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There is perhaps no greater misunderstanding in the world today than what the term “justice” means. Indeed, almost the very opposite of its true meaning has all but been institutionalized. When we used to teach the canon of Western Civilization as a part of obtaining a college degree, individuals learned about the Aristotelian conception of justice as characterizing the relationship between men. It was very much a process oriented construction and the idea that “justice was blind” is not so much that courts cannot pick decisions based on who stands in front of them (that should be one conclusion from it) but rather that the outcomes that emerge from “just” interactions among men can hardly be seen clearly in advance.

What many folks today conceive of as justice has nothing at all to do with the relationship between men. Rather, the term “justice” now stands synonymous with the vacuous and vague conception called “social justice.” This conception looks only at the “state of affairs” in society and typically fails to recognize that such states of affairs likely include a large range of outcomes that was not the result of any intentional action by any of the men within that society.

These are not the same thing.

The kind of justice that matters, “real justice” so to speak, respects the spontaneous order of not only market processes but of all relationships between humans. When injustices in this world are rectified, they are with respect to the way we treat one another. The modern conception of “social justice” does quite the opposite. By thinking that any social outcome we observe today must have come from the conscious choices of individuals within the undefined and unreal blob referred to as “society” rectifying social injustices requires the explicit intervention into forces that no one ex ante could have predicted would produce the “unjust” outcomes that emerged. Ignoring the possible (likely) nefariousness of such interventions, doing something about “social justice” is akin to suggesting that omniscient beings have the authority and the knowledge to plan all of human activity — which we know both from experience and theory to be impossible.

You’ll see this thinking plainly when you hear folks argue things like, “we’ve let the middle class get hollowed-out” over the last 40 years,” and “the top 1% have ….” Who, for example, made the conscious choice to hollow out the middle class? Is it the CEO of Apple, who decided that it might make sense to have iPads made overseas? Who, exactly, did he treat unjustly? Did he take two otherwise similar Americans, standing before him, and treat one better than the other? Did he take two otherwise different Americans and treat them the same way? When you see droves of low-wage workers, single-parents, “crappy” service sector jobs, who, exactly is committing the injustice? Me? If it is not easy to point to a sentient, freely choosing individual as the cause of the injustice you decry, that is pretty solid evidence that we are not talking about justice in the same way, and a pretty solid sign that whatever remedy is going to be forthcoming is about to promote the kind of injustice that defenders of “justice” say they care about.

We’ll say a little more on this tomorrow.

2 Responses to “Justice: Social and Otherwise, Part 1”

  1. Dan says:

    There’s a historical parallel that might be worth exploring here.

    Design arguments, which in general state that natural complexity require the planning of a designer, is attractive because we cannot fathom that a world that has such incredible order could be unplanned. Not even David Hume could bring himself to believe it. Darwin’s idea that design can be unplanned, spontaneous, and distributed to many mini-designers through vast periods of time is still difficult to accept intuitively. We tend toward believing that everything that turns out well (or not so well) has to have had some agent who coordinated everything.

    That’s a debate that can help you make sense of your critics. There’s probably more ink spilled on this, too.

  2. […] we outlined briefly the difference between traditional conceptions of justice and modern versions of it. Today I wanted to highlight one […]

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