The image shows one of the stepping stones leading to my house. In mixing the cement I asked myself, “What words deserve being set in stone?” My choices are set in stepping stones. They are observations about the mechanics of being; notes on how the world is. No complaints, no visions of how the world ought to be, no fantasies, no prayers. Just laconic surmise from observations.
In stepping on the stones, most people take no notice whatever, that they are walking on words. A very few say something to me on the text content. And one person demonstrated considerable strength of character in saying of the text shown in the image that he didn’t know what it meant. He said what others dared not say. Only inner confidence allows one to profess ignorance. I respect people who can do it.
I offer examples below to illustrate the text, “Nothing so hinders understanding as notions of justice.”
The first example is this: In medieval times, items were held to possess ‘intrinsic value’ – a just value. The price of an item should be its just value. People battled over the just value of a thing. People argue over it today!
This notion hinders economic understanding. We cannot, with the idea of ‘just value’, understand how economics works. Adam Smith, and other great economists, rid themselves of the justice notion. They examined the nature of transactions as they occur, recognizing that the price of an item is what supply and demand dictate. Price is not a matter of justice. Casting out this notion gave us understanding about the functioning of markets. Better understanding in economics had vaste consequences for the material well being of the world.
Here’s a psychological example:
“Prosperity degrades the environment,” were the words spoken. I spoke them.
Jeff’s indignant response was, “That’s not true. In the under-developed world they cut down their trees.” He was pointing out that poor nations degrade their environment. Perhaps even faster than we prosperous nations do.
But clearly, the words I spoke differed from the words Jeff heard. A notion of justice was to blame for the misunderstanding. Jeff’s response was not to my words but to these words: “It’s the prosperous nations that degrade the environment.” That’s an unjust statement, he thought, and leaped to the defense of prosperous nations.
Here was understanding hindered by notions of justice.
Indeed it’s true that in poor nations they deplete their resources. But that fact exemplifies the notion that “Prosperity degrades the environment.” It’s not a counterexample! The meager prosperity that poverty can manage derives precisely from the degradation of their environment.
Pollution or environmental degradation is a byproduct of prosperity in both wealthy and poor nations. The reason is this: prosperity consists in the buying of things. Manufacturing those things creates jobs thus enabling more buying. Pollution curtailment in the manufacture of things has seen great successes. But, nevertheless, the more things manufactured, the more the pollution. Making things always produces environmental degradation. