- My country is the world, and my religion is to do good. [Thomas Paine]
- As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. [Martin Luther King, Jr., “Suffering and Faith” (April 27, 1960).]
- . . . justice is what love looks like in public. [Cornel West]
Philosophers have long sought to develop systems of justice from subsidiary principles, such as harmony, natural law, utilitarianism and a categorical imperative. As a result, philosophers with the same essential intent have been at cross-purposes with each other, and have failed to develop a system of justice that would withstand attacks from their many critics. This state of affairs will persist until the true unifying principle of a system of justice centrally concerned with the welfare of living beings is clearly and pervasively understood, and this understanding is routinely applied.
Once a person understands how the mechanisms of evolution govern the functioning of every dynamic system, including human ethics, the realization dawns that the most sustainable conception of justice is based directly on the intrinsic worth of every living being encompassed within its scope. Every other system of justice places an unnecessary barrier between the subject and the object, thereby confusing the issue and leaving the parameters and mechanisms of justice undefined.
The primary mechanism in the evolution of species is not lust or physical strength or a will to power but the genetically programmed inclination to reproduce, to which each of the other mechanisms is subsidiary. Nature has produced a gene replication system. At the level of nature, which controls, the direct object is primary.
Similarly and necessarily, the primary mechanism in a system whose object is the well-being of living beings is the intrinsic worth – the quality of the life experience – of those beings. Though poorly understood to date, even by experts in evolutionary theory, this is the only mechanism that can drive a dynamic system of ethics, religion, culture or politics – or any system of human invention – toward the desired goal as surely and as efficiently as the inclination to reproduce drives evolution of species. That ethical systems and their kin are of human invention is completely beside the point: the evolutionary principle is the same for social systems as for biological systems. Once the object, goal or purpose is identified – replication and survival of the gene in the case of biological evolution; sustained welfare of living beings in the case of ethics – the direct mechanism of the dynamic process is the primary mechanism of evolution, and therefore is the primary basis for that system. In biological evolution, the system has no ordained purpose but its primary mechanism and seeming purpose is genetic replication. In an ethical system whose primary object is the welfare of living beings, the object is also, necessarily, the primary mechanism of the system. Placing any other mechanism at the core or foundation of the system will result in unnecessary confusion; just as belief in inheritance of acquired traits once confused biological evolutionary theory, so has the incorrect identification of a subsidiary principle like harmony as the primary principle of justice – noble and essential to justice though it is – led to confusion in the conception of justice, and thwarted attempts to develop a sustainable theory of justice.
For thousands of years, each of the world’s major religions has stated this core principle of justice without fully understanding or appreciating it. In the West, we call it the Golden Rule, in its various formulations. In 1876, only seventeen years after Darwin published his origin of species, twenty-five-year-old Felix Adler founded Ethical Culture, whose central tenet Adler identified as a commitment to the worth and dignity of every person. This was a step forward in the conception of a worth-based justice but Adler’s writings reveal that he did not appreciate that he had hit the mother lode. Today, armed with our modern understanding of the evolutionary principle, we have the tools to develop a sustainable system of worth-based justice.
To put it more simply, a sustainable system of justice is not centrally about harmony or mutual agreement or even love. Each of those values is essential but none of them is both central and ultimately foundational. A sustainable system of justice is about us. That is its goal and that is its mechanism. Any other formulation will result, and has resulted, in confusion and disagreement. People have agreed on the Golden Rule, in its various formulations, for thousands of years but have not understood it. If we can understand its full import, we can apply it systematically in a way that can produce greater harmony and well-being.
Our conception of justice is not about judging people’s ethics or morality, though that may come into play; it is about nurturing and supporting living beings to the best of our ability, honoring their worth and affirming their dignity. Humanists see justice in an evolutionary perspective: it is an idea and ideal derived from our nature as living beings (week one in our liturgy), universally applied (week two). That is why I have structured our liturgical calendar in that manner: the first week is the object, the second week is its scope.
Ours is a consequentialist ethics, for a mere statement of or adherence to a principle is not justice: we must be like the elementary school pupil in arithmetic, who must check her work to ensure that the answer makes sense. To put it in the language of science, we must be empiricists, not merely theorists. The system under discussion is a system of values, or virtues, so it must work, broadly considered, for the valuers.
