Friday, 24 November 2017

On Convivial Conduct

This is the fourth in a series of essays, in which I aim to outline my ethical and political philosophy. And it’s the most radical yet!

Recently, I explored the idea of rights, and the prohibitions or negative obligations which individuals must obey in order to respect the rights of others. Today I’m going to take a wider view, and ask: What might be general rules of conduct, which can – or should – enable human beings to live together in a peaceful, civilized manner? And in trying to answer this, I’ll look for positive rules as well as negative ones.

Conviviality

The word “convivial,” which you see in my title, plays an important part in this essay. It’s a word I’ve taken on from the Belgian philosopher, Frank van Dun. It comes from Latin, and literally means “living together.” In English, however, the word has also a secondary meaning, of feasting in good company. Thus I use “convivial” to mean living together well. And, in contrast to Aristotle’s idea of Man as “the political animal,” I think of human beings as convivial animals.

It’s important to understand that conviviality isn’t about obeying rules or laws imposed by a particular culture or society. Indeed, conduct is convivial – or not – outside the context of any society. Moreover, convivial people form a community; that is, a group of people with something in common. They (we) are what I call “convivials.” But we don’t form a society. We have no president or chairman, no officials and no goals as a group.

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Peacefulness and honesty are examples of convivial conduct. And aggressions, threats, theft, lies and deceptions are examples of conduct that is unconvivial.

A person, who always acts in a convivial manner, is a convivial person. (Or would be, if such a perfect individual existed). However, an unconvivial act doesn’t necessarily make the person unconvivial. For we often do things that, strictly speaking, are unconvivial. We may occasionally be unpleasant to others. And we may even cause actual harm in some small way. For example, heating our homes with wood or coal fires causes pollution; or riding a motor cycle causes noise.

But we do these things, not out of any desire to harm others, but because the costs to us of not doing them are far greater than the costs to those adversely affected by us doing them. If we are to do such things without becoming unconvivial, then we must be willing to allow others similar latitude in return. I call this convivial tolerance. Here, then, is the first positive rule in our convivial canon. Which can be put as: Live and let live.

However, harmful acts that are gross, persistently repeated, malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason, are worse than merely unconvivial. The word I’ll use for these acts is disconvivial. And those that perform disconvivial acts I call disconvivials. In the realm of conviviality, “disconvivial” means much the same as does “criminal” within a particular society.

The Golden Rule

In my earlier essay, I derived rights from the negative form of Confucius’ Golden Rule. But the rule has a positive form, too. It has many different versions, but the one most commonly touted is attributed to Jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

I find this formulation of the Golden Rule rather na├»ve. For it lays on us an obligation to treat others well, even when they treat us badly. This is impractical. If people always acted that way, criminals would always get away with their crimes! And yet, the rule does have substance. We should, for example, always try to be polite and friendly to those who are polite and friendly to us. We must treat peacefully those who treat us peacefully. As to those we haven’t dealt with before, we should treat them well as long as they treat us well in return.

To resolve this problem, I decided to make my own wording of this rule. The words I settled on were: Treat others at least as well as they treat you. This, I think, gives a similar effect to Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule, when we are dealing with convivial people. But it leaves us free to treat those, that behave towards us in an unconvivial manner, as the situation demands.

From all this, it follows that if we unjustly cause harm to others beyond what is acceptable within the limits of convivial tolerance, we are obliged to compensate the victim or victims. This ideal of restitution for wrongs is, indeed, an important element in most legal codes. Furthermore, if you want to indulge in an activity which brings a significant risk of damage to others, you must ensure that if things go wrong, you have sufficient resources to cover this responsibility. Having third party insurance if you drive a car is an example.

Now, this rule is closely related to my definition of common sense justice in my earlier essay on that subject. That is: the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. There is, however, one big difference. The rule tells us to treat others, not as the ideal of justice would, but as well or better. Thus we always have the option, if we wish, of showing clemency towards those that have wronged us. That is, of choosing not to pursue some or all of what they owe us for the damage they caused to us.

Independence

Another element in the convivial canon is independence. That is, not putting too much reliance on someone or something else for what we think or how we act. For human beings are individuals, not herd animals.

