What Does It Matter Anyway?


I have been posting about the relation between justice and equality.  Why do I care what people think about that relation, and why should anybody else care?  Aristotle, Harry Potter (Joanne Rowling, actually), Martha Nussbaum, and Moses?  Good grief, who’s next?

Justice is a lofty ideal, and it would be strange indeed to hear anyone seeking a position of leadership in the United States speak against the ideal of justice.  What I hope I have been able to point out, however, is that there is not agreement on what justice involves in theory or practice.

The biblical view of justice involves fairness but with a compelling bias toward the poor and disadvantaged in the society.  Biblical justice does not merely measure or balance; it rolls up its sleeves and gives compassionate help to the deprived, with special care not to trample on their dignity, not to shame them.  The aristocratic ideal of justice, in which the more important people rightly receive the larger shares, stands diametrically opposed to the biblical view.

An observation I have long found most helpful comes from the Jewish philosopher and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel in his work, The Prophets.  Heschel insists we human beings and our societies do not need more people who extol the lofty ideal of justice but, rather, more who refuse to abide the injustices done to others.  Praise justice all day every day, and you offer the world hot air.  Make yourself care about the wrongs done to the vulnerable and the sufferings inflicted upon them and keep caring and unite with others who care, and you can make justice happen for those who need it most.

Without empathy and compassion, justice does not happen.  Without respect for the human dignity of those whose dignity and worth are being denied, what passes for justice is little more than the conceit of those who have done very well reaching down to do a bit of good for the poor unfortunates – or as they are now being labeled, the lazy and dependent who will not take personal responsibility for their own well-being.

A teacher is invited to participate in an education round-table discussion by a presidential candidate.  He, the candidate, spells out his views on what’s wrong with America’s public schools and his desired means for making teachers and administrators accountable.  The teacher, imagining she has been invited to discuss education issues, says she can answer each of the candidate’s points.  He replies that he has not asked her a question.  End of discussion.  Clearly, her thoughts do not matter because she is only, well, a school teacher and a female one at that.

The Aristocratic view of justice as proportional, meaning the more important people receive justice only when they are given more respect, more regard, more wealth, and much more say than the rest of us can be proudly and confidently dismissive of the thoughts, needs, sufferings, and hopes of the lesser people.  And it is.  It is dismissive.  That’s the way of “proper pride.”  It’s the way of people who really do think they are more important and more deserving than others.  Give them deference, and they may toss you some charity; it makes them feel good to be charitable, and it makes them look good, too.

Proper Pride


One side of our training as Americans has encouraged us to believe that all people are created equal, even though we may struggle to clarify just what we mean by this inherent equality. Another side of our training has taught us to practice the cynical belief that, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all people are equal, “but some are more equal than others.” Justice and equality go together in one part of the American psyche but not in the other.  We love liberty but glorify royalty, root for the underdog but revere the rich and famous.  We talk about equality while maintaining our feelings of superiority or inferiority, based upon our social classes.

When liberals speak of the greed and excess of the very rich, conservatives accuse them of class warfare.  That very label, “class warfare,” voices their belief that the rich are a higher class of human beings – the VIPs, the very important people.  The rest of us are the common folk, the little guys, workers and consumers to be measured and rewarded by percentages.  We are the spectators who get excited when we spot a celebrity in our midst.  We follow the doings of the rich and famous, admiring their glamor and gossiping about their foibles, like house servants in the kitchen while the master and mistress dine.

In the seventh Harry Potter novel, The Deathly Hallows, the house elf named Creature parrots the class pride of the family he “lives to serve” as he contrasts its two scions, Sirius and Regulus Black, both deceased.

“Master Sirius ran away, good riddance, for he was a bad boy and broke my Mistress’s heart with his lawless ways.  But Master Regulus had proper pride; he knew what was due to the name of Black and the dignity of his pure blood.” (DH, 193)

Though he is a slave, Creature nourishes his ego on the sustenance that psychiatrist Donald L. Nathanson identifies as “borrowed pride.”  From his position at the very bottom of his society, he offers a slave’s adoration to the “proper pride” of his masters and mistresses who identify themselves as pure-bloods.  Creature’s servile admiration represents the attitude aristocrats expect from their lessers in human society.  Equality is the effrontery of rebellious slaves, the improper dream of house servants and fieldhands, the pretense to professionalism of public school teachers, the arrogance of labor unions in making demands upon the owners (who sometimes speak and act as though they owned “their” workers and not just the business).

What then is justice if notions of equality are offensive to the proper pride of the very important people?  The aristocratic answer goes back at least as far as Aristotle who explained justice as proportional rather than equal, but really it goes even further to the very dawn of civilization.  The Hebrew Scriptures portray it in the pharaoh of Egypt who scorns the slave-God of Moses and lays heavier burdens upon his slaves because they seem to have time to listen to talk of freedom and so to challenge the class structure supposedly established by Egypt’s gods.

