Many kinds of objective justice

One would think that if justice were objective, as Mark and others have argued recently on Catallarchy, that it would be relatively simple to discover what justice actually is and convince others that this is so.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Mark believes that justice entails respecting other people's negative rights, as self-ownership implies. I happen to agree with Mark that these are mighty fine principles to live by.

Doesn't it seem so obvious sometimes that this definition of justice is right and other definitions are wrong? How could any rational person object to these basic, apparently self-evident principles? It seems altogether likely that anyone who opposes these principles must be evil, and they must obfuscate and confuse the public in order to get people to accept their wrongful views.

Perhaps, if one were so obliged, the argument could be put as so:

"Individualist and collectivist sources are not symmetrical....[T]he goal of the collectivist is perpetuating and increasing injustice, whereas the goal of the individualist is increasing justice.

"People do not like injustice. The knowledge that injustice is being done to others offends their sense of morality; the knowledge that injustice is being done to them makes them angry and resentful. Both these emotions contribute to a desire to use the political system in order to counter injustice. So it is very helpful for the collectivists to achieve their goal if the existence of injustice, and the unjust effects of the policies it endorses, can be concealed.

"Providing this concealment is the role of collectivist political writers. Thus, a priori, given that injustice exists and that collectivist policies are unjust, you might expect the ample use of lies, misdirection, and sophistry from these guys.

"By contrast, the role of individualist political writers is to cause people to believe that there is injustice, and that collectivist policies make it worse. Given, once again, that both these points are true, all that individualist political writers need to do is report the truth.

"Of course, both these arguments rely on the empirical claims that there is injustice, and that collectivist policies make it worse. There's plenty of evidence that this is so, of course."

Who said this? Ayn Rand? Murray Rothbard? Neal Boortz?

Nope. Benjamin Hellie, a left-wing philosophy professor at Cornell. Of course, he didn't actually write what is quoted above. No, when he wrote it he didn't use the words "individualist" and "collectivist." Instead, he used the words "left-wing" and "right-wing."

Even more surprising is the conversation that ensued in response to this quote. Brian Leiter, who approvingly cited this quote on his blog, has now posted a follow-up to the quote and allowed for reader-response in the comment thread. What amazes me is that Leiter's readership consists of other academics, law students, and graduate students - generally smart people. Yet many of these people, including Leiter and Hellie, believe that justice is so obviously on their side. So obvious in fact, that actual arguments as to the costs and benefits of various policies need not be given.

Consider the following comment posted in the thread by Robert Allen:

[The} principle that people should be allowed to keep what they own can be used to indict the very economic system of which [the principle defends]: workers under capitalism have their time stolen from them by their employers. I own not only my guitar, computer, books, etc. but also my time. Thus, according to [this] principle, just as I should not be required to give away any of the former items, my employer should not be allowed to make me work longer than is necessary to support my family so as to profit from my labor.

Now, this understanding of justice is not unique to Mr. Allen, but is shared by a large group of people, namely, Marxists. Of course, many others, including libertarians, do not share this viewpoint; we do not consider profits to be exploited surplus wages, nor do we agree that a mutually agreed-upon contract involves any force or coercion. But just as some libertarians are so sure that justice requires us to respect other people's self-ownership, so too are many Marxists convinced that profits are theft, exploited from workers by evil, greedy capitalists.

Is there a way out of this mess? Not from a standpoint of justice. The basic underlying assumptions many of us have about justice are simply incompatable with other people's assumptions. There is no higher authority, no source of evidence, no argument that could even conceivably be made to reconcile these differences. One can certainly point out inconsistencies in other belief systems, by taking some claims as given and then showing how other claims conflict with those previously stated. One can ask people to consult their intuitions and see which formulations best measure up to these deeply held beliefs. But one cannot challenge the basic assumptions, the intuitions, the very atoms of moral theory. There is no objective standard by which to judge one atomic moral intuition from another.

