Friday, March 14, 2014

Social Justice vs. Public Choice

From Book V of Nicomachean Ethics:
Since the lawless man was seen to be unjust and the law-abiding man just, evidently all lawful acts are in a sense just acts; for the acts laid down by the legislative art are lawful, and each of these, we say, is just.
Students of Hayek will chafe at this claim. Vol 1 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (ch. 4) makes a clear distinction between legislation, which is invented, and law "in the sense of enforced rules of conduct is undoubtedly coeval with society" (p.72). Aristotle seems to conflate the two. Let's continue with NE and see how deep the analytical rift continues.
Now the laws in their enactments on all subjects aim at the common advantage either of all or of the best or of those who hold power, or something of the sort; so that in one sense we call those acts just that tend to produce and preserve happiness and its components for the political society.
Yikes! This formulation presages Bentham by a good 2000 years. Could Aristotle have been a proto-utilitarian?
And the law bids us do both the acts of a brave man (e.g. not to desert our post nor take to flight nor throw away our arms), and those of a temperate man (e.g. not to commit adultery nor to gratify one's lust), and those of a good-tempered man (e.g. not to strike another nor to speak evil), and similarly with regard to the other virtues and forms of wickedness, commanding some acts and forbidding others; and the rightly-framed law does this rightly, and the hastily conceived one less well.
Oh, well, that's different. "Happiness" in this context means pursuing virtue. Happiness through justice as temperance, prudence, and courage (and a few hundred years later as faith, hope, and love) is a heck of a lot different than happiness as a warm cheeseburger.

But is this form of justice personal or is it public? The harm of a Soldier deserting his post, fleeing, and throwing down arms is of considerably larger scope than committing adultery or gratifying lust. And in politics, speaking evil is routinely rewarded. Did Aristotle possess too rosy a view of what the legislature was capable of actually producing?
This form of justice, then, is complete virtue, but not absolutely, but in relation to our neighbour. And therefore justice is often thought to be the greatest of virtues, and 'neither evening nor morning star' is so wonderful; and proverbially 'in justice is every virtue comprehended'. And it is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbour also; for many men can exercise virtue in their own affairs, but not in their relations to their neighbour.
I guess not. Aristotle's Justice dwells in the polis. The great error of the nation-state was to mistake stranger for neighbor and pretend that simply because a national sovereign laid claim to a tract of land that the reciprocal, euvoluntary nature of neighborly relations naturally extended to others with whom we might have no opportunity to truck, barter, or exchange. "Social justice" outside this scope departs from the realm of virtue, and becomes something else entirely. I suggest to you that using the same word to describe an altogether different concept is an abuse of language.

And in case you're still not sold on the limits of the reach of justice qua virtue:
This is why the saying of Bias is thought to be true, that 'rule will show the man'; for a ruler is necessarily in relation to other men and a member of a society. For this same reason justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be 'another's good', because it is related to our neighbour; for it does what is advantageous to another, either a ruler or a copartner. Now the worst man is he who exercises his wickedness both towards himself and towards his friends, and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself but he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task. Justice in this sense, then, is not part of virtue but virtue entire, nor is the contrary injustice a part of vice but vice entire. What the difference is between virtue and justice in this sense is plain from what we have said; they are the same but their essence is not the same; what, as a relation to one's neighbour, is justice is, as a certain kind of state without qualification, virtue.
"Reject the Siren Song of Telescopic Morality" is too weak an admonition. According to Aristotle, there is no justice beyond what you can see standing on your own rooftop. Rethink "love thy enemy" with this in mind. The vast bulk of humanity is neither your enemy nor your friend. The vast bulk of humanity are strangers. Think of how much more euvoluntary our relationships would be if we would be more willing to acknowledge this.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?