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, most of my reflections centred on the relationship between justice, truth and seduction.
On Sunday, I watched an adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Peter Sellers set the plot in the Bronx, casting the main character as an African-American leader, Don Elvira as a white middle-age punk, and Don Ottavio as the local cop. Through the first act, I couldn’t stop thinking about justice. Don Giovanni makes promises he never intends to keep. He lies deliberately, seducing, and by doing so, damages the very basis of trust. This is not about sex: Don Giovanni promises more than passing sensual pleasures, he promises marriage, and therefore, a share of his wealth and privilege. Woman after woman falls for it. They neglect other commitments to follow him, and find themselves abandoned. Such is the seduction of consumerism, such is the seduction of politicians: join, I offer abundance, they say – then move on.
One area where seduction plays out is national identity. I am reading ‘The Darker Nations, a people’s history of the Third World’. The book follows the rise of decolonised people after the end of the Second World War, and their eventual demise in the 80s. Early movements for liberation were international in scope: their goal was not to develop an inward-looking sense of identity for newly liberated people, but coordinate a global fight towards collective emancipation. As I read through this relatively recent history, I think about current discourses on cultural difference. Is their purpose to genuinely support better collaboration between people from different traditions, or is their goal to distract us from issues of class and oppression? I reflect, also, on the dangerously seductive power of national symbols, Eiffel Towers and Taj Mahals: to what extent do they represent a sense of collective history, to what extent do they represent an appropriation of national resources to beautify the pleasure grounds of the wealthy?
Lying stands in the way of justice, as does the refusal to give everybody their due. The two, most often, go hand in hand. We develop narratives about our success that omit credit where due, refuse to consider past contributions, deliberately veil ethical shortcuts and even violence. This applies to collectives and individuals. Current economic models encourage personal brand building, with outsized opportunities for select winners in the reputation game. The temptation is great to pay no more than lip service to gratitude, while weaving grand narratives of hardship overcome through the perfect mixture of smarts and grit – then end up believing that our situation is actually the result of our own individual efforts.
The test of justice is judgement, supported by evidence and testimonials. Frontal lies are a direct obstruction of justice, but there is another, more insidious practice: when those in power deliberately construct narratives and frames of reference that will cast them in the best possible light, and leave their shortcomings in the shadows. This may be the main argument for the separation of powers – the temptation is too great for politicians needing fast action to cut ethical corners. Therefore, another body, whose mandate is not execution, should be there to seek truth, and pass judgement accordingly. This is also where prudence meets justice: we may deliberately create smokes and mirrors – but we may also, just as well, be self-deluded, and believe our own lies. In this second case, the fault is greater, and we should not let self-serving delusion get away with it lightly.
Should politicians keep their word? How harshly should they be punished if they don’t? What about countries? I wrote last week that my own fear of the future was a major obstacle to donating money where I think I should. On Thursday, while planning a workshop on financial literacy, one of the co-designers casually mentioned that, anyway, there would be no pension when we reach an older age. How should I behave when I hear this prophecy? Build security for myself, because I cannot trust the collective? Or invest in collective action to protect a system of intergenerational distribution? The choice I make will influence my retrospective idea of justice: if I work hard and save, I will not find it fair that I should share my savings; if I work hard at building collective support systems, I won’t find it fair to be left destitute, while those who provided only for themselves enjoy the result of their selfish efforts. Our sense of justice is therefore highly coloured by our own political choices. Power plays in with our sense of justice and truth.
The doctrine of original sin tells us that generations past did not do the right thing, and therefore, inasmuch as we bear their legacy, we do not start with a blank slate, but carry their failures forward. For this generation, it is a heavy legacy: a destructed environment, population explosion, the consequences of colonial exploitation, and a web of complex lies and partial stories obscuring the root causes of today’s greatest challenges. It seems clear that our generation has to change course. But how, and whereto? More truthful accounts of recent history would offer a precious first step, but I sense that opposition is great: many crimes would be revealed, and many myths underpinning the very sense of self for entire classes and nations would be shred apart.