“In some ways, people everywhere are similar to one another. We want to be loved, we care about the respect of other people and of ourselves, and we do not like to be taken advantage of.” -Roger Fisher and William Ury
I think that justice is one of the most profound concepts in political theory and philosophy, and it’s a concept that is deeply consequential in our personal lives. I don’t think it’s a mistake that justice is included among the four Greek virtues along with courage, temperance, and prudence. And I don’t think it is by chance that justice is included among the four principles of medical ethics along with beneficence, non-maleficence, and autonomy. And it is unsurprising that Plato devoted the entirety of The Republic to examine the question of what constitutes justice as a virtue.
We have questions of justice in terms of procedural justice and distributive justice; we have questions of justice as it relates to natural rights and natural law; we have questions of justice as it relates to authority; we have questions of justice as it relates to the individual in how to live justly and how to treat others justly. Justice is one of the most important philosophical concepts to consider because it incorporates both considerations of morality and considerations of ethics. The moral and normative values that a person settles on will guide the ethical framework a person uses to consider personal, interpersonal, and societal questions, and the judgment made on questions of what is morally appropriate will inform answers to what is ethically called for. How closely our actions and their consequences — at multiple structural levels from the individual, to interpersonal relationships, to society — align with those abstractions and conceptions and how we can more closely align our actions with those ideas, in my view, defines our pursuit, our understanding, and our dialogue of justice.
Justice is a concept that has been thought about and written about extensively. It’s one of the deepest concepts concerning human society and human interaction. But my intention with writing this isn’t to elaborate or elucidate the nature of justice — that is a task that I feel wholly unqualified to undertake. Moreover, it is a subject that has been covered and written about so extensively and so thoroughly and so eloquently, that any additional formulation I could make would likely be redundant, rough, and inadequate to what has already been written and discussed.
My intention is to discuss what I view as sources of injustice. In my experience, it is important to distinguish these sources and causes because: A) knowing what the right thing to do is incredibly difficult to achieve and B) actually doing the right thing can be even more difficult and challenging. However, I think it is far easier to understand and to know when justice has not been achieved and when we have experienced injustice. And I think that it is valuable to understand sources of injustice.
As a primer, it is my view that the cause of injustice on the individual level and at the level of community and society can be boiled down to malevolence or ignorance. With this in mind, there are 3 vitally important questions to consider: What is the substantive difference between the two if any as it relates to injustice? Can the difference between the 2 be distinguished? What precedes these considerations of injustice?
Considerations of Outcomes of Injustice
I think that it is fair to say that though all of us may have disagreements regarding what actions, what rules, what laws, what outcomes, and what consequences meet the criteria of just and virtuous, it is far, far easier to recognize where injustice has occurred. However, what I would argue is that injustice is an outcome of a set of actions and that it is imperative that we identify the source of injustice if we are to have any hope of addressing injustice.
“…if one could attenuate to every available data stream in the world simultaneously, it would be possible to anticipate and deduce almost anything.”
-Sherlock Holmes, BBC Series
Injustice as I conceptualize the idea is an outcome of actions. The problem with determinations of justice and injustice become a matter of knowledge and the limitations of human understanding. As imperfect creatures, we cannot hope for perfect information or omniscience. Whenever people make decisions, we make considerations for the circumstances that give rise to the need to make a decision and the possible outcomes of our decisions. And because it is almost impossible to predict the consequences of any given action, I would argue that it is almost impossible to determine beforehand whether any given action is just or unjust until we account for all factors that are weighed in the decision-making process: the interpretation of information available, the intention/goals/justification for pursuing any given decision or course of action, the consideration for likely foreseeable short-term and long-term consequences, and the ultimate outcomes of a course of action.
But there’s just no way to know all of this information, have all of it available, or even comprehend in any sense of completeness the entirety of this knowledge. As a result, what we often experience as an outcome of any decision or course of action is pain, suffering, or misery. Moreover, this is an experience that is at best random/by chance/happenstance and at worst undeserved or unearned. In my view, it is this experience that constitutes the essence of injustice, whether that experience is felt by the individual or by a collective community.
In short, regardless of the cause of injustice — be it malevolence or ignorance — the outcome remains the same. This is what makes injustice such a difficult challenge to resolve adequately because regardless of the source of injustice and regardless of the cause, the outcome of injustice remains the same — pain, misery, suffering. And it is because the outcome of injustice is the same in nearly all of its forms, inadequate attention is paid to the cause or source of it. And this is a completely understandable impulse: that we all have a moral duty and ethical obligation to address outcomes of injustice is obvious. However, in failing to account for the cause of injustice — in failing to account for the interpretation of information available, the intention/goals/justification for pursuing any given decision or course of action, the consideration for likely foreseeable short-term and long-term consequences, and the ultimate outcomes of a course of action — we arrive at solutions or courses of redress that are incomplete at best and ineffective at worst.
