4.17.2009

politics and justice

The great task of Plato's Republic was to give an adequate answer to the question "what is justice?" Here I will give a wholly inadequate answer, but one that is, I hope, food for conversation.

I think it is first important to make a distinction between natural justice and supernatural justice. By natural justice I mean the justice known by the light of reason, the justice Socrates praises in the Republic. By supernatural justice, I mean God's justice, the justice that goes beyond justice; God gives us what we do not deserve. This distinction is important for the religious person thinking about politics. (Obviously this distinction is meaningless to atheists). Missing it, the religious person may forget that the Church is a supernatural community and thus is bound by an order different than that of natural communities (or ought to be), i.e. political associations (states, nations, etc.)

For the moment I would like to restrict my comments to the idea of natural justice. Reiterating, this idea of natural justice is essential for the secular community, that is, the human community that is not bound together not by a common faith, but perhaps simply by tradition, locality, or some other common interest. Justice is traditionally defined as "giving to each what is his right". To help see what this means more clearly, we can distinguish (very broadly) two precepts.

First, justice means treating equals equally. The question follows quickly: "how are we equal?" Consulting briefly with common American wisdom, we'd learn that most everyone is mostly equal to everyone else. After all, discussing how someone is not equal to someone else is often uncomfortable - maybe even morally wrong. (c.f. Grade inflation, general lowering of academic standards, the discomfort some people feel at keeping score at childrens' sports games, our unwillingness to make clear distinctions in conversation etc.). On the other hand, common sense gives quite a different answer. Actually, a startling answer. Common sense (also science) would say that, materially, we are different in every way. Between you and I, there is nothing that can really said to be the same. No one is "as good as someone else" - not materially, anyway. What we do have in common is our essence, our nature, our humanity. This is not a material thing. Sure, we're all members of the species homo sapiens, but that category - homo sapiens, is itself not a material thing - it's a category , an abstraction but also a description of what we are. It applies to us all.

Second, justice means treating unequals unequally. This means somehow justice respects the differences between people. This is the side of justice that is unpopular to discuss in America today. People have different talents. Some people are more intelligent than other people, some people are stronger than other people, some people are more virtuous than other people, some people are weaker than other people, etc. Justice needs to respect this diversity. This second precept, however, does not mean that some people are better than other people, that is, more intrinsically valuable. We are all of the same ultimate value because of our essence, because of what we are.

These remarks draw heavily on talks given publically by Prof. Peter Kreeft. I'm very much interested in whether or not you think these distinctions are helpful, and if so, why or why not?

2 comments:

Catherine! said...

i like that you celebrate diversity.

Catherine! said...

also, i totally didn't write that thing posted below.