Justice: A Syllabus (Essay)

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In an earlier issue of this magazine, a distinguished economist wrote a lively essay to prove that “we can do good by doing well, and well by doing good.” Inquiries of that sort (though seldom, alas, of that quality), which usually involve comparing ends, formulating definitions, parsing concepts, analyzing intuitions, unpacking arguments, and so on, make up most of moral and political philosophy. Whatever its interest, that is not the tradition from which I have drawn examples of great writing about justice. Another tradition, that of social criticism and utopian vision, seems to me more valuable. Every human being, however unphilosophical, has an imagination; nearly everyone’s imagination is strongly affected by other people’s suffering; and when that suffering is extensive and preventable, nearly everyone feels an obligation to help. This is the theoretical basis – a quite sufficient one, I believe – for the literature of protest and solidarity. Leisured conversation about the nature of the Good is a noble, perhaps even humanly definitive, activity. To feel that such conversation is unsatisfying while many or most other humans have neither leisure nor conversability is a useful definition of conscience. The other political use of imagination, besides sympathy, is hope. Utopias are not perfect worlds, as those who want to discredit them always pretend, merely different and better ones. Where there is no such vision, justice perisheth.
Whether Jesus was divine or human – my own view is that of the Jewish scholars Geza Vermes and Hyam Maccoby – he is the most influential figure in the moral history of the West. Perhaps the next most influential is Marx; and just as Marx remarked acerbically that he was not a Marxist (and as, very likely, the author of The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments would strongly reprobate contemporary American capitalism), the Jesus of the gospels would, ever since Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, emphatically deny that he was a Christian. Hieratic Catholicism, suburban Protestantism, and Bibliolatrous evangelicalism owe very little to the “peasant Jewish Cynic” (John Dominic Crossan’s term) who said: “If someone slaps your face, offer him your face again. If someone takes your coat, don’t hold back your shirt. Whoever asks, give; whatever someone takes from you, let it go. … If you love people because they love you, what good is that? If you treat people well because they treat you well, what good is that? If you give because you expect to get back, what good is that? Worldly people do all those things. You have to love hateful people and give without expecting anything in return – then you’ll be children of God” (Luke, chapter 6). He promises heaven and threatens hell quite explicitly, but for a reason that has nothing to do with sacraments or states of grace or sexual abstinence: “What you do or don’t do for the lowest of the low you do to me. For those who help, eternal life; for those who don’t, eternal punishment” (Matthew, 25). A “radical egalitarian,” as Garry Wills calls him, he insists: “Don’t worry about money; life is more important than making a living. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. Then you’ll be rich” (Luke, 20). (There can be no doubt how he would have felt about the repeal of the estate tax.) His greatest public utterance, the Sermon on the Mount, contains this promise, which echoes down the ages: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice [the original, or at least the Vulgate, says “justice,” not “righteousness”]; they will have it” (Matthew, 5). To my mind, that is the first utopian pronouncement.
Those words of Jesus are perhaps a trifle ambiguous in one respect. Does he mean to bless those who seek justice for themselves or for others? Probably both. The educated and economically secure are usually far more articulate than the less fortunate majority, a natural result of their privileges. There is, therefore, something especially affecting about the efforts of the poor and weak to break out of their traditional silence and passivity, to make sense of their world, and to express their needs and grievances. This has not happened often in world history. One of the signal occasions was the 17th-century English revolution.