Discussing Aristotle’s ethics in his book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “We [modern people] think that human beings, at least in ethical theory, all have equal rights, and that justice involves equality; Aristotle thinks that justice involves, not equality, but right proportion, which is only sometimes equality (1131b).”  Russell explains Aristotle’s view of ethics further, “In unequal relations, it is right, since everybody should be loved in proportion to his worth, that the inferior should love the superior more than the superior loves the inferior: wives, children, subjects, should have more love for husbands, parents, and monarchs than the latter have for them.”

Aristotle makes proportional justice sound mathematically pretty, well-ordered, and proper.  He writes:

The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (proportion being not a property only of the kind of number which consists of abstract units, but of number in general).  For proportion is equality of ratios  . . .  (1131.3.30)

From Aristotle’s perspective, the American notion that “all men [human beings] are created equal,” is just plain wrong and can lead only to gross injustices against those persons of greater value.  Russell observes that this Aristotelian understanding of proportionate justice with proper inequality rather than egalitarian justice formed the basis for the thought world of the Middle Ages, when lords were lords and serfs were serfs, but my concern is with the persistence of similar aristocratic views of human inequality in current America.

To be sure, all human beings are not equal in every way.  Consider just the obvious matters of physical strength and stamina, athletic skill, facility with, say, mathematics, and résumé of achievements.  I express my thoughts in writing rather quickly and easily but sing terribly and produce drawings unworthy of a reasonably talented eight-year-old.  I have a good eye and so have been able to hit the object at which I threw, sink jump shots and hook shots on the run, and shoot pool fairly well in my youth; but I take longer than usual time finding the object I seek in a cluttered room.  In contrast, I have a son who can scan the room mentally when he is not even in it and locate (in his mental image!) the object he seeks.

So, yes, we human beings differ one from another, but the issue is equal value and dignity as persons, an equality that forms the basis for equal rights and equal treatment under the law.  American democracy with its one vote per person offends the proper pride of the more important people.  Hence the rightness in the eyes of American aristocrats of efforts to suppress the vote among supposedly unworthy segments of American citizens.  For the aristocratic-minded, the business world’s proportional boardroom voting seems much better: not one vote per person but one vote per share of stock owned.  That’s proportional justice at its simple best!  For the Aristotelian, how much fairer it would seem to restructure America’s election of its leaders on some form of proportional voting that would rid us of these notions of human equality.

Creature the house elf learns in the end what it feels like to find true dignity instead of the borrowed pride of the servile.  As Americans, we are still struggling with that lesson.

Lord Help the Sister


Sunday was Independence Day in the United States, or was it Monday? However the holiday was split, the nation celebrated its declared independence from foreign rule along with its affirmation of the equality of all human beings before our Creator, even if there were a great many exceptions to the equality back in the early years of the nation’s life and even though there continue to be exceptions to equality today in this disturbing time when civil and human rights are held up to scorn by political opportunists playing upon the fear and rage inflamed predictably by our current Great Recession.

My personal celebration of the nation’s birthday included buying and beginning to read Amartya Sen’s short book, Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny. Because I have been doing more writing the reading, I am only about 50 pages into the book, but Sen has already made one of his major arguments quite clear: he objects to the currently popular notion that we are engaged in a great and supremely decisive clash of civilizations. All the rage these days (underscore “rage”) is the pseudo-apocalyptic vision of an Armageddon between Western Civilization and Muslim Civilization. Supposedly the world has also a Hindu Civilization and a Buddhist Civilization. Sen argues convincingly that no such grand, simple, and overriding categories actually exist on the living planet Earth. We human beings are not segregated so neatly into civilizations.

Continue reading →

Avoiding a Cheap and Dirty Trick


This post is the last in a series of four written to serve as discussion starters for a group of university students doing an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

It is easy to find in the Bible exhortations to patience in times of suffering and to humility in the face of demands made by life and other people. Be long-suffering. Do not complain. Accept your limitations and the various affronts to your pride that come with living in this world as well as those which come from the world’s reactions to your conscious decisions to seek the will and way of God. Do not insist upon your own way, but do what is best for others. Be a servant.

It is one thing for me to give such advice, such encouragement to humble faith, to myself as needed. It is quite another matter for me to give it from a position of privilege and comfort to someone else being made to suffer. That’s the cheap and dirty trick we need to avoid.

Continue reading →

From Benevolence to Mutuality


This post is the third of four written for students on an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world from which we draw much for our civilization and our ways of thinking, equality was not an ideal but a suspect notion often held in contempt. The great man (sic) used his prosperity to further his greatness by becoming a benefactor to the common people who were expected to be very grateful for his generosity. The benefactor gained honor and pride by demonstrating his greatness through charity.

That we still think somewhat the same way can be seen in our praise for philanthropists (literally “friends to humanity”), no matter how they gained their wealth. Churches continue in a lesser version of the philanthropic model by pooling their people’s offerings of money for benevolence, sometimes understood as the blessed giving to the less fortunate. If it made the ancient benefactor look good to give money to the poor, it may make the modern religious person feel good to give some to the unfortunate, often without contact and mostly without dialogue.

Continue reading →