Is Justice Real?

Below in his post "Many kinds of objective justice", Micha asserts:

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.

I heartily agree that there is no "higher authority", but I disagree that there is no possible source of evidence that could show that one theory of justice is closer to truth than another: I think that peace and prosperity might constitute empirical evidence of a correct theory of justice.

Do you think rational people would agree that a true theory of justice would produce happiness? Additionally, do you think rational people would agree that freedom from physical want (prosperity) and freedom from physical danger (peace) constitute necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for happiness? Isn't peace and prosperity for all exactly what collectivists claim their theory of justice will produce?

I think humans are currently grasping at the edges of a real science of ethics. Sometimes I wonder if theorists will punch out the other side of Physics and find themselves in Philosophy. I think that much of what we believe about philosophy today will eventually (and maybe sooner than you think) seem as ludicrous as the antics of 18th Century alchemists seem to us today. Sir Isaac Newton, an inventor of the calculus, believed that flies arouse spontaneously from rotting meat. Interestingly, the people we would call "scientists" today called themsleves "Natural Philosophers" back then—and they figured out some things pretty well, but they also believed some crazy shit. I currently have no way to judge whether my conviction that justice is real is crazy shit or not, let alone know for sure that my theory of justice is true, and the fact that I and other people believe in it has no bearing on how likely it is to be true. However, I do know that the mark of a true theory is that it works whether you believe in it or not. One falls toward the center of the Earth, whether or not one believes in, or even knows about, the theory of gravity.

Few would deny that humans have made enormous progress in the natural sciences since the 18th century. I think we've also made great strides in ethics. Today, the vast majority of people don't believe a person can own another person. Historically, this is amazing! I don't think people appreciate how astonishingly recent and excellent this is, and I think people give governments huge amounts of credit they do not deserve for these kinds of real social changes. A government can force a man to move his body, but force can't change a mind, except to destroy it. It seems to me that human societies have always flourished to the extent that their members have avoided violating individual rights, no matter what theory of justice they claimed to believe in.

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Just throwing out some ideas

Just throwing out some ideas and one reading suggestion and seeing what sticks. BTW really good discussion.

Ultimately, while I feel that justice is a human construct, I sympathize with Mark's desire for an objective definition of justice because there is in history such a litany of human disasters perpetrated by those trying to create a just society according to the sense of justice of the people in power.

All too often that standard of justice is "I respect the lives of those certified by the government to be freemen and I disrespect the lives and property of those who are outside the law." such as Jew, Infidel, bourgeoisie, heretic, witches, Native-American whatever ethnic group we don't like, etc.

I think we need to go back a little and ask where does this idea of justice come from? I think it's from the experience of a person who has something happen to him/her without a direct cause and effect on his/her part. There is injury caused by one's actions. For example I throw myself off of a building and kill myself. There is injury caused by accident as the cost of living in an entropic universe. I'm walking on a sidewalk and am killed by a person who threw himself off of a building due to no fault of my own. And injury caused by someone else's malicious intent again due to no action on my part. Such as person killing me by throwing a rock off of a building at me for mere pleasure of seeing my brains splatter on the sidewalk.

I also think that the socialist impulse to control is based on the confusion of the second source of "injustice" with the third. That even though we live in an entropic universe with limited resources the government should "do something", because life is unfair and somebody must have made it that way. In an earlier time this led to the burning of witches because we should do something to control this entropic universe we don't understand and somebody must have made it unfair. Perhaps this confusion is what leads so many to condemn certain groups for no fault but to exist.

The book suggestion which covers some of this same ground and is written for the layperson is Good and Evil:A New Direction by Richard Taylor ISBN: 157392752X.

I think that peace and

I think that peace and prosperity might constitute empirical evidence of a correct theory of justice.

You just have to be careful about how you do your evaluation. If you follow the process in this direction:

A) A set of individuals each choose various ethical premises.

B) A system of justice is defined using the same or different premises.

C) Think through different theoretical situations logically to see what the results are.

D) Observe the outcomes over time to see if there are unintended consequences.

E) Measure the system on a peace/prosperity index.

I'm sure you will get some interesting and useful information.

However, the problem comes in when politicians try to run the system backwards:

E) Choose the level of peace/prosperity you want (infinite, of course).

D) Unintended consequences? What are those? We'll probably only find out after my term is up, anyway.