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Micha, If by calling justice

Micha,

If by calling justice subjective, you mean that other people can make a different choice about how they deal with other individuals, then this seems much less restricted then the sense of "subjective" where no comparisons can be made because any random opinion is as good as any other.

In the restricted sense of subjective in this post, you could also say that Physics is subjective because Ptolemy assumed that the earth is at the center of the universe and Copernicus assumed that the sun is at the center. As far as I recollect, neither led to a contradiction in observations--Copernicus' view was more intuitive because it was simpler.

Is there an objective standard by which to judge one atomic physical intuition from another?

Or I suppose you could say

Or I suppose you could say that Geometry is subjective because you get different consequences depending upon whether you postulate parallel lines converge, diverge, or neither.

Is there an objective

Is there an objective standard by which to judge one atomic physical intuition from another?

We can test these physical intuitions through empirical observations and experimentation. Can we test moral intuitions? Sort of. We can see what happens when different societies implement various moral rules. We can then determine which moral rules lead to results we like and results we don't like. But in the case of physical intuitions, we have a single standard by which to judge them: do they help us explain and predict the way the world works? But with moral intuitions, while many of us may share the same goals and desires, and the same view of what constitutes a good and just society, there is no single standard by which to judge. Some people believe a good and just society is one with as little inequality as possible. Others believe a good and just society may have lots of inequality, but more personal economic freedom.

The world consists of what is, not what ought to be. We can observe what is; we cannot observe what ought to be. To go from a statement of what is to a statement of what ought to be is to commit the naturalist fallacy.

Or I suppose you could say

Or I suppose you could say that Geometry is subjective because you get different consequences depending upon whether you postulate parallel lines converge, diverge, or neither.

No. This is a practical problem, not a problem of subjectivity. If we were able to, we could follow these lines as far as necessary (or to infinity) and examine whether or not they converge. It must be the case that they either meet or do not meet.

But in the realm of ethics, we could not even theoretically determine what is justice. There is no where for us to look. We must decide for ourselves, based on what we believe to be the good life, what justice shall be.

Micha - I do not think that

Micha -

I do not think that Robert Allen's, or the Marxists', ideology even belongs in a discussion of justice. The Marxist ideology of justice is so patently false and observably wrong, if it is acknowledged as legitimate, meaning allowed in the equation of objectively determining justice, one may as well acknowledge Judeo-Christianity's Yahweh and his evil eye.

If that false premise is removed, is the "way out of this mess" made more clear?

John, I do not think that

John,

I do not think that capitalist ideology even belongs in a discussion of justice, because the capitalist ideology of justice is so patently false and observably wrong.

Your friend,

Karl Marx

Micha, By subjective, do you

Micha,

By subjective, do you mean:

A) We have no basis for comparing our ideas. Each mind is isolated with no guarantee that the sounds they utter represent the same thing as when another mind utters similar sounds. Therefore, one opinion is as good as any other.

Or,

B) We can reach different conclusions by applying the rules of logic to our observations when we use different premises.

If subjectivity means (A), then there is not much of anywhere to go.

If subjectivity means (B), then we still get some useful results from this definition.

1) We can hold a proposed system of justice to the requirement that it be logically consistent.

2) We can identify our premise clearly.

3) We can enumerate the various logically consistent systems of justice, and compare their results and their consequences to see which matches our intuition.

4) We can discover which systems of justice are compatible with which others in which ways. Perhaps a pacifist ("I respect other's lives no matter what") can live in an individualist ("I respect others so long as they respect me") society, but not vice versa.

I think your objections are:

1) When I talk about Justice (with a capital J--maybe this is why it is Capitalism!), I am only identifying one of what may be a number of logically consistent ethical systems. It is unfair to ignore others.

And

2) Justice cannot be verified as Science can be. If we assume a premise and follow it through to various consequences, we have no comparison to the real world that can speak to the correctness or incorrectness of our premise.

Is this a fair summary?

Yes. B is a very fair and

Yes. B is a very fair and accurate description of my position.

Qiwi posts on the topic next

Qiwi posts on the topic next here.