Beyond Justice

The curfew broke my spirit.

Saturday late afternoon, I was with a friend in Princes Park. We sat down in the middle of an oval, and drank a bottle of wine. Sunday, I was out on the MCG grounds. I sat on a bench to meditate, then read a book, walking. It was sunny, people were out, in pairs or small groups, some with their masks off, smiling. I came back home and told Philip: ‘This time around, it feels like the lockdown is so much more humane. That’s good, that’s what we need.’

In 2020, I dreaded the police. I was a mess back then. I was leaving a Green Tech startup that turned out toxic, put the final touches on a PhD, co-wrote a book on governance innovation, and kept an eye on the charity that I founded. All difficult and complex projects, all for the greater good, each one a leap of faith.

Keeping my mental health stable was a stretch. To cope, I would often go for long walks, beyond the allocated two hours. I avoided crowded places, wore a mask, and stayed within my radius. But I broke the letter of the rules, and didn’t want a fine I could hardly afford. Police were not on my side.

Back in primary school, when the class went into chaos before recess, the teacher would sometimes look at us and say: ‘nobody will go out until you’re all silent.’ Silence took a while to settle. I always experienced this as injustice. I didn’t speak, or not much. Why punish everyone for the failings of a few? Every time, I felt my default allegiance shift, from the teacher to the rebels. In the face of authoritarian excess, resistance starts to look very much like virtue.

One sure way to gain short term control, as a government, is to set harsh rules, and enforce them loosely. The Chief Health Officer told it very clearly. In itself, the curfew serves no purpose. It sends a message. It’s the teacher shouting at the class, imposing order through the threat of punishment.

As an adult, I understand the urgency. I feel compassion for the Premier too. Imagine running a state through one of the world’s harshest lockdown, successfully bringing case numbers to zero, spending months in hospital with fractured ribs, facing another outbreak – and then watching videos of drinking crowds on the streets and large engagement parties? I would certainly start shouting.

So, the strong measures and strong language make sense. Sending a strong signal makes sense. Both in terms of their intended effect, and our leaders’ mental state. But it is not fair. And as happened when I was a child, I sense a shift of my allegiance towards the rebels. Power is a subtle balance. Stray too far from justice in the name of efficiency, and you risk losing public trust.

I love Melbourne and Melburnians. I love our sense of civic virtue. I built a charity to promote intercultural understanding, nurtured by the spirit of our city. I have made a deliberate choice to devote my professional life to the complex systemic problems of the 21st century – whether I get paid for it or not – again, nurtured by Melbourne. I am not alone. Many of us, inspired by a city that believes in collective thriving, go beyond the letter of the rules, to support each other, and create a better environment for all.

Civic participation is what makes Melbourne one of the world’s greatest places to live. Neither market nor government can fund or manage this adequately. It is too deep, and elusive. Besides, civic participation, social innovation, community care, all require some bending of the rules at the edges. If only because we have no market signals to guide us.

I have compassion for the Premier. I also have compassion for the rule benders – including myself. We’re tired, and well aware that there is much work to do. To preserve our own mental health and that of others. To support the small businesses we love, keep contact with the people we love, and stitch what is left of the civic fabric, so we can weave it back quickly. All this for its own sake, but also so we can tackle climate change, and refugee challenges, as the recent IPCC report and return of the Taliban reminded us.

Some probably stretch too far. Large engagement parties and pub crawls are probably too much. But are they born of pure selfishness, or a confused and somewhat misguided desire for civic rebirth? And do they really call for punitive language and harsher measures imposed on a tired population that tries its best, or compassion and gentle reminders?

People will often take on the roles you cast for them. Are we a city of mindless rule breakers, adamantly pursuing our own selfish interest? Or a global beacon of civic participation, trying as best we can – and sometimes failing – to find the right balance between our needs, individual and collective?

Right now, I feel like calling a strike on civic participation. ‘Is this how you wanna play it? OK, let’s all stick to the rules, and see what happens.’

That curfew broke my spirit. I hope it mends.

