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.
This week, I reflected on the connection between individuals and collectives, stimulated by two books, ‘La composition des mondes’ by anthropologist Philippe Descola, and ‘L’Enrichissement’, by sociologists Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre.
Justice must ensure that everybody receive their due. The primary question therefore must be, who is everybody? This is particularly relevant in the case of ecological justice, where the relationship between humans and non-humans is at stake. From the perspective of justice, if a natural element is endangered – a lake or an animal species – they could be considered as external objects that only matter inasmuch as their existence affects the well-being of various humans. Or, they could be considered as part of a structured collective, alongside other elements of the natural ecosystem, including humans. Justice, then, demands that their interest be taken into consideration, as much as that of individual humans.
At the basis of any reflection on justice is the question of distributing public wealth to members of the community fairly. The technical modalities of collective decision are therefore a crucial issue. Those who master rhetorical codes and understand procedures are at an advantage, and able to guide collective decision to their benefit. We should therefore always ask ourselves, to what extent does a certain protocol favour justice, or strength?
Does justice require that we follow formal established rules, or more general principles? If I was to develop a personal relationship with an Uber driver and got them to drive me somewhere, without going through the system, would I be at fault? On the one hand, if I by-pass the system, I would replace an exploitative structure with direct human interaction; on the other, I would endanger a system offering stability to the social order. In a multicultural environment, these questions are difficult, as norms of behaviour in relation to the law vary.
The current state of things is justified by narratives anchored in the past: justice and history therefore go together. Further still, the structures giving value to things are themselves historically located. Modern industrial society produces large numbers of interchangeable specimens based on the same prototype, whose ownership is protected by law. This is a product of the European 19th century. Today’s discussions on copyright and piracy should be considered in this light: what they question is not an eternal right, but a certain historical construction.
Economic systems, and the way that various types of things are valued and priced, determine in turn the comparative advantage of those who control various types of things. The position we take in those economic systems will in turn determine our interest in advocating for change or preserving a certain state of things. Deliberately choosing to place ourselves in a position where we serve interests in contradiction with the common good is a question of justice. Beware, therefore, the risk of finding ourselves in a situation that seriously restricts our capacity for justice.
Justice regulates the mutual relationship between people as part of a collective. But who decides on our capacity to be part of that collective? When belonging requires physical access, who makes decisions on our capacity to remain part of a certain group, and what form of justice applies?