But here, we run into a difficulty. Sometimes, circumstances outside an individual’s control – such as age, illness, injury or disability – may prevent him being as independent as he, or others, would wish. To address this, I prefer to couch my proposed rules in terms of striving for independence. We must make every effort within our capabilities, and taking account of the circumstances, to be as independent as we can.

There are two kinds of independence, for which we must strive. The negative: Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others. And the positive: Strive to create your own path in life, economically and in all other ways.

And it makes sense, where you can without harming your own interests, to do what you can to help your fellow convivial people, when they are in trouble through no fault of their own. After all, next time you might be the one in trouble: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But this is not a hard rule or obligation; the decision must be yours. No-one has any right to force you to help anyone if the costs to you are or seem too great. Moreover, you have no obligation to do anything to help disconvivials. For disconvivials are enemies of convivials, not our friends.

Contract

Contract is the basis of trade between human beings. Two or more parties, who may be individuals or groups, make a mutual agreement. Each agrees voluntarily to carry out their side of the bargain. The agreement may be formal or not, depending on the circumstances. But a contract is only valid if it is made in good faith by all the parties. Therefore another convivial rule must be: Always deal in good faith.

If you agree to do something, voluntarily and in full knowledge of what you have taken on, then you must always try to fulfil your side of the agreement. Unless, of course, prevented from doing so by the default of another party. If the task becomes impossible, or not worth doing, for reasons outside your control, there may be scope for re-negotiation. But the basic rule is; always strive to keep your contracts.

As to difficulties which may arise during the performance of a contract, it is advisable to think through in advance what might go wrong, and agree what to do about it if it does. The best time to decide how to solve issues is before making a commitment, not when the issues happen.

There are many different types of contract. Business contracts are pre-eminent among them. You can contract to buy something, or to rent something, or to sell goods or services, and there are many permutations of these. One common type of contract today is a contract of employment, either for a fixed period or an open ended one.

There are also contracts of a more social nature. When you join a club and pay a subscription, you and the club enter into a contract. When you buy a flat or condominium, you sign a contract with the other owners. Some people may want to contract to live in a commune; for example, to join with others who share particular religious views, or preferred lifestyles, or political ideology. Examples of these have been monasteries, “free love” communes of the 1970s, and socialist experiments like the town of New Harmony, Indiana.

Then there is the so called “social contract.” In which a group of people, by agreeing to form a political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. They give up some of their freedoms, and they take on obligations to other members of the society, like military service and paying taxes. In exchange, they – in theory – receive protection of their remaining rights.

Today, of course, there are many difficulties with this idea. Like: Who, exactly, are the parties to the social contract? What, precisely, have I promised, and what have I been promised? What if things go wrong? And: I never agreed to any such damn thing! It is, indeed, one of my aims in these essays to try to point towards some possible solutions to these problems.

Last, I’ll mention relationship contracts. They can include, for example, a sexual partnership of two or more people of any mix of genders, with or without co-habitation. They might be one-off. Or for a fixed term, either long or short. Or for an initial term, renewable by agreement. They might be rooted in mutual service, or pay-per-ride.

Further up the scale, there is what I call a family contract, which in almost all cases is between two individuals of opposite sexes, and whose purpose is the founding or maintenance of a family. Co-habitation is usually included, and property arrangements on termination are extremely important. Further up the scale again is the traditional marriage contract, with a strong religious flavour, and strict conditions including “till death us do part.”

Discrimination

This is the place, I think, to bring up the vexed subject of discrimination. People are individuals; each is different. And each has his or her own combination of characteristics like race, culture, religion, political ideology and sexual orientation. Historically, most people have preferred (and many still prefer) to deal with those, who are like them in some or all of these ways. Is it, then, unconvivial conduct to discriminate for or against those who have particular traits?

In my view, all individuals and societies have the right to discriminate as they see fit. For example, a club may admit only members of certain races or religions. A company may refuse to hire Irish people, or former communists. A Christian baker may refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. A tall woman may refuse to offer her love to a shorter man. Convivial people, indeed, may prefer to associate with other convivial people rather than with disconvivials! These are not, in themselves, unconvivial conduct. However, it is unconvivial to discriminate in bad faith.

