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, my reflections circled back around commons, narratives and historical change.
When we consider major changes in the state of the world over the last hundreds of years, we talk a lot about technology, little about social transformation. Europe, in particular, evolved a tale of technological change that obscures underlying social phenomena. In the UK, village commons were taken over by sheep farmers, displacing people to the towns and cities where they could work that new supply of wool. In France, the king gathered regional aristocrats at court, imposing a life of leisure and building appetite for luxury goods. Meanwhile, Europe expanded overseas: rather than carefully tilling their soil, Europe took over new lands around the globe, while the locals fell to their cannons and disease. American, African and Australian commons were privatised and distributed among European settlers. Rather than the usual narrative of industrial revolution, I would like to read one that follows successive patterns of land ownership and control over resources around the globe – along with underlying evolutions in the meaning of justice.
The stories we tell children and the games we train them to play will impact on their value systems and capacity to thrive in various social contexts. I discovered a new board game today. Commonspoly offers a twist on monopoly: rather than bankrupt others in order to dominate alone, the game invites players to collaborate against the system, and turn a maximum number of resources into commons. Justice takes a different form depending on the system we live in. If individualistic capitalism dominates, then protecting private property matters – because there will be nothing else for individuals to rely on. But if most resources take the form of commons, then private property matters less, as people can fall back on the collective. What should we prepare children for, then? The world of today, or a different world that we believe would be better? Which form of education would justice demand that we pursue?
Detective novels are the main expression of justice in literature. I read ‘The Golden Scales’ by Parker Bilal. Private investigator Makana, former police inspector exiled from Sudan, looks for a missing star-footballer on behalf of Cairo’s foremost businessman. The plot of such novels is predictable and repetitive. The protagonist is on a quest for facts and connections, in order to get a solid understanding of the past. Meanwhile, criminals and evil-doers try and leave the past in darkness, erasing the traces of their own evil. These novels reveal the close connection of truth and justice – the serious efforts required to reach a truthful understanding of the past, and obstacles awaiting those who try.
If we follow the wisdom of Montesquieu, and resolutely take virtue to be the cornerstone of democracy, then addressing issues of ecological collapse and climate change is well within our reach. Prudence – acknowledge the danger, and act accordingly; temperance – limit our appetite for material goods, and cut down our consumption of meat, gas and plastics; fortitude – accept a measure of hardship to do the right thing; justice – share the benefits and burden of change fairly. But if we take democracy to be nothing more than the battleground of selfish interest – then our political system is unfit for the challenges ahead, and despotism becomes an attractive option.
Technological change affects our sense of justice in two ways. Technology plays a role in the process of justice: new forms of evidence, new modes of analysis, new types of contracts and agreements. But also – technological change affects patterns of ownership, and corresponding questions of justice. When it becomes possible to share text, images and sound around the world at a close-to-zero marginal extra cost, what exactly justifies ongoing copyright laws? When new drugs can be synthesized in laboratories around the world, what justifies ongoing monopolies over molecules? When digital platforms allow customers and consumers to bypass intermediaries, what justifies their protection? Yet – on the other hand – when the benefits of technology disproportionately fall within the hands of a very small minority, when society remains organised around individual private property, what then would justify that creators, inventors and developers give up the fruit of their effort to a public sphere that fails to properly guarantee their long term well-being?