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.