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Twelvetide 22:10 justice

January 3, 2023

51ff88fd e044 4a2b a997 32bccded0586There is a logic in going from politics to justice.  The two are not the same thing, while the latter should be one of the objectives of the former.  Their conflation is always a problem and (apologies to my US Friends) electing your judges will always go wrong.   Justice needs to exist independently of populist pressures and the evolution of tension between the Executive, the Assembly and the Judiciary remains important.  When they all get put together, let alone in the hands of a populist leader there are few paths that do not lead to tyranny.

Justice is of course linked to the idea of fairness and we know that Children in the main have an innate sense of this, tending to split rewards rather than allow one to be privileged.  Chimpanzees do something similar but generally if there is something specific in it for them; they are strict utilitarians while humans are not.  I’ve always despised utilitarianism by the way on ethical grounds.  Bernard Williams demolished it in his short book Morality, published in 1972 and one of my best memories of University is when we had him as a Philosophy Society speaker in the Shap Wells Hotel shortly after its publication.  Warneken’s work showed that children will proffer help to someone struggling without prompting; rewards didn’t make any major difference.   Post puberty we get less empathetic as a species, adopting the norms of the society with which we engage.  Young children just act, they don’t calculate.  You can see a reason for this: evolution has made humans more reliant on each other.  Other experimental work has shown that we can understand how other people think not just based on our own experience, even four-year-olds can understand false beliefs.  The ability to understand the beliefs of others is very, very different from simply understanding a situation of which we have experience.  We can understand intentions not just behaviours.  The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has a host of useful materials here. All of which support my opening illustration from Gaping Void.

Justice is of course a complex issue in human thinking and practice.  I’ve linked it with fairness, but I’m more sure that Rawls is right to see it as a subset of fairness. We traditionally tend to talk about three aspects of justice: punishment, restoration and deterrence.  We’ve used those three, in different formulations on various SenseMaker® projects over the years.  We’ve also used them in the legal context of the actions of the Courts, but also to measure and understand people’s day-to-day narratives of their own experience.  When I was studying this back in the 70s I was struck by Kafka’s In the Penal Colony in which a machine carves the name of the crime, torturing the criminal for 12 hours before finally killing them. The purpose of the torture is to transform the prisoner who is transfigured by the realisation of his sin.  Like everything from Kafka it asks questions about the many assumptions we hold.  But overall justice in both formal and day-to-day seems to be some balance between those three qualities.  All three have a social purpose and different philosophers place different emphases and with very different outcomes.  Nozick (Ayn Rand with brains but no less evil) argues that any redistribution of property is theft while Rawls argues the opposite to give just one example.  My point here is that all of this matters to us as a species, and uniquely so.

Remember this series is about what makes humans unique and the institutional form of justice is part and parcel of that.  But I’m as interested in how this works on a day-to-day basis and that also links with the body of work we are developing on Peace and Reconclliation.  In the 1970s Latane & Marley identified something they called the bystander effect.  The more people there are the less likely people are to take responsibility.  Humans are, in main far more callous in large numbers and we also have a wider issue with people seeking to do good.  My colleague Beth Smith passed me a YouTube clip on that subject earlier today, it builds on the common western saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; the point on the Inquisition is especially telling.  That is in part the motivation for our use of three, maybe five at most groups to handle differences rather than facilitation in large groups.  Intimacy and empathy have a strong connection.  Justice is also a means of limiting the unfettered use of power and this article in the Guardian by Suzanne Alleyne is worth reading.

I in part chose the subject of this post when I found the El Greco picture, tragically damaged so we will never know the full intent of the artists.  But the inspiration is from the Book of Revelation 6:9–11where the souls of the martyrs are crying out for justice.  This links us back to the earlier post in this series on sacrifice; justice doesn’t have to be revenge, but it does require acknowledgement.  The post-apartheid process was not without its flaws but it makes this wider point that we seek to acknowledge injustice and we require that to be sincere, not token, which brings me back to Kafka and with that I will finish.


The opening of the Fifth Seal, Vision of St John

Artist: El Greco 1541-1614 Crete
The banner picture is cropped from an original

As a general theme for the Twelvetide series this year, I am using Renaissance artists, ideally with a journey theme for the banner picture which may or may not relate to the ideas in the post. Then a Gaping Void image to open the text and make a point. Sometimes I will spell that out, sometimes I’ll leave it hanging.

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