he is a “person,” i.e. a being that by nature exists for the sake of its own fulfillment. Nevertheless, these are not ultimate, but penultimate justifications; and falling back on them is simply not enough today—today, that means in an age, in which extreme denials [of the other's right] have emerged and in which, not merely because of a purely empirical barbarization of power but because of programmatic theories, man is treated as if he were not due anything.
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