The Crown and the Church were particularly oppressive in the first half of that century. Protests against royal misgovernment and religious persecution were met with affirmations of the divine right of kings and bishops, against which an extraordinary variety of democratic reformers asserted the principle of popular sovereignty more forcefully than ever before in history. The 1647 Putney Debates, between the generals and soldiers of the Parliamentary army raised to oppose the Royalist one, were a remarkably elevated and cogent discussion of political justice. It was there that Thomas Rainborough, arguing for universal suffrage, spoke these artless but immortal words: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he, and therefore … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” In 1649 several agitators issued from prison a proposed social contract, the Agreement of the People, very much in the spirit of the American Constitution a century and a half later. Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most peculiar, document from the period is the Digger manifesto, The True Levellers’ Standard (1649), by Gerrard Winstanley. In gloriously archaic prose – Biblical, semi-mystical, and earthy at the same time – he expounds the implications of this revolutionary premise: “In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury … but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.” It is a memorable piece of democratic propaganda – or, if you prefer, rabble-rousing.
The rabble were quelled in the 17th century but roused themselves again in the 18th. Edmund Burke arose to beat them back. Reflections on the Revolution in France contained much astute political psychology and many prescient warnings about demagoguery. But its fundamental argument was an indignant denial of the “fictitious rights” of the “people of England … to choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, [and] to frame a government for ourselves” – exactly the rights that all democratic citizens now take for granted. Burke did not appeal exclusively to divine right but also to tradition and superior virtue. Reflections called forth many replies, the most successful of them Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). The sophistries that Burke’s eloquence allowed to appear plausible, Paine’s plainness showed to be indefensible. Why one tradition rather than another, Paine asked? And who should judge a claimant’s virtue if not those who are supposed to be governed by him? Most readers have felt (and I agree) that Burke had no good answers.
Vindicating the rights of man was all very well, but that still left more than half of humanity’s rights unsecured. This thought seems to have occurred to Mary Wollstonecraft after she wrote her own spirited reply to Burke, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. The daughters of the new middle class had more freedom and education than those of the poor or the nobility. As a result, immemorial assumptions about women’s nature and fate began to be questioned. The Burke of the sexual revolution (though actually a profounder and more complex thinker than Burke) was Rousseau. In Emile he deduces from his original, surprisingly modern sexual psychology that a girl’s education should consist of learning to please and to manipulate her future husband. To answer Rousseau and other, less sophisticated defenders of female subordination, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her argument was straightforward: “If women be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves.” Biological differences between the sexes were real, she conceded, but common intellectual and moral faculties were just as real and no less important. Let women learn to be wives and mothers, but let them also learn to be reasoners, friends, citizens – not only for their own sake but just as much for their husbands’ and children’s. Like Paine, Wollstonecraft was generally perceived to have won the argument. Modern feminism begins – if anything in history has a beginning – with her. All women – and all men who care about justice – are in her debt.
Fifty years after Wollstonecraft pleaded that women no longer be treated like slaves, a fugitive slave from Maryland began lecturing throughout the Northeast for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He was so powerful and eloquent a speaker that he began to meet with considerable skepticism about his really being a recently-escaped slave, so the Society asked him to write an account of his life. The resulting Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) was a masterpiece and an immediate national best-seller. It has not lost its power to shock:

