Category Archives: Justice

The Injustice of Sexism

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 27, 2016.)

I read an interesting article this morning titled, “Late-breaking sexism”: why younger women aren’t excited about electing a woman president.” Its main theme is that while women have made great strides, there is still a lot of sexism in the USA, especially the kind that manifests itself in a woman’s late twenties and early thirties when the demands of career and family intersect.

I agree with the article completely, and I believe any woman who tells me the article speaks to their concerns. But it did get me to thinking about how to respond to this injustice or to any injustice. In the simplest language I’d say something like: we should try to make the world more just while remembering at the same time that there is a lot of good in life too. I know this is trite, but the point is to maintain a creative tension between being dissatisfied with injustice enough to want to remedy it, but not so dissatisfied that you sour on life and miss its beauty.

Of course this is easy for a white male who has never been discriminated against to say. Moreover I have sufficient food, clothing, and shelter—as well as time to blog. For those who are starving, imprisoned, enslaved, etc. there is nothing one can say except that such injustices should be eradicated. So I address my concerns mostly to first world people who nonetheless face grave injustice. But again I admit that I can’t understand how difficult it is to be black or gay or a woman in this world either.

The only thing I might say is that we should all be sympathetic with each other. Consider that racism is about understanding the unique obstacles blacks face; xenophobia about understanding the unique obstacles that immigrants face, and sexism is about understanding the unique obstacles that women face. All these groups face obstacles that white men do not. But teaching existentialism always reminded me how hard life is for everyone. Still being discriminated against makes things much harder.

There is something amiss about the reality we live in, and I’d guess it has something to do both with ourselves and the stars. But if we change ourselves then we might change the stars too.

Mortimer Adler on Truth and Justice

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 22, 2014)

In a previous post I promised to discuss two great ideas—truth and justice. A lifetime of study wouldn’t suffice to properly discuss these two ideas, but I wanted to offer something.

There are many great ideas. The philosophical popularizer of last century, Mortimer Adler, wrote a massive tome two-volume work entitled:The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon – I (Angel To Love) and THE GREAT IDEAS: A SYNTOPICON – II, (MAN TO WORLD). It contained 102 great ideas which Adler later paired down to six in his book, Six Great Ideas (1981).

Those six were: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Adler distinguished these in triads: truth, beauty, and goodness are ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are ideas we act on. I think the organization of the triads is illuminating.

1. Truth

Adler holds that truth is the sovereign idea by which we judge. He believes that beauty is a special kind of goodness, which is itself a special kind of truth. He also holds that truth—by distinguishing certain from doubtful judgments, and by differentiating matters of taste and matters of truth—provides the ground for understanding beauty and goodness. Whether this is true or not I’ll leave for the reader to consider. 

Yet there is something intuitively plausible in this analysis. If we know what’s true, we would know what was good and beautiful. (This depends on the Adler’s acceptance of philosophical realism and a correspondence theory of truth.) But knowing what’s good or beautiful does not seem to entail that we know what’s true—the relationship is not symmetrical. Thus truth seemingly regulates our thinking about goodness and beauty; it is the one to which the other two are subordinate. And, as I’ve stated many times, if the truth isn’t important, then nothing much else matters. Truth is surely one of the greatest ideas.

2. Justice

As for the ideas we act on, justice reigns supreme. Here I find Adler’s argument especially compelling. He argues that justice is an unlimited good, while liberty and equality are limited goods. The distinction comes from Aristotle. We can have too much of limited goods, while we cannot have too much of an unlimited good. Societies can have too much liberty or equality, but not too much justice.

The argument is straightforward. For political libertarians, liberty is the highest value and they seek to maximize liberty at the expense of equality. They want near unlimited liberty even if the result is irremediable inequality, and even if large portions of society suffer serious deprivations. They may favor equality of opportunity, knowing that those with superior endowments or (more likely) favorable circumstances will beat their fellows in the race of life. The resulting vast inequality doesn’t deter them, for in their view trying to achieve equality will result in the loss of the higher value, liberty. On the other hand, egalitarians regard equality as the highest value and willingly infringe upon liberty to bring about equality of outcomes. In their view equality of opportunity will not suffice, since that will still result in vast inequality, the supreme virtue in their eyes.

The solution recognizes that liberty and equality are both subservient to justice. Individuals should not have so much freedom of action that they injure others, deprive them of their freedom, or cause them serious deprivations. One should only have as much freedom as justice allows. Analogously, should a society try to achieve equality of outcomes even if that entails serious deprivations of human freedom? Should we ignore the fact that individuals are unequal in their endowments and achievements? No says Adler to both questions. We should only have as much equality as justice allows.

Regarding liberty, justice places limits on the amount allowed; regarding equality, justice places limits on the kind and degree it allows. Thus justice places limits on the subordinate values of liberty and equality. Too much of either liberty or equality results in an unjust society. I agree with Adler, justice is the ultimate idea of moral and political philosophy and truth is the ultimate idea in metaphysics and epistemology.

Perhaps Justice is Enough

My most recent post suggested that we must love one another or die. This claim is both too strong and unrealistic. It is unrealistic to expect us to love everyone; and it is too strong because love does not assure our survival nor does it absence assure our destruction.

Instead we might focus on justice, since without justice our chances of surviving diminish. If we are just then we will all live in a better world, one more conducive to our survival. Aristotle famously said that if all people were friends then we wouldn’t need justice, but since they are not friends, justice is necessary. I think he was right.

I have dealt with the issue of the nature of justice in previous posts so we need not rehash those arguments, except to say that society is built upon what E.O. Wilson called “soft-core” altruism. Not on love between family members but on fairness and justice in our dealings with others. If I rent your house, use your land or eat your food, then I should pay you for the privilege–unless you decide to let me use them for free. How do we elicit this cooperation? Again previous posts have discussed the issue.

So here is how I would summarize the essence of the last two posts. We must love one another for all to live best; be just toward one another for all to live well; and not hate one another or we will all die.