Thus if an individual, or a club or company, does not wish to deal with certain types of people, they must make that fact clear before any contract is negotiated. It is best, I think, if they make any such discriminatory policies public up front. Then, if they later try to withdraw from a contract into which other parties entered in good faith, they themselves are acting in bad faith.

Parenthood

Finally, there are convivial obligations which apply only to those who choose to have children.

First, parents are responsible, until the children are adult, for the consequences of their children’s actions towards third parties. So, they do have a right to control their children. But they should do this only in ways compatible with justice, and without using force except in extreme need. And second, parents have the responsibility to bring up and educate their children to become convivial human beings.

To sum up

Convivial conduct is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Conviviality is unrelated to the rules or laws of any particular culture or society.

In addition to the negative obligation not to violate the rights of others, there exist positive obligations of convivial conduct. Among these are:

  1. Be tolerant towards other convivial people; live and let live.
  2. Treat others at least as well as they treat you.
  3. If you unjustly cause harm to others, compensate them if they require it.
  4. If you do things that cause risk to others, ensure you can compensate them if you have to.
  5. Don’t willingly let yourself become a drain on others.
  6. Be independent; strive to create your own path in life.
  7. Always deal in good faith.
  8. Always strive to keep to contracts you have voluntarily entered into.
  9. If you have any discriminatory policy, make it public before negotiating any contract.
  10. If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be convivial human beings.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

On Rights

A right, according to Webster’s, is “something to which one has a just claim.” The word is often uttered in sonorous phrases like “natural rights,” “human rights” and “equal and inalienable rights.” So today I’ll ask, and try to answer, a few questions about these rights. Where do rights come from? What are rights? What is the relationship between rights and justice? Are rights the same for everyone? What kinds of rights are there? And can these rights be given up, withdrawn, or transferred to others?

To put this essay in context. It’s the third in a planned series of short articles, in which I aim to set out the foundations of my political philosophy. I do this because, like many other people, I’m fed up with today’s world of states and superstates, arbitrary borders, institutional dishonesty, heavy and unjust taxes, bad political agendas and wars. So, I want to do what I can to elicit and to elucidate a better way. But I caution that this is a work in progress.

Where do rights come from?

Some believe that rights derive from a god. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “all men... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But for those who, like me, don’t believe in a deity, this isn’t a useful answer.

A second view is that rights are granted by a government. Thus there are no natural rights, only legal rights. This idea seems to have originated at the time of the French Revolution with Jeremy Bentham, who called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” I find this view worse than useless. For it fails to provide any moral defence at all against a government that goes rogue, and oppresses the people it is supposed to serve – as in the French Revolution itself.

A third view is that rights arise from tradition. In this view, rights are granted through such documents as Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the first ten amendments to the US constitution. In other words, rights granted in the past by a government that was “up against the wall” and unable to proceed without making concessions to the people, become rights for all time. I find this a more agreeable view than the first two; but it still doesn’t cut any ice for me.

A fourth view, much favoured by authoritarians, is that there’s no such thing as a right. But this view invites the obvious rejoinder: If we don’t have any rights, then you don’t have any rights. So we can do to you whatever we want! And we know where you live...

Here’s my own view. For me, rights come from human nature. And in particular, from the nature of human beings to be convivial. This word, which literally means “living together,” I have borrowed from the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. I use it to mean treating others peacefully and civilly.

What are rights?

In my view, a right is a benefit, which an individual acquires when everyone with whom he deals keeps to a particular obligation or rule. For example, the right to life results when everyone keeps to the Judaeo-Christian rule “Thou shalt not kill.” Or, perhaps more accurately: “Thou shalt not kill human beings against their wills.”

The convivial rules which everyone should keep to, and the rights which accrue from them, are like two sides of the same coin. And for me, all rules which generate rights are negatives. Thus, they prohibit doing things that unjustly harm, or are likely to harm, others. This is not to say that individuals don’t have any positive obligations towards others; they do. But those obligations (which I’ll treat in a later essay) don’t generate what I mean here by the word “rights.”

I see these obligations as examples of the negative form of Confucius’ Golden Rule, normally quoted as: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to have done to you.” Thus, for example, those who don’t want their property stolen or trespassed on shouldn’t steal or trespass on the property of others. And those, who don’t want their privacy invaded, must refrain from invading others’ privacy.