Corona thoughts – on fake alternatives

A repeated trope, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least in the Australian media that I read, has been the presumed tension between ‘saving lives and saving the economy’. We should never trust a journalist to promote clear thinking by default. Even less a politician. This quite illustrates the fact. For is there really such an alternative, or is this framing just another symptom of panic mode, the abandonment of reason or – for the more cynical – deliberate collective manipulation?

The more you look, the less it makes sense. For isn’t ‘the economy’ the set of coordinated activities we engage in, daily, weekly, yearly, for food, shelter, and the goods and services we need and enjoy? And don’t ‘lives’ depend on this, in the short and long-term? Let’s not even talk about the global supply chains involved in face-masks, ventilators and hospital beds. A futurist friend circulated a short post a few days ago, looking at second order consequences in California. Fewer migrant workers are going out to the fields, fewer crops are planted – and so we may look forward to September scarcity. Repeat this a few times, and that’s a global food shortage. That’s the economy, and it kills. Mainly the poor – from direct starvation, or a weakened immune system through malnourishment, before we can hope to find a vaccine.

Should we then, rather, see tension between saving lives now or in the future? If we take into consideration second, third, fourth order consequences and beyond, certainly. For who knows what those will be. Food shortages, quite probably. With it, crime and violence. And I wonder, what about other killers closer to places of protected abundance that I inhabit? Increased mortality and morbidity across the population? Suicide rates among young people who see their lifetime dreams crushed? Owners of collapsed businesses? Women abused by a partner driven over the edge by the loss of job, money, and a sense of identity? Decreased level of care for the elderly? But of course, urgency focuses the brain, and we forget about those consequences.

Or is it just a matter of urgency? Today, we learn that the British Prime Minister was admitted in intensive care. Covid-19 is a new virus, it has not yet learned much about our systems of class prejudice. It attacks indiscriminately, though not quite: young people have died, but older people suffer disproportionately. The restrictions on civil liberty that a majority of the planet are now experiencing will have, as their primary consequence – not exclusive, but primary – saving the lives of older citizens, irrespective of class. This is a global feat of intergenerational solidarity. That’s ‘saving lives’.

Question is, what happens after, and will the survivors reciprocate? Can we expect an equal feat of global solidarity towards the young and generations to come, where wealthy boomers refuse franking credits and other tax relief to fund better welfare systems, and divest their allocated nest egg from cruise-ships towards poverty relief, tropical diseases and renewable energy? Or more, can we hope for a radical reshaping of ‘the economy’, around fundamental principles of solidarity, beyond the borders of the nation state, with police backing if need be? Is this the slight hum of fear we can discern, then, in political and media discourse, under the fake alternative ‘saving lives vs the economy’ – that maybe, just maybe, saving lives may change the narrative, and the status quo? So that the only just consequence of saving lives today, is a complete overhaul of ‘the economy’ as we know it? And anything else may lead to a global uprising?

Justice – Week 13

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, the last I will engage frontally with Justice, I reflected on its relationship with birth, death, and merit.

The principle of meritocracy is that privilege and power should not be based on birth, wealth or strength, but merit, as measured by a set of agreed upon mechanisms. Meritocratic systems include the traditional Chinese imperial examinations, or the French ‘Concours des Grandes Ecoles’. After a period of preparation,  participants take the grand examination, following a prescribed set of steps to demonstrate their competence in a certain subject, which will be assessed anonymously, according to a set of reasonably transparent criteria. The selected few will be fast-tracked to positions of responsibility, benefiting from an outsized share of investment in their further education and training. This may seem like a good manner to compensate for inequalities at birth. But the cost of administering examinations, together with the considerable investment by students, families and the public in preparing for those exams, may be to the detriment of the community.

The dangers of meritocracy include the development of a class more keen on preserving its exam-based privilege than looking after the public welfare. On the basis of that one examination, people acquire a lifetime status. Innovation becomes a threat. Further, meritocratic systems operate within the boundaries of a nation – and therefore encourage not better global forms of collaboration, but competitive nationalism. Worse: each selection system relies on an illusion of intrinsic rationality. Hence a form of meritocratic xenophobia: the ruling class of another country was not selected according to the rules of reason, and therefore, their authorities should not be taken seriously.

