Friday, April 17, 2009

If you want war, work for justice

I think it is a more plausible slogan than the usual version. If you and I disagree because I want an outcome more favorable to me and you want an outcome more favorable to you, there is room for compromise—as we see whenever people bargain over the price of a house. But if we disagree because I see what I want as just and the alternative as unjust and you see it the other way around, compromise looks to both of us like moral treason.

Consider the issue, currently a live one in Europe, of whether people should be fined for saying or writing things critical of Islam. For those who support the traditional liberal view, agreeing to a fine of five hundred dollars instead of a thousand dollars isn't a solution—any punishment at all is an intolerable violation of free speech. For some orthodox Muslims, on the other hand, permitting people to slander the Prophet is clearly unacceptable; if the government will not impose a fine large enough to stop such an outrage, it is up to the believers to stop it themselves.

That, I think, is part of the nature of beliefs about justice—they are absolute, bright edged, in a way in which preferences are not. The point is summed up in the Latin phrase Fiat justicia, ruat coelum—let justice be done though the sky falls.

Those whose bumper stickers read "If you want peace, work for justice" simply take it for granted that there is no question what is just; if you want to find out, just ask them. The problem with the world as they see it is merely that other people are insufficiently virtuous to act accordingly.


Jonathan said...

This is consistent with the negotiated approach to justice that you outlined long ago in The Machinery of Freedom. I agree it's a good point. In practice, people must either negotiate or fight.

The problem is that many people would apparently prefer to fight.

Unknown said...

So it seems that a common usage of 'justice' reflects the belief that "The truth is manifest" (Popper).

I find the word 'social' similarly interesting... By labeling a problem a 'social problem' we have already decided that it's a problem 'society' must solve.

Dilettante said...

I don't agree. I don't see why compromise in matters of justice is moral treason.
Suppose I think someone should give something back to me and it's unjust for him to keep it. I can still think that there's nothing unjust about me agreeing that he gives back only half of what he borrowed. There's no contradiction.
It's one thing to say what someone does is unjust, and it's diffrent thing to decide what to do about it, which may depend on circumstances.

dxze said...

Very interesting. Reminds me of how Hayek compares a person's reaction to losing their job in a competitive market, vs. in a planned economy -- one involves a loss of dignity, the other much less so.

Interesting here how if the disagreement is framed in terms of a 'lower' way of thinking -- greed -- it is less likely to result in war than a 'higher' way of thinking -- noble virtues like justice. Whereas my instincts would have said the opposite, that people more concerned with 'higher' virtues were less likely to turn violent... but it is much less tempting to die for greed than the higher virtues, so while a greedy society may be disgusting in some ways perhaps it is the safer one?

Anonymous said...

If you want peace, work for homogeneity, for as we all know "where all think alike, no one thinks much." Could anything be more peaceful. Seriously, it is be intervening/eliminating the ghettos and the madrasas will the memes unsafe for democracy be abated.

Anonymous said...

If you want peace, work to eliminate religion, nationalism and wasteful consumerism. Also, promote birth control.

Anonymous said...

MH writes how greed is likely to cause violence. This view is mistaken. What MH is really saying is, through introspection, "I would not kill and steal to get ahead."

But the fact is, people have been killed for a pair of sneakers in more Hobbesian parts of the world. And while the common man is usually not the "criminal" type and more easily motivated/inspired by justice arguments, it does not mean that the actual reasons for war weren't greed for power/territory/resources.

Anonymous said...

^ "how greed is likely to cause violence" should read "how greed is LESS likely to cause violence."

William H. Stoddard said...

"If you want peace, work for justice" could be read as a threat: Give me what I think I rightly deserve or I'll declare war on you.

Isn't there an older maxim that "If you want peace, prepare for war"?

dxze said...


Indeed, people are still killed for sneakers, my own brother was held at gunpoint a few years' back for his backpack in central america.

