“The interest, on which justice is founded, is the greatest imaginable, and extends to all times and places. It cannot be possibly serv’d by any other invention. It is obvious, and discovers itself on the very first formation of society.”
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 669.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 23-12-2009. I don’t know how good or bad what follows is, but it is for sure a great quote.]
Call it the Roddenberry-principle: you can’t imagine, can’t conceive of, a society that is composed of intelligent individuals in which there is no basic notion of justice & therefore of fairness. So much so that even the biggest bands of thieves have some code of law internal to them and that any changes to current laws are invariably justified – with recourse to some ‘higher’ principle of justice.
That much I consider obvious although it is certainly not obvious that the order of ‘justice’ that so prevails is just or more precisely, the title of Rawls’ main book being very well chosen, fair. The latter is my concession to those that like to call cultural optimists naive. It is not much of a concession because my reading of Hume is that quite a lot of substance is entailed by Hume’s treatment of morals & that consequently lots of what we call progress by human invention is an unavoidable long term consequence of any society where civility is sustained through sufficiently long periods of time.
[Shorter: the concept of seeing justice as unavoidable cannot be emptied into the admission that some order is implicit in the concept of society. The unavoidable is not just order but an order that cannot but move into the direction of more & more fairness.]
The proviso of ‘long periods of time’ is needed because it is undeniably so that we experience regular breakdowns where a majority is convinced that, whatever a game life is, it’s basically a negative sum one in which at least some others need to loose everything before they can win. This is not even a concession because it may be undeniable that we do experience such periods within which there is that type of regress, it is also – up to now – undeniable that these periods, however too long they may be always end and get integrated in longer periods where the end result is one of net gain.
To illustrate my premise in the metaphor of game theory:
When resources are scarce life is a struggle for life and hence de facto a non-zero sum game where the non-zero sum is negative (i.e. necessity knows no law). The denial of this is the essence of the modern political spinning of win-win scenarios that, necessarily, can only be win-win by abstracting the loss to the others as irrelevant or unavoidable – & hence the marriage in modern politics between ‘realism’, ‘common sense’ & ‘win-win’ in an attempt to subvert intuitive longing for cosiness into a blatant disregard for those that loose out ‘because they didn’t try hard enough’.
But insofar as human invention succeeds in alleviating this struggle for life (to retain only the form of the struggle & the form of the game, where the essence still is non-zero negative sum but where the sum is not expressed in life or death of individuals) we’ll see, as Hume observes, that we all can gain (at least life-wise) if we focus our energy on the increase of human inventivity and, hence, if we cooperate. So much so that weak societies will, in circumstances of non-scarcity, tend to win over time from belligerent societies (mostly by inducing internal revolts within the latter type of society – inducing not by direct action but by the mere setting of an example of how one can live better and less stressful).
Let me say in passing that one of the crucial human inventions often forgotten is the invention of reducing the human population by other means than by war, famine or other destruction. Any cosy politics that avoids ‘engineering’ growth of the over-all population cannot but be unjust and unfair.
[With hindsight this needs qualification: the ‘engineering’ I refer to is not forcing but ensuring sufficient education allowing people to make decisions about birth instead of birth making all their decisions for them. Most societies with an order of justice will have some such ‘engineering’ and the most striking example of how a society fairs without it is that of the world society which is decidedly unfair as we all know from watching the news.]
Coming back to the premise: the reason why we still have so much problems of injustice and unfairness is because we did not have a sufficient amount of time under which to develop justice and fairness and/or because there still is too much scarcity and hence too much struggle in which people can claim the moral high ground in a way banning others to the flat lands.
That being as it may it is self-evident that, given time and given human invention that alleviates scarcity [e.g. by controlling population growth], what will emerge is progressively more perfection and a justice of the type argued by Rawls as one that is fair. The key point being that this progress materializes as progress and hence without the need for Rawls’ artificial reasoning. Justice as fairness cannot but emerge as reasonable once scarcity has been suppressed and all the human energy is geared to the struggle for being inventive instead of the struggle for life [people will still loose but it will be losing a game, not something essential in their lives.]
More than this: all of this justice as fairness is entailed by the very first justice in the Humean sense. The progress is not one of content (because there is only form to it, and no content, see elsewhere) but one of increasing applicability both class-wise (in a first movement) & geography-wise (in a second movement). This progress can’t but be accompanied by an at least perceived loss of some individuals (that are used to winning at the expense of others in a condition of scarcity). The latter is what war, essentially, is made of. The solution does not lie solely – and not even primarily – in forcing the individuals that stand to lose [the ruling class] into their loss. Doing this is as stupid (in most – but not all! – contexts) as coercing an unjust and unfair society to adopt what’s the established practice of jusice and fairness in more evolved societies (Iraq and Afghanistan spring to mind). Maybe I’ll be able to draw out this comparison another time (maybe piggybacking on something in Rawls’ Law of Peoples) but suffice to say here that in line with the conception of justice outlined any coercion is in the realm of non-zero negative sum games whilst the patience for evolution counting on the just and the fair being contagious principles is the one that will prove most effective (the only exceptions where war is justified is where there is an ultimate threat in the sense of what was discussed higher as ‘breakdowns’: a lack of education – specifically for women – and a clear breakdown into a less just and more unfair society because of an onset of new scarcity or perceived scarcity).
In the end maybe this is the thought: we don’t need to engineer people nor society but we do need to engineer away any scarcity of necessary goods and if necessary (contra Roddenberry this time) by decreasing the competition for these goods on the demand side (whenever we feel a restriction on the supply side).
(And now I will turn back to language and intention!, if anybody was worrying)
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Sonny Rollins, soneymoon, 2007.]