C) Think about what theoretical situations will excite the opinion polls and donor groups.

B) Set up a modified justice system that gets tweaked until it convinces voters it gives you the results you want.

A) Jail and fine any individuals that don't fall into line with the system.

I think it was Ben Franklin who said something to the effect of "those who value safety over freedom deserve neither..."

This is why utilitarian arguments are less appealing to both Micha and me--they confuse the consequences with the premises. I realize that you are not advocating utilitarianism, but one has to be careful to make the distinction.

This is why utilitarian

This is why utilitarian arguments are less appealing to both Micha and me--they confuse the consequences with the premises. I realize that you are not advocating utilitarianism, but one has to be careful to make the distinction.

Actually, I think Micha is very much a utilitarian (or at least a consequentialist).

Actually, I think Micha is

Actually, I think Micha is very much a utilitarian (or at least a consequentialist).

Sorry--I shouldn't speak for other people.

I am indeed a utilitarian of

I am indeed a utilitarian of sorts, only because it is the only moral theory left standing after all the others have been rejected. (Although, contractarianism does have some sway with me). Now, of course, utilitarianism has its faults, and we can all think of situations where utilitarianism doesn't produce results we like. But then, I don't look at utilitarianism as a moral theory so much as a practical one. In a free-market unburdened by government, we would expect things to reach a state of efficiency over time. Efficiency in economics is fairly close to utilitarianism in ethics, so I think the label fits.

On to Qiwi's post:

I think that peace and prosperity might constitute empirical evidence of a correct theory of justice.

I think so too, and as I've mentioned before, this is step two in the three-step process. But while most rational people would agree that peace and prospertity are valid goals, I don't think this makes them "objective" in any sense.

Also, we run into the problem that peace and prosperity do not always solve the differences between opposing ideologies. Socialists still value equality and libertarians still value non-coercion. How much non-coercion would libertarians be willing to give up to achieve more prosperity? (Suppose Bill Gates is keeping some of his fortune hidden under his mastress and has effectively removed it from the economy. If this money was taken away from him by force, it could increase the prosperity of the rest of society ten-fold.) Alternatively, How much prosperity would socialists be willing to give up to achieve more equality?

I don't see any way to solve this conflict, even by pointing to other values that we all seem to agree with.

Socialists still value

Socialists still value equality

That's a problematic position--equality of what? Equality is a relationship between two values, by itself it means nothing. Collectivists often don't specify what they mean by "equality". If they won't say what they mean, how do I know if they even know what they mean? And if they don't know what they mean, how can they possibly evaluate whether this "equality" is a good idea? How can they determine how to achieve this "equality"? How can they know if they have accomplished it?

How much non-coercion would libertarians be willing to give up to achieve more prosperity?

Aha! Here, I think is the crux of the discussion. As I understand it, the libertarian/anarchist theory of justice predicts that coercion can never result in more prosperity, as force can only be used to destroy or transfer wealth, but never to create it.

Suppose Bill Gates is keeping some of his fortune hidden under his mattress and has effectively removed it from the economy. If this money was taken away from him by force, it could increase the prosperity of the rest of society ten-fold.

I hate to get anywhere near the realm of name-calling, but the above formulation seems to implicitly cop to collectivist premises that you and I both claim to to reject. What do you mean when you say that taking Bill Gates' mattress stash would increase the prosperity of society? Is not Bill Gates a part of society? How can I presume to know why Bill Gates stashed that money away, and what he intends to do with it?

True, not all socialists

True, not all socialists share the same notion of equality. But it is undeniable that they share this value, however fuzzy.

As I understand it, the libertarian/anarchist theory of justice predicts that coercion can never result in more prosperity, as force can only be used to destroy or transfer wealth, but never to create it.

I don't think this is true. Economists place a value on human life, so we can include human lives as a measure of wealth. Do you think that it is impossible for a situation to ever arise where in order to save ten innocent people, we must kill one innocent person? In such a case, coercion would result in more prosperity.

What do you mean when you say that taking Bill Gates' mattress stash would increase the prosperity of society? Is not Bill Gates a part of society? How can I presume to know why Bill Gates stashed that money away, and what he intends to do with it?