There is, however, a difficulty with Confucius’ rule. Different people have different tastes. A masochist, for example, might be happy if you whip him. But you would probably not be happy if he did the same to you in return! A better statement of the rule, then, might be: “Don’t do to others what they don’t want to have done to them.” But this gives us a problem. To clarify what rights are, we need to construct a core list of things no-one should do to others, and of the corresponding rights we enjoy when others don’t do them to us. This is a hard task. I’ll give a few pointers later in this essay, but I’ll have to leave the detail for another day.

Rights and Justice

In an earlier essay “On Justice,” I discussed the nature of justice. The ideal I came up with, I call common sense justice. In this view, individuals should be treated, over the long term and in the round, as they treat others. It follows that rights must be conditional on the individual himself respecting the rights of others. Thus, rights are earned, not granted.

And those that do violate others’ rights can’t complain if they, in their turn, suffer violations of their own rights in reasonable proportion. This is why it’s OK, for example, to deny freedom of movement to convicted criminals in prison.

Are rights the same for everyone?

In my first essay in this series, “On Equality,” I identified the senses in which human beings are (or should be) equal to each other. One of these is moral equality. I put it thus: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa.

Because of this, the list of things which people shouldn’t do to others must be the same for everyone. Not only does this mean that the core rights of each individual must be the same. But also that these rights must be independent of any particular culture.

Further, anyone who respects others’ rights thereby earns rights for themselves. And therefore, rights cannot depend on involuntary characteristics such as race, skin colour, birthplace or gender. As I like to put it: It doesn’t matter who you are, only what you do.

What kinds of rights are there?

Looking at lists of claimed rights, for example the United Nations’ 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” I find myself dividing them into four groups. I call these: fundamental rights, rights of non-impedance, procedural rights and aspirations.

Fundamental Rights

Fundamental rights result from moral prohibitions – that is, obligations to refrain from doing something, which apply to everyone – of the form “Thou shalt not...” followed by something bad. For example: The right to life (thou shalt not kill). Dignity (thou shalt not treat human beings as less than human). Property (thou shalt not steal). No slavery. No torture. No cruel or unusual punishment. No unjust arrest or detention. No unjust interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. No untrue defamation. No coercion into marriage. And many others.

There are also some fundamental rights which should be in the Declaration, but aren’t. To find these, we need to look at other lists, for example the US Bill of Rights. I’d add at least the following examples. No unjust seizure of goods or other assets. No stalking or routine surveillance. No search without reasonable suspicion of real wrongdoing. And, in particular, no random searches, on any pretext.

Few people would deny that fundamental rights like these should be promoted and safeguarded. Moreover, fundamental rights are easy to measure respect for. With a fundamental right, such as the right to life, you always know where you are. Yes, you can say to yourself, I haven’t killed anyone. I’m OK on that one. And an hour later, you can check again. Yes, I still haven’t killed anyone. I’m still OK.

Rights of non-impedance

Rights of non-impedance, on the other hand, result from more nuanced moral prohibitions, of the form: “Thou shalt not put any obstacle in the way of...” followed by something good. And rights of non-impedance always carry an implied rider at the end. That is: “...provided it does not violate anyone else’s rights.”

In this category fall rights such as: Freedom of movement and residence. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of opinion and of speech. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Freedom to marry. Freedom to seek work. Free choice of employment.

And, as with fundamental rights, there are also some rights of non-impedance missing from the Declaration. The right to pursue happiness is one example.

Procedural rights

The third group I call procedural rights. These are rights which an individual has, not against other individuals, but against government as an institution. Examples include: equality before the law; public, impartial courts and trials; and innocence until proven guilty.

These rights only make sense in the context of a particular scheme of government. And they are often specific to a culture, or even to a jurisdiction. For example, trial by jury for criminal accusations is normal under English law, but not in many other systems of law. I’m planning several future essays on the subject of government. So, I won’t discuss these rights further today.

