This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due.
I started my reflection on justice by exploring the context where it applies.
It started on Sunday with a darning session. Last year, our apartment was infested by moths: my nice woollens are all dotted with holes. Now that I work on global catastrophic risk and must professionally consider the danger of ecological collapse, I decided to repair them. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, I couldn’t help repeating. But it’s about more than time. Some of those holes, as I tried fixing them, if I just pulled a little too hard, would expand, fray more, and eventually merge with another nearby hole. Longer, more intricate needlework is needed then. My sweaters are now repaired, and will not easily rip further, but if you just pull just a little too hard, the stitches show, leaving grooves and valleys on the formerly flat surface of the fabric. This, I thought, is like the mark of justice.
Prudence and justice have balance as their goal. But where prudence identifies the strategic opportunities of the moment in order to dynamically create a better situation, justice identifies the turning moments when things became what they are. All acts of justice require a correct narration of facts and causal chains connecting them, but also the choice of the relevant laws and principles, as established by past decisions and tradition. In that, justice is a conservative virtue, preserving balance by projecting the past into the future.
What are the limits of the space where justice applies? On Tuesday, I took a long walk around the Singapore Marina. Is it justice that nearby residents enjoy this environment on their doorstep? Singaporeans receive considerably more support from the State than Malaysians or Indonesians. Is it justice, because this community developed a culture and practices that brought forth prosperity? Is the story one of worthy people from around Asia – China mostly – looking for opportunities in this British colony, supporting each other while suffering indignities from the whites, and eventually building this harmonious island-society, where their children could live happy lives? So that, indeed, it is fair for a child born on this side of the straits to start their lives with more than a child born on the other side?
Imperialism – or the submission of one place to another – is a key source of imbalance, and therefore injustice: more so when it expands across cultures. ‘The world is too white’, said Jack Sim, Mr Toilet, as we spoke on Wednesday morning, ‘everyone still aspires to be American’. Native English speakers, from their infancy, learn a language that they can teach around the world. The tradition, norms and standards of the US and – to some extent – Britain have spread through film and media. The skin tone, beauty norms, and expressions of the locals are highly valued globally. People born and socialised in the central places of empires have access to more, structurally, than those on the periphery.
To what extent is justice compatible with the quest for profit? I shared a post on Facebook criticising the ‘conscious capitalism’ model of social enterprise, and triggered an expected indignant response from someone. But I kept thinking, if the goal is to bring about some form of greater social good, which we believe is needed because our current system structurally destroys the commons and produces negative externalities, then won’t the profit motive distract from the goal? And if the goal is to make profit, then it would be unethical to pretend otherwise. In other words – when push comes to shove, what goal prevails? This should determine the choice of a structure. Beyond this, I started reflecting on justice in a capitalist system, where it is accepted that wealth deserves its own remuneration if adequately directed: this is the fundamental principle of all for-profit organisations, that not only work, but also capital should be remunerated.
I sat with my father by the Seine River on Friday for lunch, enjoying a world-class outlook on the Pont Alexandre with its golden horse statues, and the Grand Palais in the distance. We spoke of many things, including the new president’s push for ‘moralising public life’. To what extent should justice apply differently to people holding various levels of power? Should leaders be given extra leeway, because action requires a capacity to compromise with principles in order to deal with complex situations in real-time? Or should higher standards apply, because their choices have so much impact, and greed – or other passions – may easily distract them from the pursuit of the greater good? More generally, should leaders be judged on the basis of their result (but who then shall decide on success measures for their result?) or their respect for principles and process (but who shall establish if principles and process were just and relevant?)