Values are like the supports in a building’s foundation: if they are all strong, the building is as sound is it can be; if they are made of inferior materials, or if one or a few of the supports are missing or inadequate, the building is weakened according to the nature, extent and scope of the defect. We could also liken values to the muscles in the body: they can be developed individually but in the end they contribute to the whole with their strength, or detract from the whole with their weakness.
People like to think that justice is a fixed concept handed down from on high; in truth, we decide what is just and how just we are willing to be. People like the idea of unalienable rights bestowed on us by a creator but that idea did not prevent genocide and slavery in the nation that formally espoused the idea. Justice is not a Javert-like obsession with righting an imagined cosmic imbalance by punishing every misdeed but a system of behavior that zealously and enthusiastically pursues the welfare of living beings; though broadly considered, the practice is often narrowly applied. The practice of justice is more difficult than its proclamation, and there have always been hypocrites who shouted the principle while violating it in practice.
A principle or theory of justice seems to have more to do with ideals than with any particular formulation. Kant’s categorical imperative and Mill’s utilitarianism, while useful, have never provided a clear answer to every ethical question. The effort, it seems, is like jumping into a tub filled with soapy water and trying to gather all the bubbles: as soon as you jump in, some of them fly away and others burst. Honored and revered by many, the Golden Rule, with its particular formulations in each of the world’s major religions, is an outstanding guidepost that has not been much improved upon but it mainly addresses the ethics of each individual’s behavior, leaving societal ethics at risk of being manipulated. John Rawls addressed this problem with his veil of ignorance principle, which asks each person to seek that society she would want if she did not know what position she might hold in that society: in other words, how would you structure a society if you did not know what your race, ethnicity, occupation, wealth, etc., would be? That concept gives a mechanism for approximating an idea of justice because most people would want to structure a sustainable society in which everyone did well and no one suffered excessively. With each of these formulations, the challenge has been to eliminate the essential problem of evil as expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote that “evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole.”
Volumes have been and will continue to be written on the subject of justice. Resolving any of the major disputes definitively, let alone all of them, far exceeds my grasp. But I do propose a conception of justice that places human worth and dignity at its foundation and core and recognizes that a commitment to justice must be lived, not merely announced. If seen as a universal commitment and in an evolutionary perspective, I believe such a conception will serve us well.
- Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (Henry Holt and Co., 2004).
- Melvin I. Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (Pantheon, 2009).
- Michael Ignatieff, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (Harvard University Press, 2017). “The right question is: ‘How can we hang on to decency in a world where old patterns, good and bad, have been disrupted?’ In addressing that challenge, Ignatieff’s admirable little book represents a triumph of execution over conception.”
- Melvin I. Urofsky, The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today (Pantheon, 2020): “. . . a comprehensive account of the nonwhite version of affirmative action.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
There have been many conceptions of justice. Below are some of the better writings on the subject.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1999).
- Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).
- Michael J. Sandel, Justice: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2007).
- Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Belknap Press, 2009).
- John Rawls, Justice As Fairness (San Val, 2001).
- Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (Belknap Press, 2011).
- Patrick Boyde, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante's Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
How can we make our political system represent the people's will? Game theorist Steven Brams has applied Rawls' principle to the ballot box. Under his system of approval voting, candidate elections would be decided based on voter approval, tending to diminish the influence of political parties and shift electoral advantages to the middle ground, where consensus is most likely to reside.
- Steven J. Brams and Peter C. Fishburn, Approval Voting (Springer, 20o7).
- Steven J. Brams, Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures (Princeton University Press, 2007).
- Jean-François Laslier and M. Renzi Sanver, eds., Handbook on Approval Voting (Springer, 2010).
- William Poundstone, Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It) (Hill and Wang, 2008).
- Steven J. Brams, The Presidential Election Game (Yale University Press, 1978).
What do we do when we must choose between the interests of equally innocent people?
- David Edmonds, Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong (Princeton University Press, 2013): a straightforward look at the trolley problem
- Thomas Cathcart, The Trolley Problem: or, Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? (Workman Publishing, 2013): imagining “a real-life trolley case on trial”
Other works on the subject of justice:
- Victoria Kahn, Wayward Contracts: A Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674 (Princeton University Press, 2004).
