Justice – Week 9

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 week, I reflected on the way that cultural and social expectations shape our conception of justice.

The World of Marvel characters might seem reasonably clear-cut. On Sunday, I saw the latest Spiderman. A kid with superpowers wants to do good. He stops a man who steals alien materials to manufacture weapons. Good guy, bad guy. Yet there is a measure of ambiguity – why should the powerful Stark industries, who supports the good guy and beyond, the good guy-Avenger team, hold a government sanctioned monopoly on alien materials and alien-powered weaponry? ‘I became a thief because the world is unjust’, says bad guy. Bad guy still finishes in prison, but revenge will be coming in the next episode. When the world is unjust, lasting peace is impossible. Maybe that is the wisdom of Marvel stories.

We cannot achieve justice without a common agreement on a set of laws and principles. But in a time like ours, when every norm is shifting under the pressure of technology, the set of laws and principles underpinning our sense of justice is itself in motion. Hence, maybe, the sense of generalised injustice. In organisations, values guide everyday decisions when strategy does not give clear directions. But when values are unclear, and every person has a different interpretation – what then?

Our society values excess. I posted last week on Facebook how annoyed I was at people asking for ‘just a skinny flat white’ at cafes, with a self-effacing, apologetic tone. On Wednesday, at a South Melbourne Cafe, the same apologetic tone invited me to pay ‘just 3$20’ for my long black. ‘Just’ indicates a voluntary limitation, ‘just’ aims to reach a right measure, no more. But when excess becomes a norm, and success is measured in terms of exponential growth potential, ‘just’ goes against the grain, and irritates.

Who should be responsible for bringing justice to the world? Is it our duty to model our own behaviour on justice? Should we nudge each other when we wander off? Should we collectively develop and support agencies that will bear the burden of administering justice? Conversely, when one of us fails to follow justice, who should bear the blame? That one individual, their immediate environment, or the broader social conditions that, in the first place, made it possible for them to fail?

What implicit metaphor guides our understanding of justice? The scales weighing human hearts and actions against a golden standard? The flat surface of water marking perfect balance? The sword cutting through the complexities of a knotty problem? This implicit image will in turn influence the way that we think about the virtue.

What inequalities should justice palliate? I had a terrible backache on Friday. At almost forty, my back is weaker than that of younger people. To what extent should I expect to be looked after when this happens, as a matter of justice? Health is one of the great sources of inequality – and various forms of inequality, natural and social, have massive effects on our health. Then there is age. But what exactly should be justly compensated for, as a matter of justice? What can we legitimately claim and expect, what is unreasonable? Here, justice should give way to prudence, but there is a catch. How easy would it be to veil injustice under the mask of prudence.

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