On Tuesday, I attended a concert by the Takacs Quartet, a world-class chamber music ensemble from Hungary. What better representation of justice, I thought, than a well-executed string quartet. Each instrument, in turn, takes prominence or holds its own voice back, while, together, the four musicians engage in a rhythmic attempt at reaching musical perfection through concerted collaboration.

The final bulwark of sovereignty, wrote Nicolae Steinhart in ‘Le Journal de la Felicite’, resides in constitutional judges’ willingness to die in order to uphold the constitution. Here, then, is the touching point of justice and fortitude: the courage of a judge is the condition for justice to manifest in this world. Justice finds its ultimate test in a readiness to die.

Corrupting judges may be the most harmful crime against the State – by the same token, judges’ personal capacity to stand firm may be the greatest ultimate rampart of justice. And so, strengthening the position of judges, from material benefits to social honours, is a pathway towards justice in the community.

Solving crimes, and assigning responsibilities for injustice, even after the perpetrators and victims are dead, is essential. Justice is indeed often called for when death occurs, whether it’s sharing inheritance or avenging murder. Detective novels and other thrillers place murders at the centre of their plot – but, often, then articulate this symbolic manifestation to more complex networks of white collar crime and corruption. Historians assess the justice of past decisions, and on this basis, determine the legitimate capacity for those in power to remain there – or, if not, give precious ammunition to those willing to fight and die so that justice will come to the world. Those, in turn, may form a ruling class based on a different type of legitimacy than scripted exams: the proven willingness to stand up for their idea of justice, and the proven capacity to bring  more justice to the world.



Justice – Week 12

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 on the relationships between justice as a set of balancing mechanisms and the blind effects of chaotic complexity – or, to use a more traditional word, fortune.

Price is a mechanism for establishing justice, say supporters of the free market: the sum total of private interests will end up in a fair price. Not so, say the supporters of regulation: intervention is required so that the random forces of the marketplace do not result in blatant inequalities, or incapacity for the poor to cover their basic needs – that is why we must set maximum prices for certain types of goods, a minimal income, and differentiated taxes.

The difference between those two positions on economic policy may, more fundamentally, reflect two very different belief systems. Is our world inherently good, but corrupted by our incapacity to let nature have its way – or is our world inherently flawed, and ethical behaviour a deliberate effort to counter the destructive effects of a fallen nature? Our answer to this question will determine the way that we think of justice and the role of the state.

I read the following in a piece that circulated on my Facebook stream: ‘massive corporate avoidance, which is just legitimised corruption.’ It is only possible for business ventures and collective entities to generate profits because a set of public goods make their activities possible – including rules and regulations, educated populations, and material infrastructure. It is, therefore, legitimate that private benefit should partly be redirected towards the maintenance of the very public goods that made them possible to start with. This is the principle of tax, and a matter of justice. Corruption occurs when private individuals benefiting from public infrastructure no longer bear their fair share of effort, but rather, direct excessive amounts of scarce resources towards their private accounts. Failing to pay the right share of tax is therefore, in logical terms, a clear form of theft. And yet, in too many circles, evading responsibility for supporting public goods is celebrated as a form of intelligence and the mark of a free spirit – or at least, tolerated as the way things are and have to be. Not so stealing from supermarkets, squatting an empty house, or – God forbid – claiming excessive unemployment benefits.

Justice is always about change. It forces us to question a certain state of affair, and make required adjustments. As we, humans, are biological creatures, interacting with other biological creatures, change is permanent, in us, and around us. Whenever we reach a state of balance, something occurs to quickly disturb it. Therefore, the work of justice is not a once-and-for-all attempt at establishing the right balance, but a continuous effort, that our very nature undermines, always.