Let's say Bill Gates plans to stash it there because he doesn't trust the banking system, but plans on saving it for a rainy day. Suppose also that us coercive types have some incredible investment opportunity that is sure to give us a huge return on our money, and yet for some reason Bill Gates is unwilling to take advantage of this opportunity.

True, not all socialists

True, not all socialists share the same notion of equality. But it is undeniable that they share this value, however fuzzy.

Again "equality" does not mean anything by itself. Equality of what?

Suppose also that us coercive types have some incredible investment opportunity that is sure to give us a huge return on our money, and yet for some reason Bill Gates is unwilling to take advantage of this opportunity.

If the investment opportunity is really sure to give a huge return on investment, why would you have to coerce anyone to participate? Even if Bill Gates doesn't want to invest his mattress-stash with you, if the investment is so great you should have no difficulty finding somebody else who wants to invest--Larry Ellison, maybe. If Bill Gates refuses, wouldn't it be much easier and less risky to just look for another investor than it would be to break into Bill Gates' undoubtedly well-defended house and steal the bag of money under his mattress?

Again "equality" does not

Again "equality" does not mean anything by itself. Equality of what?

Different socialists mean different things by it. Equality of income, wealth, opportunity, outcome, happiness, etc.

If the investment opportunity is really sure to give a huge return on investment, why would you have to coerce anyone to participate?

Perhaps Bill Gates is happy with what he already has; perhaps he doesn't want to maximize prosperity for what ever reason.

If Bill Gates refuses, wouldn't it be much easier and less risky to just look for another investor than it would be to break into Bill Gates' undoubtedly well-defended house and steal the bag of money under his mattress?

Perhaps, but for whatever reason, the Bill Gates of the world are reducing the total amount of prosperity by their over-saving.

Perhaps, but for whatever

Perhaps, but for whatever reason, the Bill Gates of the world are reducing the total amount of prosperity by their over-saving.

Again, that is only true if you arbitrarily decide that Bill Gates is not part of society for some reason.

No, because the point is

No, because the point is that the Bill Gates in this example could increase total prosperity by taking this investment, but chooses not to. He is still part of society; his inaction is reducing potential prosperity.

No, because the point is

No, because the point is that the Bill Gates in this example could increase total prosperity by taking this investment, but chooses not to. He is still part of society; his inaction is reducing potential prosperity.

You could make the same argument about any granny who has a jar of nickles on the shelf in the pantry. You argument requires that I assume that there is no possible other use of that capital that would result in more wealth creation than your hypothetical investment.

Here, I think, we run into the problem of diffused information--there is no way you could prove that your investment opportunity would result in greater wealth creation than whatever Bill Gates might decide to do with it in the future--to do so would require perfect knowledge, of both the past and the future, and nobody has access to that.

It seems to me that there is not in fact an objective standard by which you could prove that your proposed use of Bill Gates' capital would definitely create more wealth than Bill Gates' use of it.

In other words, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

I agree that, practically

I agree that, practically speaking, it is a bad idea to start confiscating Bill Gates' money because we think we know how to use it better than he does (even ignoring the moral question of taking away someone's property). But unless you believe Bill Gates has perfect information, it is certainly possible to have a situation where Bill Gates makes the "wrong" choice with regard to prosperity and us confiscators would have made the "right" choice. In such a situation, the non-coercion principle conflicts with the maximize-prosperity principle.

But unless you believe Bill

But unless you believe Bill Gates has perfect information, it is certainly possible to have a situation where Bill Gates makes the "wrong" choice with regard to prosperity and us confiscators would have made the "right" choice. In such a situation, the non-coercion principle conflicts with the maximize-prosperity principle.

I don't have to believe that Bill Gates has perfect information, and yes, it is certainly possible that it will turn out that you are "right" and Bill Gates is "wrong". The point is, however, you cannot prove at the point you confiscate BG's captial that your investment is definitely more profitable than any other investment he might choose in the future.

Even if you have zero compunction about violating BG's property rights, and your only interest, honestly, is in increasing the "prosperity" of "society", but you cannot know for sure that your investment is the most profitable possible use of that capital, doesn't it make that argument kind of a non-starter?

At that point, it's really just your word against his, isn't it? And he's a famous billionaire, and you're just some guys who want to take the wad of cash under his mattress.

