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Last night our group had a three-hour go at analyzing justice. This concept is a positive Gordian Knot of seeming simplicity that quickly gets into a epic snarl worthy of the Classic Greeks Socrates, Plato and Plato’s lesser known brother Glaucon. They debated this issue and of course Socrates won. But I brought up Glaucon because his method of justice at least had some teeth, that is, some enforceability. The other more famous philosophers, being self-serving as they will admit that all men are, chose philosophers to be rulers of the perfect society. Unfortunately, after a couple of millennia of trying there hasn’t been a single philosopher who was head of state. Oh, yes there was Marcus Aurelius, but he wasn’t a philosopher so much as a preexisting Caesar with a penchant for keeping a diary of his idle thoughts. Socrates, when he came face to face with real politics, ducked out and took the hemlock. Of course, Plato’s pupil was Aristotle and his pupil was Alexander the Great, one of the most famous of all heads of state. So he was at least in close contact with the giants of philosophy. On the other hand one can make a good case for Alexander being a homicidal maniac. Not only did he cut a swath of death across the Middle East all the way from Greece to India, but he murdered his best friend during a drunken feast. I am making a case against philosophers being heads of state, a poor one perhaps, but you can see the drift of no enforceability to control these “philosophers.”

Glaucon on the other hand had a concept of justice based on enforceable ideas. He argued against Socrates and Plato for a perfect transparency of everyone’s behavior and a swift balancing of equity between every person’s actions and their effects upon every one else in the society. Within Glaucon’s projected society a person’s reputation would be held up as the highest ideal and everyone was encouraged to seek his highest potential of reputation. A man was therefore compelled to behave well and carefully consider every action he made. When anything was seemingly self-centered rather than having the public’s well being in mind, he would be compelled to justify his actions. The public would be the judge, the jury and the enforcers and because of absolute transparency they would know everything about the person so they would be able to judge fairly, Glaucon claimed. The man about to do something which he would have difficulty in justifying to the public would hesitate and instead would change his behavior in such a way that everything he did appeared to be for the benefit of the whole community and not himself. It might not be perfect, because transparency wouldn’t be perfect, but it would put serious constraints on an ambitious person’s behavior.

Our group attempted to define justice, but soon had so much conflicting wordplay that progress was so slow it was seriously retrograde. On the other hand, the concept of injustice was considered to be like the putative definition of pornography, “it was impossible to define but you knew it when you saw it.” On the other hand (I have lots of hands), justice didn’t seem to squeeze into even that loose definition. So many easy examples of seeming justice come to mind which from a slightly different viewing point are injustices. Thus, it becomes impossible to say, “Justice is like pornography, I know justice when I see it.”

Here is an easy example: say there is a long line at a theater, and a rich man walks up to the ticket seller and pays $100 for a $5 ticket, and goes on in. That would seem unfair to most people standing in line. But what if the rich man came up to the front of the line and offered the $100 to a person at the head of the line and that person accepted the offer and went to the tail of the line. Most people would consider that okay. It does seem the definition of justice gets just a little slippery.

Laws may not be just, but they do define behavior which people are willing to abide by.