Aspirations

The fourth group of “rights,” which I call aspirations, aren’t really rights at all. Examples in the Declaration are the “right to work,” social security, a minimum standard of living, and “free” education. While many people would agree with the gist of these aspirations, there’s a problem with elevating them into rights. For, if such a “right” requires someone to pay so that others can have it, that is itself a violation of the rights of those who are forced to pay. In general, no claimed “right” can be valid if others’ rights must be violated in order to implement it.

There’s another problem too. If an aspiration like a minimum standard of living is elevated into a right, you never know where you are. You can’t be sure that you’re doing enough to respect the right. When you check an hour later, you still can’t be sure. Is there someone in Liberia, for example, you should have given a penny to in that last hour? You don’t know. You can never be sure you’re OK. And it’s almost impossible to defend yourself from an accusation that you aren’t respecting such a right.

But many of these aspirations can easily be re-cast as rights of non-impedance. For example, the “right to work” turns into the right not to be impeded from seeking work, or from doing work in whatever way is mutually most convenient to the parties involved. And the “right to a minimum standard of living” becomes a right not to be impeded from trading with others to get your needs satisfied. In other words, no-one should ever put any obstacle in the way of free access to the market.

Can rights be given up, withdrawn or transferred?

Lastly, the thorny questions of whether rights can be given up (alienated), withdrawn or transferred to someone else.

As to alienation, you may certainly choose to give up some of your rights in a particular situation, if you wish. If you have joined with other people in a defensive war or in a fight against oppression, for example, you may be willing to give up for the common cause some of your property, or some of your freedom of movement, or some of your opportunities for rest and leisure. You may even, if you so wish, give up your right to life by committing suicide or taking euthanasia. But you must make any such decisions rationally, and in full knowledge of the situation.

As to withdrawing rights, in my view a right may be withdrawn only temporarily, and only when required by objective, common sense justice, whether restorative or retributive. The way I put this is: Justice trumps rights. I gave earlier the example of a criminal, convicted of violating others’ rights, whose freedom of movement can be justly taken away for a period. And if actual harm has been caused, the individual can justly be made to compensate his victim.

Beyond justice, though, since rights are earned by respecting others’ rights, they are not granted by anyone or anything. And they therefore cannot be withdrawn.

As to transferring rights, you can of course choose to give some or all of your property to others if you so wish. But your fundamental rights and your rights of non-impedance remain always yours. You don’t give away any of your right to property, even if you give away all the property you currently hold! Any property you justly acquire afterwards is yours, not someone else’s.

So, while you can forego some of your rights for a time, or even permanently if you wish, you can’t assign or transfer any of them to anyone else.

To sum up

Rights – that is, fundamental rights and rights of non-impedance – come from human nature. Every valid right arises out of a moral prohibition. Rights are earned by respecting the rights of others. And they are the same for everyone.

The rights of those that have caused harm to others, or committed violations of others’ rights, may be violated in proportion, insofar as is necessary to implement common sense justice. But the rights of those who respect the rights of others, unless they voluntarily choose to forego them, must not be violated. Not for any reason. Not ever.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

On Justice

Like “equality,” which I discussed recently, the word “justice” is used with different meanings by those of differing political opinions. I thought it might be of interest to compare and contrast some of these meanings, and to offer my own ideas on the subject too.

The question “what is justice?” sounds simple. Yet an attempt to apply to it that bluntest of philosophical instruments, the dictionary, rapidly ends up going in circles. Justice, we find, is just conduct or fairness. Fairness is being fair, or otherwise said, just or equitable. Equitable means – yes, you’ve guessed it, fair or just.

Perhaps one useful thing we can learn from this exercise is the etymology of the word justice. It comes from the Latin ius, normally translated as “law” or “right.” But it’s important to note that ius is law in the sense of agreements and commitments between people; as opposed to lex, which is law in the sense of legislation imposed from above.

Looking at what pundits of the past have had to say on the subject seems more promising. I’ll start with Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who flourished in the early 3rd century BC. He said: “Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming another.” This is, to me, a very deep insight. For, first, it tells us that justice is something natural. Second, that it is a two way process. And third, that it is about not harming others.

But Epicurus aside, few thinkers seem to have dared to try to define what justice is. Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the 3rd century AD, opined: “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to allot to everyone his due.” The difficulty with this, of course, is in determining exactly what is due, and who has the right to allot it. And few, if any, other definitions of justice seem to have survived the test of time to take their places in the quotation book.