Even if you have zero

Even if you have zero compunction about violating BG's property rights, and your only interest, honestly, is in increasing the "prosperity" of "society", but you cannot know for sure that your investment is the most profitable possible use of that capital, doesn't it make that argument kind of a non-starter?

If you value maximizing prosperity more than you value non-coercion, and you believe that you know how to use Bill Gates' money better than he does, then I think the argument works. You may be wrong, but the two values can come into conflict.

If you value maximizing

If you value maximizing prosperity more than you value non-coercion, and you believe that you know how to use Bill Gates' money better than he does, then I think the argument works. You may be wrong, but the two values can come into conflict.

I understand what you're getting at Micha--that when people advance these kinds of arguments, they don't know or don't care that they're wrong. However, if they are wrong, as I believe they are, I think the objective universe will extract a price, just as it extracts a price when you step off a cliff. Of course, with government, people are able to make these kinds of mistakes and pass the cost on to others. So, instead of one idiot making a mistake and paying for it, 1 million people elect one idiot who makes a mistake and 10 million people pay for it.

How can justice be

How can justice be objective, if damages are subjective?

You broke a pen.
You broke my pen.
You broke my only good pen
You broke my only pen.
You broke the pen that was once used by my great-great-great-great grandfather.
You broke the pen that was used to write the Declaration of Independence.

Determining the value of

Determining the value of goods and services is not the purpose of a theory of justice. A theory of justice is used to determine who is responsible for what. All of the statements above have a common factor: "You broke". You have used your theory of justice to determine that I am responsible for breaking the pen--maybe you saw me do it, and you know it's not mine. You do not have to know what the pen is worth, nor to whom, to know that the owner of the pen has a just complaint against me.

More to the point, I'll tell you who decides what your pen is worth: you do. You decide what your pen is worth by being careful with it, writing your name on it, having insurance on it, keeping it a locked case in a museum with an armed guard, etc.

Micha, One day you will have

Micha,

One day you will have to explain to me how consequentialism is not just saying "the ends justify the means."

The main problem I have with this is that other people seem to be choosing ends for me. This is why I worried about how Justice could be objective at the beginning of the discussion. The Austrians here seem to argue that each individual sets their personal goals and that individual does economic calculations merely to find a way to achieve those goals. The only objective way to find how two individuals value the same thing is to study how they trade it in an environment free from the threat of force. (I hope this is a fair statement about Austrian Economics--I'm picking it up mostly by osmosis from the postings here).

This is why I am happy with my current definition of Justice. It recognizes that people really do have the power to pick up a rock and hit you with it. I would have trouble with any definition that tries to say that doesn't happen fairly often. Then my definition tries to identify the ethical value judgement that I make and that many other people seem to make. This is what I use to decide when to pick up a rock.

That this is subjective in Micha's restricted sense of the word--that we have billions of individual agents making separate value judgements and acting on them independently--doesn't really bother me. If it were subjective in the larger sense of the word--that there is no valid basis for comparison of ethical systems--would seem to lead to the situation where individuals don't even bother to worry about when they pick up rocks.

Micha: I don't see any way to solve this conflict, even by pointing to other values that we all seem to agree with.

These conflicts are settled with force. That's why individualists have the Second Amendment and Marxists have power growing from the barrel of a gun. If the conflicting parties agree on how they restrain themselves from all-out, brute force, then there is a basis for discussion. But if there is no agreement, you use force unilaterally as you choose.

Anytime force is used (or any volition is exercised, for that matter), it is unilateral. This follows from the definition of volition. If we restrain our use of force, it is self-restraint, whether because of reason, fear, or habit.

Qiwi: More to the point,

Qiwi: More to the point, I'll tell you who decides what your pen is worth: you do. You decide what your pen is worth by being careful with it, writing your name on it, having insurance on it, keeping it a locked case in a museum with an armed guard, etc.

I like this. Once we get this issue of Justice settled once and for all, I'd like to explore how you could use insurance to limit liability damages. It always seemed contradictory to me that a party could claim they should receive $1 million for wrongful death injury when they weren't willing to insure their own life for the same amount (beyond the contradiction that a dead party is making claims!). Self-insurance and unacceptably high premiums would seem to be two angles of attack against the system, though.

Insurance, like money, is

Insurance, like money, is one of the most excellent civilizing inventions of mankind. Also like money, insurance is hideously debased and devalued by government distortions.

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