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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Idea of Justice

The problem of defining justice is the same problem which applies to any concept such as love, beauty, goodness, or truth. These words mean different things to different people. They belong in the category of "universals" which we assume means that the definition or idea is valid regardless of time or place. But the problem of language always comes down to finding some general agreement regarding the meaning and use of words. If mankind enjoyed the use of a universal language, then perhaps there would be perfect agreement on the use of these words. But no such universal language exists, and there is no definition which satisfies everyone regarding the use of words such as justice, love, beauty, goodness and truth. So we shall have to be satisfied with something less than perfect agreement.

Every noun in every language represents an idea or concept whose definition requires that it be placed within a larger social construct.
The idea of justice can only have meaning within this construct. A man living alone on a desert island has no need of a word for justice because the concept is empty. So, in order to arrive at some general agreement on the meaning of justice, Socrates needs to establish the domain in which the idea of justice can exist. For Socrates, the domain for justice can only be the city of Athens. There is no such thing as the justice of a single individual living apart from others.

What Socrates will attempt to establish for the benefit of Glaucon and others is the notion that justice belongs to the realm of politics.  But that does not mean that we take a poll or a vote of the citizens to arrive at an arbitrary notion of justice. That would imply that justice itself varies with the competence or integrity of the people. If justice depended upon the variability of the people, then it might stand for one thing on Monday, but something quite different on Friday. That will not do. The meaning of words like honor, beauty or truth cannot change from day to day. They must be anchored to something more solid than human emotion.

It will be the task of Socrates to demonstrate to Glaucon why justice itself does not vary from person to person.  What varies from person to person is our human understanding, our perception and our limited grasp of a larger picture. The larger picture is the idea of justice itself, not any single manifestation. the general idea of justice exists only as a possibility in the mind of man. Until it is actualized by the collective moral choice of individuals, justice is only an idea, and a vague one at that. Until justice is manifested by the deliberate (and free) action of individuals, its reality is only potential. But even though justice depends on the freedom and rational choice of individuals, the idea itself does not change from person to person. The idea of justice can only be examined in the behavior of individuals.

When Glaucon says that no man would voluntarily choose justice over pleasure, he is merely stating the fact that most people are motivated by personal gain or pleasure rather than abstract principles. This may be true. the principle of justice requires, from time to time, personal sacrifice. But the fact that justice has a price does not mean that justice is impossible or that it always loses out to self interest. Glaucon is merely describing the problem of human nature. People are fallible. They say one thing and do another. This is nothing new. Before laws were instituted, men lived in a constant state of lawlessness which we call the state of nature. According to Glaucon, men always choose their own private interest over the interests of others. Therefore, justice must be impossible. And yet, over time, societies did emerge from the chaos of war. People chose to sacrifice some of their freedom in exchange for the safety of living in communities. No society could long endure if a majority of people abandoned the idea of justice.  The fact is, as Hobbes noted, freedom from laws and social restrictions is just another way of describing chaos. (Or, as Janis Joplin put it, "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose")


The idea of Justice is larger than any idea of the individual pursuing his own interest. Whenever food is scarce, everyone's personal interest is in conflict with other people. But when Socrates speaks of justice, he has something larger in mind than mere survival. "Interest" is simply a way of describing what you want at any given moment. Justice exists on a larger scale. It describes how people mediate their behavior with other people.  You don't need justice if you can simply overpower everyone around you and force them to do what you want. But most people cannot get away with using brute force. You need arbitration, and justice is the means by which conflict is mediated. The values, principles, and laws of a society are the glue which holds it together. You can have a society without justice (North Korea), but you cannot have justice without a society. For Socrates, justice is something more than a prison colony. There has to be a community based on reason, order, honor, and sacrifice.  There is no such thing as the justice of a single individual. Justice is a description of how one person relates to another. So, it is a bi-lateral arrangement. Everyone in society has an investment in the preservation of justice. For without justice, you would merely have a society of pigs or criminals. A city lacking all virtue, which is nothing more than a herd of animals. But you would never have a city like Athens based on reason, dignity, and freedom.

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