“[My master] would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back until she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim seemed to move his iron heart. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.”

The righteous indignation we all feel nowadays reading such passages makes a good occasion for practicing another virtue: humility. What would we have felt – and done – in 1840, really?
What the Life of Frederick Douglass did for American slaves, two roughly contemporary books did, not quite so dramatically, for English workingmen: Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854). (Much credit is also due to the reports of the period’s factory inspectors.) But wasn’t this misery, unlike that of slavery, justified? The new science of political economy demonstrated that unregulated (which it called, in history’s most effective rhetorical maneuver, “free”) competition and exchange resulted in the most efficient possible distribution, however unequal. Whether this extremely convenient (for most of those who employ economists) demonstration is valid on its own terms, I leave to others. In “The Nature of Gothic” (1853) and Unto This Last (1862), John Ruskin challenged the terms. Specialization and the division of labor may increase production, he conceded, but the inevitable result is stunted producers and jaded consumers. “We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour, only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided but the men.” His remedy? It is probably beyond our powers: “a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and an equally determined demand for the products of healthy and ennobling labour.”
What kind of society might furnish all its citizens with “healthy and ennobling labour”? A pair of utopian novels, one written in response to the other, are the best answer I’ve come across. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) was, in a way, the culmination of the Enlightenment: a vision of society (21st-century America!) organized by pure Reason and perfect benevolence, with advanced technology, an efficient and incorruptible central administration, and, yes, a division of labor. To the Romantic artist William Morris, this seemed shallow and drab, “a machine life.” He answered with an idyll as lovely as his famous furniture and designs: News from Nowhere (1891). In green and pleasant 21st-century England, healthy and graceful human animals with vigorous bodies, curious minds, decorous manners, and melodious speech inhabit a world where luxury, squalor, ugliness, and degrading work are extinct. For all their contrast of detail, though, this sentence from Looking Backward could have appeared (doubtless phrased very differently) in News from Nowhere: “If I were to give you [both books use the device of a 21st-century host explaining things to a 19th-century visitor], in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.”
“For creating radicals,” Garry Wills has written, “there is nothing like a reading of the gospels.” Puzzlingly, a great many people seem to have read and even preached the gospels without experiencing the slightest dissatisfaction with their own society’s political and economic arrangements. Not Tolstoy, however. In the late 1870s, though perhaps the world’s most admired writer, Tolstoy recognized that he was what he called a “nihilist.” He had no deep beliefs, no moral compass. So he reread the gospels. The electrifying thought occurred to him – as it has to surprisingly few others, before or since – that Jesus meant what he said; in particular: “do not resist evildoers by force,” “do not retaliate,” “do not be angry with anyone,” “love your enemies and your country’s enemies,” “do not become rich.” He announced this discovery and pointed out its consequences – “Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government,” as well as to law courts, armies, and the Church – in What I Believe and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893). The books were banned in Russia, and Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. But they have found readers. Gandhi testified about The Kingdom of God: “Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and truthfulness of this book, all [my other] books … seemed to pale into insignificance.”
I don’t know what Tolstoy would have said about non-resistance to Hitler. Even if he were stumped, he might have observed that nonviolent resistance and mass civil disobedience could have prevented the First World War, which made Nazism possible. After the Second World War, a glimmer of reason and decency broke in upon governments, an implicit recognition of the truth of Einstein’s remark that although he didn’t know what weapons the Third World War would be fought with, he was sure the Fourth would be fought with sticks and stones. In the United Nations Charter, they renounced the right to use force unilaterally. And in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), they pledged themselves to humane treatment for everyone. This included not just the legal rights enshrined in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, which already had many imitators, but also the rights to emigration and asylum, uncoerced marriage, sexual equality, and equal access to public services. Most significantly, the Declaration recognized a range of economic rights: trade unions, social security, limited working hours, safe working conditions, free elementary education, and maternity benefits. Article 25, point 1, of the Declaration seems to me, considering its provenance, the most important sentence ever written about justice: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
The primary responsibility for achieving these minimum requirements of reason and decency falls, of course, on those most capable of it, i.e., the richest and most powerful nations. We have failed abysmally even to try. Except for a handful of north European countries, no nation devotes much more than 0.1 percent – a tenth of a tenth of a tenth – of its annual income to foreign development assistance. The poorest 1.1 billion people live (and frequently die) on less than the $1.08 per day required for basic subsistence. This shortfall could be largely made up by revoking the recent US tax cuts for households with annual incomes of more than $5 million, or by imposing a 10 percent income tax surcharge on the world’s 500 richest people, or in various other almost completely painless ways. What to do, how, and why are explained superlatively well by Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty (2005). If it is not done, then (to paraphrase Jefferson) we in the developed world may tremble for ourselves when we reflect that God is just.

None of the books I have recommended here descend from Socrates; they all descend from Jesus. This reflects my conviction that the first thing needful is to hunger and thirst for justice. After that, we may and should compare recipes.


GEORGE SCIALABBA is a book critic and the author of Divided Mind (Arrowsmith Press).


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George Scialabba