Documentary and Educational Films
- Corrado Giaquinto, Justice and Peace (1759-60)
- Peter Brueghel the Elder, Allegory of Justice (1559)
- Giotto, The Allegory of Injustice (1304-06)
Film and Stage
- Les Miserables: The adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, from which this film, play and concert are drawn, best expresses my idea of justice, with its portrayals of struggling for dignity and survival and with its sharp contrast between the legalistic Javert and the compassionate Valjean.
- The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel
- The Nun’s Story: a young woman leaves the convent when she finds a holier calling outside its walls
- The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre), a tragedy of social norms: a deserting husband is welcomed back into the community on his return after someone else has taken his place, providing for and loving the deserted woman; the “interloper” is executed
- The Life of Oharu tracks the life of a woman from an imperial family, who falls from grace and into ruin, and offers an example of a society without justice, seventeenth-century Japan.
Civil war--what does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not all war between men, war between brothers? War is qualified only by its object. There is no such thing as foreign or civil war; there is only just and unjust war. Until that day when the grand human agreement is concluded, war, that at least which is the effort of the future, which is hastening on against the past, which is lagging in the rear, may be necessary. What have we to reproach that war with? War does not become a disgrace, the sword does not become a disgrace, except when it is used for assassinating the right, progress, reason, civilization, truth. Then war, whether foreign or civil, is iniquitous; it is called crime. Outside the pale of that holy thing, justice, by what right does one form of man despise another? By what right should the sword of Washington disown the pike of Camille Desmoulins? Leonidas against the stranger, Timoleon against the tyrant, which is the greater? the one is the defender, the other the liberator. Shall we brand every appeal to arms within a city's limits without taking the object into a consideration? Then note the infamy of Brutus, Marcel, Arnould von Blankenheim, Coligny, Hedgerow war? War of the streets? Why not? That was the war of Ambiorix, of Artevelde, of Marnix, of Pelagius. But Ambiorix fought against Rome, Artevelde against France, Marnix against Spain, Pelagius against the Moors; all against the foreigner. Well, the monarchy is a foreigner; oppression is a stranger; the right divine is a stranger. Despotism violates the moral frontier, an invasion violates the geographical frontier. Driving out the tyrant or driving out the English, in both cases, regaining possession of one's own territory. There comes an hour when protestation no longer suffices; after philosophy, action is required; live force finishes what the idea has sketched out; Prometheus chained begins, Arostogeiton ends; the encyclopedia enlightens souls, the 10th of August electrifies them. After Æschylus, Thrasybulus; after Diderot, Danton. Multitudes have a tendency to accept the master. Their mass bears witness to apathy. A crowd is easily led as a whole to obedience. Men must be stirred up, pushed on, treated roughly by the very benefit of their deliverance, their eyes must be wounded by the true, light must be hurled at them in terrible handfuls. They must be a little thunderstruck themselves at their own well-being; this dazzling awakens them. Hence the necessity of tocsins and wars. Great combatants must rise, must enlighten nations with audacity, and shake up that sad humanity which is covered with gloom by the right divine, Cæsarian glory, force, fanaticism, irresponsible power, and absolute majesty; a rabble stupidly occupied in the contemplation, in their twilight splendor, of these sombre triumphs of the night. Down with the tyrant! Of whom are you speaking? Do you call Louis Philippe the tyrant? No; no more than Louis XVI. Both of them are what history is in the habit of calling good kings; but principles are not to be parcelled out, the logic of the true is rectilinear, the peculiarity of truth is that it lacks complaisance; no concessions, then; all encroachments on man should be repressed. There is a divine right in Louis XVI., there is _because a Bourbon_ in Louis Philippe; both represent in a certain measure the confiscation of right, and, in order to clear away universal insurrection, they must be combated; it must be done, France being always the one to begin. When the master falls in France, he falls everywhere. In short, what cause is more just, and consequently, what war is greater, than that which re-establishes social truth, restores her throne to liberty, restores the people to the people, restores sovereignty to man, replaces the purple on the head of France, restores equity and reason in their plenitude, suppresses every germ of antagonism by restoring each one to himself, annihilates the obstacle which royalty presents to the whole immense universal concord, and places the human race once more on a level with the right? These wars build up peace. An enormous fortress of prejudices, privileges, superstitions, lies, exactions, abuses, violences, iniquities, and darkness still stands erect in this world, with its towers of hatred. It must be cast down. This monstrous mass must be made to crumble. To conquer at Austerlitz is grand; to take the Bastille is immense. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume IV – Saint-Denis; Book Thirteenth – Marius Enters the Shadow, Chapter III, “The Extreme Edge”.]