But that is not war, it is sporadic violence which is socially frowned upon even in the society where it takes place. To have full-on war I think you need to go beyond greed and tap in to the 'higher virtues' of a people. Certainly the planners of the war may be motivated by greed, but were they not able to manipulate everyone else via higher virtue, their capacity for violence would remain limited, no?

David Friedman said...

Ucio disagrees with my characterization of disputes over justice. He might (or might not) find interesting an old article of mine in which I discuss rights in terms of commitment strategies; I think it shows why we would expect the pattern I describe in this post. The piece is webbed at:

William B Swift said...

It doesn't have anything to say about "justice" but I like Heinlein's quote on peace: "You can have peace or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once."

dxze said...

@Anonymous[1] "If you want peace, work for homogeneity, for as we all know 'where all think alike, no one thinks much.' Could anything be more peaceful."

It may be easier, though, for a large mass of homogenous, unthinking people to be persuaded to curb the rights of individuals and minorities who do not fit in with the common way of being.

Whereas a more diverse set of people -- so long as their disagreements can remain contained at a level below violent engagement -- would be continually pressured via their own disagreements with each other to maintain a higher standard of tolerance.

David Tomlin said...

Historically people who 'work for justice' have been willing to compromise. A good example is the abolition of slavery, which happened peacefully in most of the Western world.

Strict justice would have required that slave owners compensate the former slaves for their stolen labor. Abolitionists not only conceded this point, but often supported using general revenues to compensate the slave owners for their lost 'property'.

Unknown said...

David Tomlin,

That is a good point. But I would say that is is 'despite of,' rather then 'because of' for a couple of reasons.

Many of the people who 'work for justice' (eg social justice) are actually working for 'good' (eg social good). Justice is easier to sell sometimes. That's not to say that feelings associated with aspiring for justice were irrelevant. But there were other contexts.

In any case, that was still 2 party's arguing about the justice/injustice committed against a third party.

Anonymous said...

Muslims must review, refine and rewrite QURAN now.

* Christians have corrected BIBLE on Slavery.
* Hindus have corrected VEDAS on Untouchability.

RL said...


Should your position be interpreted to entail that the PROPER thing for the Danish government to do is negotiate with affronted Muslims the level of a blasphemy fine downward--$500 IS better than $1000 as a fine; and a fine IS better than war--rather than saying "We don't pass laws limiting speech here, even blasphemous speech." In other words, are you providing a libertarian argument for speech codes here, on the grounds it minimizes the chances of war or lesser forms of violence? (George Smith is so interpreting your argument, but I'm not sure he's right.)

David Friedman said...

R.L. asks what the Danish government should do. It should respect freedom of speech of course.

My point is that the fact that it is obliged to do that, and that, in the view of some Muslims, they are obliged to prevent such speech, makes violent conflict more likely.

I'm not arguing that one should never do anything that night lead to war. I'm arguing that the standard slogan has the relation backwards.

Anonymous said...

If you want peace look for the common ground, likely is that you find many shared points.

Then reason the differences within the common ground.

David Tomlin said...

Those whose bumper stickers read "If you want peace, work for justice" simply take it for granted that there is no question what is just; if you want to find out, just ask them.Do you have empirical evidence for this claim about large numbers of people, most of whom I hazard to guess you haven't met? Or do you mean that the proposition 'If you want peace, work for justice' logically implies 'there is no question what is just'? If the latter I disagree.

I've never sported this particular bumper sticker, but I do agree with the sentiment. I don't agree that 'there is no question what is just', or cling to the conceit that my opinions of the moment are the last word in a conversation that has spanned millennia.

Part of what it means to 'work for justice' is to take part in that conversation. Of course I want to bring others around to my point of view, but it would be hubris to imagine that I won't also have something to learn in the process.

montestruc said...

I had a discussion one time with a "progressive" and came away with the conviction that "social justice" (as he defined it) is pretty much the opposite of my understanding of the word justice.

So I get it, but should we negotiate about matters of principle or should we fight?

My take is that often fighting is preferable.

Don Berg said...

