Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Justice and Civility

The Faulkner story poses some troubling issues for us as we try and get a handle on what is the meaning of justice. I think Hobbes would say that people like Snopes need to obey the law or be punished. Most of us would agree. But what happens when a large number of people start acting like Abner Snopes? That’s a violation of the social contract. Every man’s property needs to be respected and left alone. But Snope operates according to his own set of rules. That’s why we have prisons. He belongs in jail, but the legal system was incapable of dealing with him. That’s what leads to individuals taking the law into their own hands. Society breaks down when the law is incapable of controlling people who do not believe in or care about the principle of justice.

Snopes is a miscreant. He doesn’t really have a political philosophy. He just goes around doing whatever he pleases. He ought to be hanged, or at the very least be sent into exile. The principle of justice, the way it is interpreted by law, is limited to the definition of right and wrong as spelled out in the criminal code. That includes a proper observance of the rules for introducing evidence at trial. For a lawyer, justice only extends as far as the courtroom. Outside the court room, justice is only an abstract idea. But we are bound to stay within the limits of this flawed system. Otherwise, we fall back to the state of nature, where right and wrong are decided by power and strength alone.

What’s the moral of the story? True justice exists only in our minds. It is an abstract idea. Real justice is limited by our collective desire (and will) to minimize harm, which implies a measure of self-denial. We might feel better if we just said the heck with evidence, and just hanged Snopes from the nearest tree. But what happens when an innocent man is wrongly put to death? So we err on the side of compassion, or if not compassion, mere prudence. To avoid the greater harm, we accept the lesser evil.

What are the ingredients for a healthy community? Having a common set of values is a good place to start. Unless everyone buys into the same idea of civility, society cannot function, or it cannot function with any semblance of virtue. What is most disturbing to me about this story is that it reminds us that the many (in society) are always held hostage to the few (those without honor). No society can function well if Snopes are running around loose. Is that the price of freedom? To tolerate evil? What is more important? To have a good society, with all its restrictions, or to have a diverse society which tolerates all kinds of weird ideas and personalities. The good society might become boring, but it would be peaceful. The diverse (or “open”) society would never be boring, but it sure as hell would never be secure.

Actually, in a state of nature Snopes would be killed off fairly soon. Because Snopes can only victimize the innocent. In a raw state of nature (“red in tooth and claw”), no one is innocent. The innocent get killed off right away. What remain are the strong and the clever. Snopes is neither strong nor clever. He’s just a bully. Like all bullies, he terrorizes those weaker than himself. But in a state of nature, where strength overcomes compassion. there would be plenty of bullies stronger than Snopes.

Unfortunately, in a state of nature, the innocent are forever at the mercy of the strong. So, unless the strong are feeling merciful, then the innocent have no chance. The innocent have no one but the virtuous to help them. But in a state of nature, does virtue even exist? For me, that is the real question. By renouncing violence and cruelty, society transforms human nature (with all its capacity for sin) into virtue. Something tells me that Saint Augustine would say yes. But only if society itself is transformed into a Kingdom of Grace. And as far as I can tell, we are nowhere close to being a Kingdom of Grace. In the mean time, the best that we can achieve is to construct a republic based on law and civility.

But that still leaves a question about law itself. Can any law, in any republic, ever be better than the people who make that law? Can we rise above the limits of human nature? Isn't that the question which Plato asked in the Republic? Can human society ever be virtuous, or are we bound to repeat the mistakes of the past? Hobbes tells us that without a strong sovereign to lead us, we all become like Snopes. So we need to yield a little of our freedom in exchange for the promise of safety and a hope for a better world. But the laws we create can never guarantee our future happiness. They simply insulate us from the disease of solipsism, so that we do not become exiled into the same realm of darkness which clearly enveloped Snopes.


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