It is for this reason that it is imperative to examine the substantive differences between the causes of injustice — it allows us to implement better and more effective solutions to achieve better outcomes.
Distinguishing Between Causes
“You have to assess whether it’s incompetence or is it actual bad faith. And that can be difficult”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
It is important to distinguish between whether or not injustice is a result of malevolence or the result of ignorance because the appropriate approach to address either are vastly different.
“The hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to right these great wrongs.” -W.E.B. Du Bois
It is in my view that there are two primary causes of injustice: malevolence and ignorance. Both are important to consider because they concern both the cause of why injustice is occurring and the obstacles in remedying them and achieving justice. And it is important to be able to distinguish between either cause because the most appropriate form of redress is different in either situation. But distinguishing between the two is not easy and straightforward, and as a result, it is vitally important to identify, define, and understand those two causes.
2 Sources of Injustice
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The concept of evil is a hotly debated topic and in elaborating on the idea of malevolence, I’m not making an attempt to speak to the existence of evil or the nature of evil. When I refer to malevolence, I am referring to the human passion and impulse towards malice. It can be thought of in many terms that are similar and seek to define the same concept: bad faith, deception, dishonesty, viciousness, malice, wickedness.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
-Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight
Of the two sources of injustice, malevolence is by far the most insidious, the most dangerous, and the most challenging issue to address. As I understand malevolence, the reason why it is so damaging is because it damages people’s relationships to each other. Think about all of our interactions with each other in our daily lives, all of our interactions within and between our communities and societies, and all of our interactions with the ones that we love and care about. Whether they are social, economic, professional, romantic, platonic, pedagogic, or otherwise, all of those interactions form the basis of communicative, transactional, and supportive relationships. But in a truly damaging and devastating way, malevolence impairs the quality of the relationship itself and/or impairs our ability to form productive, meaningful, and mutually beneficial relationships.
How do we know when people are acting badly? I think that knowing with certainty that people are acting badly is an enormously difficult thing to attain, much less to prove. And more importantly, beyond knowing whether or not someone is acting badly, what is the most effective way to respond to bad actors? I think that this is one of the most difficult questions to answer, and it’s not clear to me that humanity has ever been able to adequately respond to malevolence. The reason for this is because there are 2 issues to address when dealing with injustice as a result of malevolence: how do we appropriately respond to the bad action itself and how do we respond in such a way that also helps to repair the relationships that have been damaged?
I don’t know the answer to these questions beyond the fact that we need to keep trying no matter what. And maybe to keep trying no matter what is the only solution to malevolence. I don’t plan on delving into the nature and existence of evil except to say that perhaps evil will always exist in the world and that humanity must contend with necessary evils. Whether it is man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self, conflict has always been a part of human history. But somehow we have found a way to persevere through those conflicts and those challenges to achieve the progress we are experiencing today. So maybe conflict with malevolence in some form or another is ineradicable from human existence. But even so, maybe the only response we have to confront malevolence is the only one we’ve ever employed and the only one we continue to use: to perpetually persevere, persist, and pursue our highest aims and highest goods as individuals and as a community.
“There are no bad ideas, only great ideas that go horribly wrong.”
-Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock
I think that the concept of ignorance is better understood than malevolence. As result, ignorance as a cause of injustice is much more mundane and much less insidious than malevolence. It is an area and cause of injustice that the greatest progress towards achieving justice has been made and where even further advancements can be achieved.
“In most cases, people, even wicked people, are for more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Injustice as an outcome that results from a deficiency of understanding — of failing to account for the interpretation of information available, failing to adequately and clearly elucidating the intention/goals/justification for pursuing any given decision or course of action, the failure to make considerations for likely foreseeable short-term and long-term consequences, and incomplete or premature assessments of the ultimate outcomes of a course of action — is infinitely more understandable, more easily addressed, and with success that has more been much more demonstrably achieved.
In many ways, the majority of human progress made towards justice in human history has been a result of addressing ignorance — improving our understanding of the world, improving our understanding of ideas, improving our understanding of what it means for people to live together in society, and improving our understanding of what it means to be human. People are living longer now than they ever have before thanks to advancements in public health and sanitation. Human society is able to feed and support more people than at any point before thanks to advancements in agriculture, science, infrastructure, and economic transactions. And human society is more stable, more prosperous, and more free than at any other point in the history of human civilizations because of the advancements we have made in law and ethics. These all stand as a testament to humanity’s ability to address injustice as a result of ignorance.
