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The Heart of Justice

4 June 2018

The ancient Greeks all thought of morality in terms of the virtues: justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. And they all thought of the virtues as if they are like skills that can be learned. As Aristotle said, “…we become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre. So too we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a29-1103b3).

Their view of justice was broad: all social relations ought to managed by justice, so that we treat our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens fairly, giving each his or her due. Aristotle said of justice that it, “… is a mean between committing injustice and suffering it, since the one is having more than one’s share, while the other is having less” (NE, 1133b30). What he meant by this is that just people are neither arrogantly greedy, taking more than their fair share, nor do they see themselves as intrinsically less worthy than anyone else; they do not take less than their fair share either. There is no need for humility when forthrightly speaking truth to power: justice is far, far from servility.

Justice, on this view, is the mean between arrogance and servility.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t give us much sense of how justice can be a skill like carpentry. Here, we must look to the underlying logic, or logos, of justice. To put the main point in contemporary terms, what most deeply underlies justice is the way in which respect for others and self-respect are intertwined. One cannot have self-respect if one fails to respect others as they deserve: we are all fundamentally human, and respecting my own humanity entails my respect for everyone else’s. As John Rawls once said, “justice is the elimination of arbitrary difference.” Justice demands that like cases be treated alike, and we are all people.

Respecting others properly, as a baseline, requires recognizing people as people, with all the rights humans deserve; people are not merely objects that either benefit or hinder us in our pursuits. Moving up from this baseline, we must give individuals the respect they have earned for what they have done.

And since we are people too, we must see ourselves as worthy of the same respect all people are due, and on top of that, we are due the baseline respect we have earned by dint of our own good work. Respect for others and self-respect must be practiced, they must become our second nature. Justice makes humans humane.

When we fail to respect others as is their due, we show that we do not value human life properly, and this shows that we do not value ourselves properly.

But if we treat others in a just fashion, if we give all people, even those who disagree with us, the respect they deserve, if only as human, then many of the problems which have plagued public discourse can easily be navigated. The Academy is currently under a barrage of political correctness, social justice warriors, alt-right defenders, trigger-warnings, safe spaces, etc., etc. People who are loud and passionate on both sides have claimed ownership of both the microphones and the truth. Everyone claims exclusive ownership of justice, which is itself lost in the process.

All these problems can be solved with a simple solution. Notice first, justice is a goal upon which everyone – left, right, and center – can agree. Given that we all share that goal, the only question is how to achieve it. The answer is that we all must respect each other, even those with whom we disagree. We do not have to like the people we disagree with, we do not have to be their friends. We do, however, have to live with them.

All we need to do is act like self-respecting adults who respect others as self-respecting adults. That means we speak respectfully and listen respectfully.

Passion is fine when preaching to the choir. When we want to fire up our base, we need to let them see our conviction. But when we enter the public forum, when diverse views are being discussed under consideration, passion ought to be checked at the door. Civil, respectful tones ought to prevail. Agree or agree to disagree, but just don’t shout, don’t disrespect, don’t even subtly condescend. Meet the other. We both want to stand, and a house divided against itself cannot.

Any view which can be expressed without disrespecting anyone involved deserves to be heard. Even slightly disrespecting views can be tolerated if they are spoken earnestly and without anger or rancor. When people of self-respect are spoken to respectfully by others, they will reciprocate with respect. Justice in society is only found through the respectful exchange of ideas. In those and only those circumstances, justice will out.

The least common denominator is that no one person is intrinsically more important than any other. That is the heart of justice.

Image from Voyage Visuel