Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On the Nature of Justice

Words are slippery little beasts. Despite our effort to use them for actual communication, they refuse to retain their meaning long enough to be reliable. So it is with the word "justice". A particular bit of linguistic tomfoolery has taken, or perhaps has followed, the American Left down a path divergent from our common heritage in Liberal thought.

About 2500 years ago, Plato wrote The Republic in an apparent attempt to define justice as the thing which a properly constructed government should achieve. One of his more cynical notions is that justice is a compromise between getting what we really want, which is to take advantage of our fellow man, and our fear of being the victim of another. We construct governments and have invented "justice" to sugarcoat the bargain: we will give up the ability to abuse others so that we are safe in turn.

Plato probably never heard of the Biblical prophet Micah, who perhaps 200 years earlier had said, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" He contrasts selfish actions with justice, mercy, and humility, implying that justice is not selfish, nor is it the only good; mercy and humility may require that we lay our thirst for justice aside.

We teach our children that justice is right and correct. We teach them that it's wrong to stand by while others are hurt, wrong to defend incorrect actions, and that justice will be rewarded in the end. In fact, Plato says, the worldly acclaim we receive is really all the benefit there is to being just. We might say today that his God didn't keep track of karma.

That cynical view of justice ignores that there is in each of us both a higher self and a criminal. While the criminal can only find the benefit of praise in seeking justice, the higher self is satisfied only when doing what is good and right and pure. The criminal would like nothing better than to act unjustly in secret while receiving public praise. The higher self wants justice not for ourselves only, but for all. But the foregoing concerns only the motivation for wanting justice, not what it truly is.

Informed by the works of Plato, Cicero, Francis Bacon, and John Locke, the American founders recognized Natural Law.

A natural law is analogous to the laws of physical science, but applicable to humans. One such law is the Law of the Harvest (which came to me from Dr. Charles Stanley): a man reaps what he sows. It is an inescapable aspect of the human condition: if a man plants corn, he will harvest corn and not wheat; and if he does not plant, he cannot harvest. Although the purpose or exact nature of cause and effect is the stuff of metaphysics, I simply postulate that there are causes and related effects, and that among these are that what a man sows, he reaps. While it is possible to effectively circumvent the Law of the Harvest, doing so is unjust.

We often mistake justice for mere vengeance. The difference between justice and vengeance is that if justice is seeing that what a man sows, he reaps, then vengeance is seeing that what a man sows or reaps from others is sown for him and for possibly for all he holds dear, as well.

From the point of view of a society wanting to protect itself, justice is seeing that one guilty of a crime is held accountable, and also that the innocent are set free. Society comes between a crime's victims and the accused, not demanding revenge as the victim might like, but keeping the evil apart from the good. The just person or State will favor neither a strong defendant nor a weak one, but must look with indifference at the status of the defendant in court.

There are those who see justice in different terms than these, however. For them, justice implies an active effort to make human interaction fair. They see justice as an economic level playing field: a just system must afford everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Further on that scale, some insist that true justice is only found with equality of outcome, a wholly different goal than the American ideal, which is equality of opportunity. For those who pursue social justice, the outcome, rather than a particular action, is what determines justice.

The social justice movement, highly influenced by John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971), redefines the word "justice" to include equality of outcome. Drawing from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx, Rawls said that the conditions for all people in a just society must be as similar as possible. Justice is thus equated with fairness, moving away from the Classical Liberalism of the American founders and toward Marxism.

Active social justice is essentially Marxist collectivism. The movement has come to have its own particular world view, a way of viewing morality and virtue that often clashes with the traditional understanding of the meaning of those words. As I understand them, the fundamental tenets in the "social justice" branch of the collectivist tree are that:

  • Freedom includes "economic freedom", or the absence of financial consequences
  • Peace is a higher good than political freedom, which is said to be meaningless without economic freedom
  • Justice means "social justice", which is decreasing the gap between the weak and the strong, rich and poor, employer and employee
  • Social Justice is virtue, and the highest good; virtuous people are those who seek social justice
  • Any action is virtuous if the cause it furthers is virtuous
  • Any action is evil unless one is virtuous.
However, since there is not yet a way to effectively raise the fortunes of the downtrodden, bridging the gap between rich and poor effectively means handicapping the successul rather than helping the unfortunate.

The terrible danger inherent in allowing the ends to justify the means, especially in a political ideology advocating social upheaval, should be historically obvious. The greatest despots in history began their reigns as idealists wanting a better nation, and believing that this end justified any action they needed ot take. From John Kekes' article on the French Revolution (Why Robespierre Chose Terror, City Journal, Spring 2006):

These atrocities were not unfortunate excesses unintended by Robespierre and his henchmen but the predictable consequences of the ideology that divided the world into "friends" and less-than-human "enemies." The ideology was the repository of the true and the good, the key to the welfare of humanity. Its enemies had to be exterminated without mercy because they stood in the way. As the ideologues saw it, the future of mankind was a high enough stake to justify any deed that served their purpose. As Loomis puts it, "[A]ll who played a role in the drama . . . believed themselves motivated by patriotic and altruistic impulses. All . . . were able to value their good intentions more highly than human life. . . . There is no crime, no murder, no massacre that cannot be justified, provided it be committed in the name of an Ideal."

I call on the American Left to turn away from the view that any action in pursuit of virtue is virtuous. I ask them never to conflate justice, fairness, and the redistribution of wealth and power. I plead with them to return to rationality and the ways of common sense. And I beg them to help restore the unity of ideals which not long ago we shared.

The future is going to be difficult without a common language.

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gideon1789 said...

Thank you for the subtle and discerning interpretation of that famous verse from Micah. It is often the famous verses which we forget to contemplate because we are so used to hearing them.

Quibble: I do not think Plato thought that "worldly acclaim" was the full reward for justice. I believe his view was that the pursuit of justice is good in itself. That is, virtue is its own reward. It makes us happy, regardless of the pain we may suffer for it.

But I am not qualified to discuss the question further.

In any case, good thread. Thank you.

gideon1789 said...

I would encourage you, by the way, to post diaries at RedState on biblical interpretation, and, if you want, comparison of the Bible to various philosophers.

It would enrich the website.

Loren Heal said...

gideon1789, you are right that Plato's view was that Justice was among the highest ideals, rivalling Truth. The cynical view of justice-for-rewards was a device used to introduce the argument, which was my use of it, as well, though clearly without as much skill as he.

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