I see what you mean about the apparent incompatibility of definitions of justice. I think your analysis neglects the crucial feature of holding strictly to abstract ideals when there is the option of grounding a conversation in concrete circumstances and the morality of specific actions.

The essence of morality is the prevention of harm and the promotion of beneficial behaviors and circumstances. This essence is cognitively driven by five apparently universal criteria based on mostly unconscious assessments of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Taking Jonathan Haidt's model of moral cognition as a starting point.)

The problem that you point to is the incompatibility of abstract notions. As long as both sides are exchanging abstractions then you are absolutely correct war is likely, if not a foregone conclusion.

When you have a concern for the safety of your child, then if you meet someone with a concern for their child's safety, then it's likely you can work together for that common cause. The possibility for resolution is to frame the conversation in terms of the concrete harm that is inevitable given that the parties to the conflict insist on dealing exclusively with abstractions and strongly avoid observing the concrete details of the situation. It is often possible to find common moral ground in the concrete details. One common moral concern is that everyone wants to protect their children from harm, for instance. There are probably many other avenues for finding common moral ground from which to have a discussion. The art of creating this kind of conversation successfully rests in framing the conversation in the concrete and minimizing the abstract, except to reinforce lines of moral thought that converge on workable outcomes.

This was demonstrated at the Camp David Accords. There is a section of the documentary “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” in which they are talking about how he helped craft the Camp David Accords (I hope that's the right source) and apparently when the difference was made, it was made for concrete reasons of emotional importance to the people in the conversation.

Jimmy Carter was working for justice, meaning the concrete reality of reducing the harm caused by violent conflict. He was not there imposing an abstract ideal. He was holding a gracious space in which a meaningful conversation could be had. He was focused on relating to each man in the conversation as a fellow human being concerned with the welfare of others. It was holding that gracious space in which the focus was on creating real meaningful relationships that was an act of justice. When the men could see the concrete reality of suffering, then they could reframe their position to accommodate first seeing the other as a fellow human being and then as a representative of other human beings who also deserve not to be harmed. Normal people easily fight against abstractions, but they resist fighting when they see someone just like them being hurt.

For me a just world is one in which we honor the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. The criteria of justice I want to hold you accountable to, and that I expect you to hold me accountable to, as well, is whether my actions cause harm, real concrete harm in the world. Not imagined harm to dead or imaginary people, but real harm to living people. That's a reasonable criteria for justice, I think.

Don Berg

Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

Ronald Rutherford said...

I am not sure there is a right answer to these questions but here is my 2 cents as a student for a long time.

First if you assign the reading after the class, I doubt anyone will read it then. It also gets pretty boring if you have already covered the material in class.

Secondly if you assign it before the class then how do you handle the first class and always like behind in the reading then. Sometimes it is like all this reading expected in the first week that includes reading from week one lectures and week two to catch up.

I am taking distance classes now and we get all the notes and materials like a couple of weeks in advance which does allow preemption of reading assignments.

Anonymous said...

A couple thoughts on the post in question.
One- law is not justice, so
to equate promulgated law as justice denies the essence of justice, esp. since the issue is administration of law and the use of governmental force, not justice.
There then is the error of legalism. Moral code as law assumes a divine universal correctness that is -and lets be honest- opinion.
With the almost universal schisms in every religious group one can see the folly, and destruction, that occurs. It is basically a lie for any one group to claim the moral authority that would lead to their view as total. Justice without out its evidential result, peace, points to a moral codes validity in my opinion.

Ed Preston said...

Striving for justice is backward looking rather than future oriented. It insists that there will be no peace until all past wrongs have been made right to the satisfaction of all parties. There's simply no way to ever make that happen, and at some point living in a peaceful world (which is attainable only if we let go of the past) must become a higher value than trying to fix all the wrongs of history.

CAK said...

Silly George. Justice is an inclusive goal. One cannot "work for" justice without subjecting one's contentions to adverse analysis. Justice is a collective goal sought by imperfect humanity. For me to insist on "my" justice at the expense of "your" justice is the essence of in...justice. If you want peace, avoid injustice.