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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Justice of Horton

Do you think that there is a way that things are supposed to be?  I don't mean a belief in the "best of all possible worlds" that Voltaire liked to make fun of, I mean a sort of basic sense that some things are just right and that sometimes a situation is just wrong?
This is an elephant on a tree

One of my favorite children's books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (one of my favorite children's authors). In Horton our hero, Horton the Elephant, agrees to "egg sit" for a lazy bird (Mayzie) who promptly takes off and vacations on the beach for several months leaving Horton on her nest. We see him suffer through increasingly unpleasant trials beginning with bad weather and going on to abandonment by his friends, abduction (along with the egg, nest, and tree) by hunters and finally abject humiliation. Throughout it all Horton says to himself "I meant what I said and I said what I meant; an elephant's faithful one hundred percent" and sticks to his commitment. Then, (spoiler alert) at the climax, Mayzie stumbles upon him and the egg hatches. Seeing that it is hatching, Mayzie tries to re-claim her egg but when it breaks open, out flies... you guessed it... an elephant-bird! And Horton get to go home with a child while Mayzie pouts in a corner and everyone exclaims that "It should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!" - A sentiment with which I heartily concur. It should be like that.

Hard work should be rewarded, bad people should get their comeuppance, children should outlive their parents, the good should thrive. And all of that and so much more; all of the should be like is what I mean by the word "justice".
I think that the idea of justice has been misunderstood for a while now, especially in American culture. It is not so much that we have gotten it completely wrong as that we have narrowed it too much. Most people I talk to want to use "justice" as a synonym for "fairness" or, if they see a distinction, they will treat justice as a more powerful or deeper version of fairness. Thus someone might say "It wasn't only fair, it was just". But while fairness is often a part of justice, it is by no means the whole of it. To be fair is merely to treat everyone equally, to be just is to treat each person and every thing the way that person or thing should be treated. And that treatment will only be fair (though technically "fair" has experienced its own unfortunate devolution over the last several hundred years) if it treats them all equally.
Totally didn't see this coming

Here is where the practical problem comes into play: it is only possible to be just if you have some idea of how thing ought to be. To be just is to say "this should be like that" and to then go about trying to make it so. Neither a determinist (who thinks that all things already are as they have to be), a modernist/non-supernaturalist (who has no grounds for claiming that there is any such thing as should be only what, in fact, is) nor a post-modernist (who doesn't think anyone has a right to talk about what should be for anyone else and besides how sure are they that there really is a this or a that  anyway) can be just.

Now please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that those folks can't be virtuous, kind, fair or egalitarian. They are often all of those things. In fact, they are often very just - I would point especially to the social gospel of the liberal Christian, modernist movement of the last century and the "social justice" movement so popular among contemporary post-moderns as wonderful and encouraging examples of people loving justice. What I am saying is that those worldviews give them no grounds for believing in or even really understanding justice. To the extent that they have it, they have it by tradition, by uncritical conscience or by divine Grace.
  But it takes a pre-modern (eastern or western) to get justice.

A little history: the basic concept of justice in the west seems to have originated with Socrates. Plato's most famous book The Republic is entirely concerned with the question "what is justice" (the Greek word was dikaiosune). After quickly demolishing arguments that justice is "the will of the strong over the weak" (a view that stayed pretty well dead until Nietzsche came along) and the slightly stronger claim that it is "doing right by friends and harm to enemies", Socrates spends most of the book defending the idea that to be just is to act and become in accordance with the way things are, or put another way, to love the good and conform to it. (He then has a lot of ideas about how that can be accomplished and a really unfortunate extended-analogy about the soul and the city-state which has given rise to some misconceptions about his political views; but I won't get into all that right now). But from then, right up until the enlightenment, the idea that justice was conforming to the way things should be was the dominant understanding of the west.

Over in the east, Lao Tzu seems to have independently come up with the same basic idea. He was able to speak much more simply about "life in conformity with the Tao". Confucius then watered it down a bit by trying to get really practical by providing elaborate descriptions of what different 'tao-conforming' lives would look like. In both cases, eastern and western pre-modernism seems to have independently agreed that justice requires first an understanding of how things should be and then an attempt to conform oneself to that understanding.

Lao Tzu
Finally, in the contemporary world, justice is most clearly talked about by natural law and virtue ethicist (who are mostly going back to the pre-modern thinkers). Most notable would be CS Lewis who showed, rather convincingly, in The Abolition of Man that belief in the natural law, the Tao, is necessary for humanity to remain human. The love of that Tao and the attempt to conform to it is justice.

But why is justice so important? Well, a sense of justice implies a vision of how things should be, and without that, I can't help but think that there will be a great deal of drifting about without any real direction. Quite practically, it is justice that tells me that I cannot do just anything to accomplish a good goal, for a world in which one problem is fixed and I have been corrupted by a terrible act (even in the service of a good goal) is not the way things should be. It is justice that tells me things can be better and it is justice that urges me to make them better. It is by justice that I recognize injustice. Justice is the eye of the conscience; what I do blindly by conscience is illuminated by justice.
Justice is  Badass 

1 comment:

  1. B. Good topic. I love Horton's faithfulness and Dr. Seuss's conclusion about the "way it should be." Socrates and Lao Tzu together are an enlightening pair as well but then you kind of leave me floating as to how I grab on to the "natural law" or Tao to catch the vision of how things should be. Not that you're not right, but you didn't quite get me there. Could you expand on those last two paragraphs to help me stay on the egg and do what is right?