Our lives are based on heritage: language, architecture, and the laws guiding our behaviour from a very young age are all remnants of the past, giving shape to the present. Meanwhile, the chaotic interactions of groups and individuals have unexpected effects, and unequal impact. A building permit will cause one to lose access to sunlight or an open view – while another will benefit from a new school or train station built around the corner. Some will experience this as a form of injustice, and fight a collective decision that they perceive as excessively detrimental to them. For others, a decision taken somewhere else, and affecting them positively, will be perceived as good fortune. Which of them has a wiser approach? When should we see the world in terms of justice, and actively question the way that a decision impacts on various parties – and when should we, rather, take things as a matter of fortune, rejoice in our own luck, or accept a negative turn with calm, as part of the way that things have to be?



Justice – Week 11

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 on the conditions that allow for the manifestation of justice.

“Plus on juge, moins on aime,” writes French moralist Chamfort. There is a tension between the virtues of justice and charity. Our duty to pursue neighbourly love could easily be replaced with harsh righteousness and acrimonious litigation. From another perspective, however, both virtues align. Whenever we pursue justice, we relieve others of the duty to forgive – nay, we create a more harmonious world for them – and could think of this as a form of charity. Yet, this holds only to the extent that the pursuit of justice leaves room in us for charity. Here again, though, we should be wary: when others fail to follow justice, and ask instead for charitable forgiveness, is it a matter of human frailty, or plain complacency?

Is it part of justice to promote emotional conditions conducive to its own manifestation? On Sunday night, I attended a concert by The Songkeepers, a group of indigenous women performing Lutheran hymns in their own language. Everybody cried, as these old women from an oppressed people came to the stage, and sang, celebrating the survival of their culture. This event, and similar ones, create a sense of emotional connection, and favour justice: these people are no longer abstract entities, but real human beings with a voice, a face, a body. Justice, then, would require two types of action. On the one hand, an act of fair judgement aiming to rebalance inequities; on the other, an explicit admission of our emotional bias, and a deliberate effort to create emotional conditions for fair judgement.

Justice does not only concern itself with relationships among individuals and between individuals and the community – but also between various communities. So what if they come in conflict? Recently, Melburnian developers illegally took down a heritage-listed pub in Carlton. The same are now suing the State for not granting an authorisation to build a high-rise tower on top of the site. This very possibility, that a convicted corporation sue the State, marks a characteristic of our justice system, genuine separation of power, and belief in the real possibility that an arm of the State – executive agencies in particular – might act unjustly towards individuals and groups. To go one step further, this acknowledges the right of citizens to be part of more than one collective. True, we must pay allegiance to the State – but also to family, city, region, the broader world, and a range of communities that we form. Our justice system must allow us to balance our allegiance to these various entities, particularly by acknowledging that the State is but one among many.

Unions are a form of collective organisation that aims to achieve greater justice. Their existence reveals a weakness of our adversarial system – that it requires an amount of power for justice to manifest itself. No worker on their own could stand up to the owners of a factory, the cost would be too high – but if structures back them up, it becomes possible. Thus, justice depends on a capacity for various parties to create the structures of emotional, financial and social support allowing them to pursue justice. And, therefore, organising and nurturing communities of mutual support, whether unions, clubs, municipalities, or even friendships groups and extended family networks, should be seen as an adjunct form of justice.

Change comes about when a system reaches a state of instability, followed by a restructure. It is always impossible to foresee precisely what the new state of affairs will be. The result may be catastrophic. Yet, justice typically takes the form of such a change, and therefore, it always carries with it the risk of a catastrophe. Therefore, those who benefit from a certain status quo will, more likely, stand against change. Not that they cannot acknowledge a failure of justice, but for fear that their own relative status change too much for the worse, or even that catastrophic change create excessive suffering beyond their own.

Considering this, some will be more structurally likely to resist justice: not only those who clearly benefit from the status quo, but those who built their lives on compromise with an existing system. Change would not only deprive them of status, but their whole personal history would appear under a new light. What if they were to fall victims to retrospective revenge, held accountable for all the violence incurred through the system that they propped us, whether compromise was prompted by greed, sloth or cowardice? It is, therefore, a requirement of justice that we do not let our own existence and sense of personal worth excessively depend on the structures of a corrupt system.

Justice – Week 10

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?



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.

Justice – Week 8

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.

Justice – Week 7

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.


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.