Kinds of justice

What kinds of justice are put forward as desirable? First, there is Epicurus’ justice; a two way pledge intended to prevent individuals harming each other. This is sometimes called commutative justice (the word “commutative” means “working either way round.”)

Second, there is the kind of justice delivered by honest, non-politicized courts of law. This divides, broadly, into two. One, restorative justice; that is, enforcing compensation by the perpetrator to the victim or victims of an actual harm. And two, if appropriate, retributive justice; that is, criminal punishment according to the perpetrator’s intent to cause harm to others. These kinds of justice, at least when dispensed honestly, are rooted in Epicurus’ ideal.

Third is distributive justice. This term is used to cover, for example, the promotion of a fair or just distribution of some good, such as income, wealth or political power. But there doesn’t seem to be any necessary relation between this kind of justice and the Epicurean kind. And its promoters fail to tell us exactly and without doubt what they mean by “just,” or where they get the right to decide what is fair for others.

Fourth is “social justice.” It’s hard to work out exactly what this means. Wikipedia calls it “a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society.” But here again, “fair” and “just” are not elucidated. And what or which, precisely, is “society?”

My own view of justice

I am strongly in favour of commutative justice. The way I see it, there should be a close relation between the way an individual treats others and the way the individual is treated by others. I call this idea “common sense justice.”

So, those who do not treat others badly deserve not to be treated badly. For example, those who do not violently attack others deserve not to be violently attacked. Those who do not rob others deserve not to be robbed. Those who do not defraud others deserve not to be defrauded. And those, who do not place obstacles in the way of others’ progress or the satisfaction of their desires, deserve not to have their own progress or desires obstructed.

On the other hand, those that behave badly towards others in any of these ways can have no cause for complaint if others, in their turn, do correspondingly nasty things to them. And those that maliciously or irresponsibly do wrongs to innocent people can expect not only to be made to compensate their victims in full, but to be punished in addition.

But common sense justice has a positive side, too. Each individual, who treats others well, deserves to be treated equally well in return. Those who honestly earn prosperity, pleasures, thanks or appreciation should receive all the prosperity, pleasures, thanks and appreciation they have earned. And so, putting the positive side together with the negative, we arrive at what seems to me a decent definition of justice. That is: Justice is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others.

So my ideal of justice, like that of Epicurus, aims to minimize injustice. It strives to avoid gross or persistent treatment of individuals worse than they treat others.

I’ll add one supporting argument. If a society existed based on common sense justice, everyone in it would have a positive incentive to behave well towards others. For in such a society, the way to get more of what you want, the way to get treated better by others, is to treat others better! Imagine how peaceful, happy and prosperous such a society could be.

Lady Justice

As to the kind of justice which is (or should be) delivered by courts of law, there is a common personification of justice as “Lady Justice.” She carries three objects: a blindfold, a pair of scales and a sword. The blindfold represents impartiality and objectivity. The scales represent the weighing of the evidence in every case. And the sword is the instrument of punishment.

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had this to say about justice. “Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.” I would add that the scales of justice, beyond weighing the evidence, have another function too. That is, accurately to balance the rights and interests of each individual against the rights and interests of others.

As Penn suggests, in a proper system of justice, what matters in any case is not who an individual is, but only what they do. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what colour someone’s skin is. It doesn’t matter where they were born. It doesn’t matter what religion they were brought up in. It doesn’t matter what their gender or their sexual preferences may be. All that matters is their actions and their intent towards others.

Once courts of law become politicized, though – as too many are today – then justice loses both its impartiality and its balance. Such courts cease to make decisions and to mete out punishments on the basis of natural justice or ius. Instead, they become merely a means of implementing lex; that is, of enforcing bad laws made by dishonest politicians.

Such a politicized system of “justice” inevitably leads to quite the opposite of natural justice. And Epicurus himself knew this. For he said: “If a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just.”

Distributive justice

When we look at distributive justice, it’s all but impossible to separate the concept of justice from the closely related idea of equality. John Stuart Mill had this to say on the subject: “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice.”

