Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Justice)

What is justice?  What are people talking about when they chant “we want justice?”  In order for us to understand one another we have to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.  Dewey says justice can be understood in three ways.  One form of justice is fulfillment of obligation; for example, if you lend me money you expect me to pay it back.  Another meaning of the word justice is fairness, equity, impartiality; lending laws need to be the same for everyone.  The third meaning of justice is the administration of law; the Department of Justice makes sure all borrowers and lenders are held accountable for their behavior.  This sounds simple enough; just make sure we enforce the laws fairly and justice will be served.  But justice can be an elusive concept and has a long tradition of discussion in the Great Books.  At the very start of human history, in the book of Genesis, there was only one law: We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.  Of course Adam and Eve did touch and eat of it.  Now what?  Or put another way: what is justice in this case?  First of all we need to ask, did they understand what they were doing?  Yes; they both tried to hide from God so obviously they knew it was wrong.  So what should their punishment be?  The law seems clear on this point: ye die.  But were there any extenuating circumstances?  Yes according to Adam; Eve tempted me.  According to Eve; the Serpent tempted me.  Now what?  How do we rule in this case?  Dewey says the just man is the man who takes in the whole of a situation and reacts to it in its wholeness, not being misled by undue respect to some particular factor.  What makes justice difficult is assessing the whole situation as Dewey describes.  There are good arguments that Adam and Eve should be punished according to the letter of the law.  They ate the fruit; they should die.  But there are also good arguments that their punishment should be lightened because they were only partially responsible.  They only ate the fruit because they were tempted.  The real criminal was the Serpent.  Justice has to weigh arguments on both sides.  Dewey says an equitable judge is one who makes no unjustifiable distinctions among those dealt with.  The key concept here is “unjustifiable distinctions.”  This isn’t much help in the Adam and Eve case.  Was their transgression “justifiable” or not?  That depends on your own subjective point of view.  Dewey points out that in ancient cultures the idea of justice was more clear-cut.  For example, Aristotle himself believed the individual was to suffer according to his deed.  In some ways Dewey disagrees with this notion: in the end… punishments inflicted should be corrective, not merely retributive.  For Dewey, revenge is never a good motive for punishment; that’s not justice.  He says every wrongdoer should have his due.  But what is his due?  Can we measure it by his past alone; or is it due everyone to regard him as a man with a future as well?  As having possibilities for good as well as bad?  This is a persuasive argument.  Isn’t it more humane to take the whole person into account and not just dish out cookie-cutter punishments?  This sounds good but Aristotle would disagree.  His argument would go something like this: let’s say you want to build a house and I agree to sell you lumber.  You pay me cash and the next day I bring you a big bag of acorns.  But I paid for lumber, you protest.  The lumber is in this bag, I reply.  The acorns will grow into big oak trees.  Then you can cut them down and make all the lumber you need.  Dewey claims we should consider a wrongdoer’s possibility for becoming good.  Aristotle agrees that most everyone has the potential to become a good person; just as every acorn has the potential to become lumber.  But an acorn isn’t lumber yet; and a wrongdoer isn’t a good person yet.  We have to judge the case before us right now, not some hypothetical case down the road.  This guy may turn out to be a good man but he also may turn worse.  Being a judge isn’t easy.  That’s why they need wisdom.  Dewey takes up wisdom in our next reading. 

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