Justice – week 2

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. 

Over the second week, while travelling around France, I reflected on justice within a systemic context.

The first rule of justice is never to mistake strength and right. Contemporary Western civilisation has expanded over the world, imposing its form and values, extending lifespans and producing large quantities of material goods. It now harnesses most of the available space and resources on the planet towards its goal, and therefore surely qualifies as the strongest form of culture. This triumph has nothing to do with justice.

On photograph, Walker Evans captured the faces of farmers struck by the Great Depression. Poverty takes on a human face, confronting the viewer, even ninety years later: is it right that people, through no fault of their own, should suffer the systemic consequences of bad decisions made by those in power. The recent financial crisis was forefront in the minds of all visitors, begging the question: were those responsible held accountable? What were the faces of the many who suffered? And who’s going to do them justice?

Tax is an agreed system for distributing material resources within a community. Fraud is a direct affront to justice. But there is another, more insidious danger. It should be permitted for anybody to take advantage of the space allowed by law. But if only the few, the rich, the powerful can hire the services of experts in the arcane science of tax optimisation, the systemic result is blatant injustice. We may wonder, should not virtue prompt those in positions of advantage actively try to reform a system benefiting them more than others, and align it with justice?

An article circulated on Facebook, announcing the projected financial shortfall for pensions by 2050. This piece, as all the ones I read on finance, occulted one fundamental fact: that money is not a thing endowed with intrinsic properties, like petrol, pork or butter, but the symbolic expression of a relationship. ‘Having money in one’s old age’ is a shortcut: the goal is to increase the chances that we can access goods and services after our bodies and minds decline. The problem of future pensions goes beyond the realm of finance, and requires a structural reflection about the state of the world. Various factors play in: by 2050, where can we expect abundance, where will there be scarcity, based on technological developments and ecological exhaustion? Who will make decisions regarding the sharing of scarce resources by then? Will medicine extend healthy lifespans, and what activity can we maintain in old age? What will be the relationship across generations? All those factors may radically change in the coming 33 years. But if we place all of our eggs in the finance basket, betting on an indefinite continuation of the current situation, then we have a vested interest in maintaining it. And we’ll oppose any change to whatever aspects of our current model jeopardises the future of all, in the mistaken belief that it might affect the size of our own puny little nest egg.

Mediterranean societies trade on many levels, exchanging large quantities of material and immaterial goods within the community, creating dense networks of mutual obligation. Those prime over responsibility to people outside. A paradox emerges: intense ethical attention prevails within the group, while tax evasion becomes a way of life. In relationships with people outside this network of mutual obligation, the law of the jungle encroaches at the margins: if you can get away with it, in small things at least, strength and cunning trump justice.

At the end of the week, I was left with a question: to what extent is justice culturally independent? This in turn expanded into the following three. First, what are the boundaries of the group where justice applies? Is it the immediate family community, the broader town or city, the nation, the world? Second, what is the object of justice? Is it access to material goods, or immaterial goods, attention, honour, warmth or other social benefits? Finally, who is the subject of justice? Is it always an individual, or can the group be responsible?

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