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 Fecilite’, 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.