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939): this novel could be listed under economic opportunity but the final scene, in which Rose-of-Sharon nurses a starving man, makes clear that it reflects the author’s conception of justice.
From the dark side:
A medieval conception of justice:
All at once, at the moment when the wheel in its revolution presented to Master Pierrat, the humped back of Quasimodo, Master Pierrat raised his arm; the fine thongs whistled sharply through the air, like a handful of adders, and fell with fury upon the wretch’s shoulders.
Quasimodo leaped as though awakened with a start. He began to understand. He writhed in his bonds; a violent contraction of surprise and pain distorted the muscles of his face, but he uttered not a single sigh. He merely turned his head backward, to the right, then to the left, balancing it as a bull does who has been stung in the flanks by a gadfly.
A second blow followed the first, then a third, and another and another, and still others. The wheel did not cease to turn, nor the blows to rain down.
Soon the blood burst forth, and could be seen trickling in a thousand threads down the hunchback’s black shoulders; and the slender thongs, in their rotatory motion which rent the air, sprinkled drops of it upon the crowd.
Quasimodo had resumed, to all appearance, his first imperturbability. He had at first tried, in a quiet way and without much outward movement, to break his bonds. His eye had been seen to light up, his muscles to stiffen, his members to concentrate their force, and the straps to stretch. The effort was powerful, prodigious, desperate; but the provost’s seasoned bonds resisted. They cracked, and that was all. Quasimodo fell back exhausted. Amazement gave way, on his features, to a sentiment of profound and bitter discouragement. He closed his single eye, allowed his head to droop upon his breast, and feigned death.
From that moment forth, he stirred no more. Nothing could force a movement from him. Neither his blood, which did not cease to flow, nor the blows which redoubled in fury, nor the wrath of the torturer, who grew excited himself and intoxicated with the execution, nor the sound of the horrible thongs, more sharp and whistling than the claws of scorpions.
At length a bailiff from the Châtelet clad in black, mounted on a black horse, who had been stationed beside the ladder since the beginning of the execution, extended his ebony wand towards the hour-glass. The torturer stopped. The wheel stopped. Quasimodo’s eye opened slowly.
The scourging was finished. Two lackeys of the official torturer bathed the bleeding shoulders of the patient, anointed them with some unguent which immediately closed all the wounds, and threw upon his back a sort of yellow vestment, in cut like a chasuble. In the meanwhile, Pierrat Torterue allowed the thongs, red and gorged with blood, to drip upon the pavement.
All was not over for Quasimodo. He had still to undergo that hour of pillory which Master Florian Barbedienne had so judiciously added to the sentence of Messire Robert d’Estouteville; all to the greater glory of the old physiological and psychological play upon words of Jean de Cumène, _Surdus absurdus_: a deaf man is absurd.
So the hour-glass was turned over once more, and they left the hunchback fastened to the plank, in order that justice might be accomplished to the very end. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Sixth, Chapter IV, “A Tear for a Drop of Water”.]
Much of our best fiction illustrates the absence of a worth-based ethic. Narratives on this theme include the following works:
- Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Free Press, 2008).
- Miriam Toews, Women Talking: A Novel (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019): “ . . . set in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna, where nearly every girl and woman has been raped. But don’t expect a crime novel full of detail about the assaults, and don’t expect an excavation of the survivors’ emotional experience. Toews skips over the rapes and the apprehension of the rapists, cutting straight to existential questions facing the women in the aftermath.”
- TaraShea Nesbit, Beheld: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2020): on injustice and inhumanity among the so-called refined
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Les Misérables
- Honegger, music for the film Les Misérables (1934)
- Rameau, Zoroastre (1749) presents a primitive view of justice, in which justice represents whatever serves the interests of the hero or the tribe. As in Humanism, justice is measured by what serves human welfare; in contrast with Humanism, it is not universal.