Justice – Week 6

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. 

Through the week, I reflected on the role of self-control and self-awareness in striving towards justice.

I believe – and feel – that I should donate more of my income. This is not an act of charity, but justice: my current comfort is the result of accumulated personal and collective privilege. However, insecurity stands in the way. If I direct more of my current income to alleviate poverty, instead of saving up for my future, should things go wrong, will there be someone to look after me? I would not only risk my present and future comfort, but fear to lose power, and capacity to influence. I sense the lack of a clear agreement between individuals and collectives, between nations, between generations, and between the present and future – and I experience this lack as a major obstacle to justice.

I was brought up in a context that valued warmth over cold. It was acceptable to do bad things in the heat of passion, but a minor infraction based on cold calculation was unforgivable. Yet, reacting maybe to my upbringing, I have come to value cold-bloodedness. ‘Give me a man that is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I shall hold it to my heart of hearts’. Justice requires that we give everybody their due, and act appropriately. Feelings are not within its realm. A video circulated on Facebook. An American courtroom, a woman on trial for parking fines. She starts crying. Her son died, her social payments were cut off, she was trying to sort out her situation. In the end, the judge lifts all fines: ‘I won’t let you leave this court with only 5$ in your pocket.’ The video was shared as inspirational. Everybody ‘liked’. I was ill-at-ease. Not that the woman should be let off scot-free, but that objective assessment of responsibility was replaced by teary sentimentality. Why did no one question the justice of social structures placing this woman in a situation where all she could do was park illegally to sort an inextricable situation? Why should this be presented as magnanimous behaviour from a judge, rather than cause for outrage at a system that unduly placed a poor woman in the courtroom?

‘Go for it’ is the default attitude in entrepreneurial circles. Is this based on deep trust in the justice of our collective systems, or a guilty confusion of strength and justice? I worked on a grant application, and as I did, kept asking myself: is the problem I try to solve worth a share of taxpayers’ money? Am I genuinely committed to solving it? Am I able to deliver and execute the right solution? Working in the non-profit sector, and taking the mission seriously, brings a double burden: not only must I ask myself how to succeed in competitive funding applications, but I must also question whether even applying is legitimate.

Do certain roles or industries require greater attention to justice? I often come across people running or interested in education ventures, who decide to run them as a businesses. Their goal is genuinely both to provide quality training to people, and make money from it. My question, however, is always – what is the priority. The desire to reconcile good business and positive social impact is laudable, but if there was tension between the two, which one would win? Because business and social good are different games, and overlap only to some extent. Conversely, this also begs the question: what contributions to society deserve compensation, on what basis, in what currency? And if the system we live in is one where those contributing to the collective good receive less, in absolute terms, than those only serving their own interest – then we should raise the question of justice, rather than try to reconcile business and social impact.

By the age of three, the children of wealthy families have been exposed to 30 million more words than those from lower social SES. This has a lifelong impact on the shape of their brains, and their cognitive ability. We blame people for their own shortcomings, praise them for their own success. But privilege, or its absence, affects the very physical structures of our minds. Justice would require that collective resources be directed towards early childhood education, so that inequalities be not reproduced from generation to generation. From another angle, this means: justice demands of those in a position of privilege that they willingly donate part of their wealth, so that their children will not be favoured from their first years in life. And we believe, somehow, that they will oblige, spontaneously.

Universal income is increasingly perceived as a legitimate policy: as artificial intelligence takes over jobs, we must find a new basis for wealth distribution than individual contribution to society through paid employment. Much as I support the underlying assumptions, I have one major reservation: that current proposals are far from universal. Rather, trials and proposals only consider redistribution among restricted circles, within cities, regions or – at most – nations. On the pure basis of justice, considering the complex patterns of global interaction and technological evolution, I do not see why American, Finnish or Canadian wealth should only benefit jobless Americans, Finns or Canadians, with no share for Nigerians, Bolivians or Pakistanis. More broadly, universal income raises a deeper question: what justifies excluding any person – other than specific, personal guilt in relation to an established set of laws – from access to wealthier territories, and the welfare system they provide? I’m not saying there’s an easy solution. But we should frame important questions in the correct manner.

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