That’s not to say that addressing it is easy; it’s only to say that addressing it is much less difficult (though undoubtedly difficult nonetheless). And that’s not to say that progress in addressing injustice attributable to ignorance has been linear and uninterrupted. Rectifying injustice that comes as a result of ignorance has come about largely by trial and error, with the benefits of redress distributed unevenly across populations, and with solutions that has sometimes caused new injustices to arise out of the improvements made to correct previous problems.
Human ignorance will always be a challenging obstacle because there are things we know, there are things we don’t know, and there are things we don’t know that we don’t know. And often times we don’t make that discovery until after we’ve made that mistake. And it seems that for every answer to produce, we encounter two new questions that desperately and direly require adequate solutions to. But injustice as a result of ignorance is solvable, and we know how to solve it because we have solved it countless times throughout our past. And I believe that solution is a matter of knowledge and wisdom — something that humanity has always endeavored itself towards and something that we must continue to endeavor ourselves toward if we hope to address ignorance as a source of injustice.
Considerations for Apathy
“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
-Neil Peart, Rush — Free Will
One last consideration I wanted to make with regards to the nature of injustice is apathy. And in thinking about the question of where injustice comes from I hesitated whether to include apathy as a possible 3rd source of injustice, as an inextricable component of malevolence and ignorance, or as a reason for why injustice is not alleviated. However, the conclusion I have come to is that apathy precedes any consideration of achieving justice because apathy is an obstacle to achieving any virtue.
And I am including this consideration for apathy because it is my view that apathy is dangerous. Apathy is an indifference that leads towards nihilism — purposeless, pointlessness, and resignation to defeat. Apathy is not stoicism. Stoicism is an indifference towards drives, desires, and wants that don’t fulfill a need for virtue. Stoicism contrasts sharply with apathy in that if someone has apathy towards an understanding of virtue, understanding of the self, understanding of knowledge and wisdom, that precludes any discussion and consideration of what is justice and what is injustice.
And in some ways, apathy as a passion and emotion that precedes virtue, ethics, morality, and justice is most tragic. Because apathy is an acknowledgement of defeat, apathy is an acknowledgement of impotence, and apathy is an abandonment of faith — abandonment of the faith in ourselves as individuals, faith in what we have achieved in our history, and faith in what we can achieve in the future. Apathy precedes our most disheartening tragedy and it is the passion that leads us to abdicate our best path towards humanity’s most profound source of joy and satisfaction: the abdication of our struggle towards a meaningful, sincere, authentic, and valuable life.
Progress Towards Justice
“Everyone wants to participate in decisions that affect them; fewer and fewer people will accept decisions dictated by someone else. People differ, and they use negotiation to handle their differences.”
-Roger Fisher and William Ury
Discussions and dialogue regarding what is ethical and morally just, virtuous, and wise have been occurring throughout human history. It has been written about and discussed for thousands of years, and it is a topic of concern for religious beliefs, philosophical thought, human literature, and cultural norms throughout the world. It is a debate that has been ongoing and it has been a process of constant discovery and re-discovery — both on a societal level and on an individual level. And it is has been a difficult, frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes demoralizing effort. Few, if any, definitive conclusions have been reached, and the implementation of our values and understanding of justice and morals has been incredibly imperfect. For many throughout history, progress has been so slow as to be unrealized by many who lived through history, and the present perception for many is that the problem of injustice is intractable because for every 3 steps forward it seems like we take 2 steps back.
However, it is my firm belief that progress has been made. But it is also my firm belief that we cannot take progress for granted nor can we assume that progress is automatically a given. Technological, economic, and social achievements and progress have ushered in new and unanticipated challenges that we are striving just as hard now to resolve as we have ever striven in the past. Our thirst, our hunger, and our desire for justice — within our own lives, within the lives of those we care about, and within the lives of those we live with — remains just as unquenched, unsatisfied, and unmet now as it did millennia ago. And it is my view that the only way to continue to advance and move forward and grow is to continue the discussion and dialogue that has been occurring throughout our shared human history.
Adequate answers and solutions will refuse to come easy, the benefits and consequences will continue to be experienced unevenly, and there will always be competing claims with valid justifications to weigh. But choosing not to act is still an action, and choosing not to undertake this difficult task and continue this challenging and sometimes infuriating dialogue and debate would be an action that flies in the face of what humanity has done in the past to bring us to where we are in the present. And I think it is by doing what we have always done, and reaffirming those principles and beliefs in the present, that represents our best chance at moving forward substantively into the future. -GP
“And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”