What Mill is saying here is that it’s what an individual deserves which matters for the purpose of justice. And not – for example – what that individual needs. I agree heartily. Indeed, I like to go further, and make my own version of Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his deserts.”

More recently, John Rawls in his “original position” argument has put forward an egalitarian flavour of distributive justice. In this thought experiment, a group of people aim to agree on a political and economic structure for themselves. Each is behind a veil of ignorance. Meaning, they don’t know what their own abilities or characteristics will be, or how well a particular social structure will favour them. Rawls argues that they will use a strategy called maximin, aiming to maximize the payoff in the event of the worst possible outcome. From this he deduces that (beyond a basic minimum set of rights and liberties) any inequalities that do exist must benefit the least advantaged. This is usually interpreted as supporting economic egalitarianism.

Even if I buy Rawls’ argument up to the maximin bit (and I’m not sure I do), I disagree fundamentally with the conclusion. Recall, if you will, that when I looked at equality, I came out strongly in favour of political equality and moral equality, but very much against the idea of equality of outcome. If I were in Rawls’ original position behind my veil of ignorance, I would choose a social structure based on political equality, not economic. That is, I would pick the kind of equality in which no individual is subject to another, and no-one has power over another.

Moreover, I expect that any society built on enforced economic equality would very soon cease to be egalitarian. For, if some are allowed to re-distribute others’ earnings or wealth as they see fit, who will stop them re-distributing those earnings or that wealth into their own pockets?

Social justice

Most promoters of “social justice” use it as an excuse for ever increasing government powers over everyone, particularly through taxation. For example, to quote a 2006 United Nations report: “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.” Such conceits are both unjust and hateful. And most of all, when they are uttered by highly paid bureaucrats, that have never contributed anything to the economy, to human knowledge or to technology.

Further, when implemented, this “social justice” leads inevitably to a three-class society, as we see today. On the one hand, there is the productive class of honest, economically active people, who are drained of our earnings and denied the wealth we deserve. On the other, there is a recipient class, spoon-fed drips of wealth that they do not earn. And between and above the two is a rich, politicized class of the powerful and their cronies. That class creams off for itself much of the wealth generated by the productive, and feeds the remainder to the recipient class in exchange for their votes and political support. Only one of these three classes gets a net benefit from such a system. Guess which?

An even more damning view of social justice comes from Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke. “Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ ... If ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.’”

Bombastic though Korwin-Mikke’s statement may seem, I think it has a substantial kernel of truth. For me, “social justice” is a perversion of the idea of justice, in which something called “society” (with or without a capital S) takes pride of place over the individual, and over natural justice. This perversion, I think, would be better called social injustice.

Then there is the authoritarianism of so called “social justice warriors.” Such individuals identify themselves with groups who have, or have had in the past, some real or perceived grievance; women, gay people or black people, for example. And they seek to empower these groups at the expense of everyone else. At the same time, many of them want to enforce political correctness, and to stifle the freedom of speech of those who disagree with them. The result, again, is not social justice, but social injustice.

So for me, the phrase “social justice” is no more than a fig leaf, under which political activists seek to hide the fact that what they want is to do injustices to innocent people. For me, such individuals are worse than criminal. Far from being either social or just, they are not fit to be admitted into any society of just, honest people. Not even a tiddlywinks club.

To sum up

Justice, for me, is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. Or, otherwise put, in which people receive what they deserve. My sense of justice is consistent with Epicurus’ idea, of a pledge that seeks to stop individuals harming each other. It is also consistent with conventional forms of civil and criminal justice, provided that the justice they deliver is honest and non-politicized.

In contrast, distributive “justice” bears no relation to justice. And so called “social justice” is merely a euphemism, used as a decoy by those with an agenda to harm innocent people.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Blog Merge

Recently, I made the decision to take my first book, a science fiction novel called "Going Galactic" which I published in 2012, off the market.

I've now merged my blog "Going Galactic" for that book into this blog, "Honest Common Sense." If you're still interested in reading "Going Galactic," you can find the text (all 52 chapters of it) in the archives of this blog. The chapters start in September 2013 and go on until the end of 2014.

I'll continue to post both my "serious" and more frivolous works on this blog.

Neil Lock
November 1st, 2017