Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
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Friday, February 15, 2008

The problem with Justice

This post has been copied over from the Great Ideas Forum.

I was interested in the general topic of Justice but not willing to only speak when spoken to or limit my posts to less than 250 words so I thought I would outline what I see as the problems with discussions on Justice, Dr. Adlers essay in the Syntopicon included and then propose a way to cut the Gordian knot.

Dr. Adler points out that discussions about Justice have been very similar for thousands of years. That is sign #1 that these discussions are generally unproductive. Dr. Adler correctly points out that we generally have natural justice and might makes right on one side and then social justice and inalienable rights etc on the other side. There is no great way to reconcile these two - a system of justice entirely created socially would be arbitrary and artificial. A system of justice entirely natural would simply be "justice is the will of the sovereign". These tensions permeate all modern jurisprudence.

The problem with both positions is that justice is defined in terms of subjective quantities that generate endless unproductive debate. Aristotle suggested that Justice should be defined in terms of happiness. Guess who got to define what "happiness" is? For every definition of happiness, I can show you a whole bunch of people who claim that they wouldn't be very happy living that way. Others define justice in terms of "fairness", "good", or "right". No wonder these discussions have gone on for over two millenia. Just as for "happiness", for every definition of "fairness", "good" or "right", I can show you a whole bunch of people who will claim that the definition is unfair, not good and wrong. Then what happens is people get reactionary about their opinions and start making up terms like "true happiness" so that anyone who disagrees with them gets their position labelled "false happiness". Doctrinarians, such as Dr. Adler, strive to argue that their really is only one universal definition of these things and then argue about whose definition is really universal. Everyone has their own universal definition of all of these subjective ideas.

I have an idea to cut through this Gordian knot of unproductive debates over subjective quantities. It begins with a refutation of the definition of justice proposed in book V of the Republic based on the legend of the Ring of Gaiges. Continued in next post.

Does anyone care to comment on the general proposition that arguments over definition of subjective quantities are or are not productive?

Can you see how attempts to establish universal definitions of subjective quantities has enabled coercion - physical or intellectual - in the past?

Do you have an emotional reaction to my suggestion that thinkers have defended their positions by making up pejorative terms for the opposition?

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, any concept of justice that uses concepts like "real" vs. "apparent" goods and "rights" is doomed to enable coercion, conflict and violence. Anyone who disagrees with person A's list of "real" goods gets their list pejoratively labeled "apparent". Then they get told they have no "right" to those goods. The person defending his own list of "real" goods claims he has the only valid list. This kind of thinking enabled domination cultures in Aristotle's day and it continues to do so now. I suspect it always will.

    The critical misstep was to make a moral imperative out of facts of existence. Most of us can agree on human needs +/- a few here and there. To make a moral imperative to meet those needs or a moral wrong out of failing to meet those needs is what enables coercion and violence. When our needs don't get met, the paradigm of "right" and "wrong" enables anger, punishment and coercion against those who violated our rights. Those who deny us our "rights" become the enemy. We create enemy images against those people and judge them as "bad" people, "criminals", "Lazy", "evil", "wrong", "ignorant", "stupid". Since no one thinks of themselves in these terms, this sets up conflict as we attempt to coerce others into meeting our needs while they resist our negative judgments about them. The cycle of domination culture, wars and conflicts is perpetuated.

    I think I have found a way out. I hope to share it in upcoming posts

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