Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, May 11, 2012

HUME: Of Justice and Injustice Section I

Shakespeare’s Othello brings up some tough questions concerning the nature of justice.  Othello and Iago both killed their wives but for very different reasons.  So even though they committed the same crime it doesn’t seem right for them to receive the same punishment.  But if society doesn’t hand out the same punishment then two questions come to mind: first, what kind of measuring stick do we use to determine what justice is?  And second, who gets to decide?  Maybe the English philosopher David Hume can help shed some light on these questions.  It’s not like Hume is the first philosopher to weigh in on the question of justice.  Some of our recent readings also talked about justice.  For example, if we ask who gets to decide, one clear answer is: let’s take a vote; majority rules.  But can justice be decided by whoever gets the most votes?  Actually Rousseau seems to say yes.  Justice is the General Will of the people.  It’s up to “the people” to decide what it is.  If you don’t agree with the General Will then you’re just mistaken in your view about justice.  On the other hand, Plato says definitely not, justice is never decided by taking a vote.  That’s not justice, that’s just mob rule.  Do you call what happened to Socrates justice?  Hume invites us to step back and reconsider what justice is.  Where does it come from?  What is its purpose?  Hume is a master at making us look at simple things, especially everyday obvious things, in a whole new way.  For example, Hume observes that we blame a father for neglecting his child.  Then he asks a very simple question: why?  What do you mean why?  That’s a dumb question.  Parents don’t neglect their children.  That’s why.  But Hume’s dumb question should begin to make us feel a little uneasy.  Think like a philosopher instead of a parent.  Let “father” be A and “child” be B.  Why do we assign blame to A for neglecting B?  What business is it of ours what A does?  And why should we care about B anyway?  Hume answers his own question: Because it shows a want of natural affection which is the duty of every parent.  This is a good answer, just the kind of argument most of us would make.  Parents should have “natural affection” for their own children.  Fine.  But what does all this have to do with justice?  Justice seems to have something to do with duty and obligation.  Hume has another example, a better one: suppose a man to have lent me a sum of money on condition that it be restored in a few days; and also suppose that after the expiration of the term agreed on he demands the money.  I ask: What reason or motive do I have to restore the money?  This is a classic Hume strategy: someone lends me money.  Why should I pay it back?  Hello, because it was a LOAN.  They didn’t just give you money to keep.  But Hume has already put the reader on the defensive with such a blunt question.  Why should I pay it back?  There are several good answers but Hume is more interested in examining reasons why (maybe) he shouldn’t pay the money back.  And he comes up with several good reasons: What if he’s my enemy and has given me just cause to hate him?  What if he’s a vicious man and deserves the hatred of all mankind?  What if he’s a miser and can make no use of the money I would deprive him of?  What if he’s a profligate debauchee and would receive harm (from the money)?  What if I be in necessity and have urgent motives to acquire something for my family?  We came to Hume looking for justice.  Now it seems like he’s destroying the foundations of justice itself.  But there’s a method to Hume’s madness.  Assume our original motive for repaying the loan is simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Hume says that in all these cases (stated above) the original motive to justice would fail, and consequently justice itself, along with all property, right, and obligation…  And he’s right.  If our motive for paying back money is just because “it’s the right thing to do” then Hume just gave five good reasons why paying back the money is NOT the right thing to do.  If we’re going to play philosophy we better have our thinking caps on.  We started out trying to answer the question: what is justice?  Hume wants us to think up a better answer.


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