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 further on the mutual relationship between justice and power.
In French, the same adjective, ‘juste’, describes the quality of a just decision, appropriateness in the choice of a word, and a musical note on pitch. Social order is based on people saying the right thing at the right time. The main obstacle to justice, in that perspective, is not a punctual lie on one particular point of fact, but deliberate and systematic obstruction of meaning, or bullshit. I was giving a conference on Sunday. There was a question. On that occasion, guided by justice, I honestly replied ‘I don’t know’. But how tempting, when holding the right of speech, to make up something instead, hiding ignorance under a cloud of words.
Decision-making structures rarely result in a distribution of power that ensures absolute fairness. The representative model of Western democracies is based on a division of the country by seats. Some of them, more likely to swing across the field of possible choices, have disproportionate importance in defining the political agenda. Global power differentials act as a multiplier to this internal imbalance. Trump’s election rested on the choice of a relatively small number of people in the central eastern United States. The ballot power of those communities now endangers long-standing international efforts for climate and environmental protection. From the perspective of justice, this is a blatant issue. Yet these voters – and US politicians – only followed the national rules of the game.
Is it justice that we should suffer from the decisions of our fathers? In many poor countries, children at birth are loaded with a national debt heavier than the collective can structurally cover. Without even considering how fairly loans were allocated in the first place, those children never gave consent, yet find themselves burdened with a duty to repay. Meanwhile, somewhere, somebody’s receiving interest – and likely using some of that money to support their own children and others in their community. From the perspective of those children who benefited at birth of this inherited advantage, however, a deliberate or forced reallocation of wealth on the global scale, gradually reducing their comparative wealth and affecting the conditions of their children, would likely be perceived as injustice.
To what extent should systems favour majorities – to what extent should they be designed for ‘everyone’? I had a conversation about supporting cultural minorities on Wednesday. Soon, challenges arose: what should be given priority? Supporting locally born people of minority background, or supporting migrants? And what about other inequities, class, age, or gender? We might wish for systems to service ‘all’, but when they don’t, what should we do to compensate? This is a murky space, where justice and pragmatism blend.
On this note, I started reflecting about justice and time. If justice is a return to balance, how fast and often should justice be rendered? What is an acceptable delay? And when we’re aiming to create a more just decision-making system, should we be judged on the perfect justice of our final intentions, or should we be judged on results and improvement?
Justice has many dimensions. It regulates the relationships among individuals, and regulates the relationships between individuals and the various social collectives that we belong to. But justice also regulates the mutual relationship between different collectives, considered across space, and across time: international justice, intergenerational justice. These various dimensions of justice are mutually dependent: progress on one dimension will affect others positively. But it is tempting, depending on our position at birth and at the moment of passing judgement, to neglect one of those dimensions, or even deny its existence entirely.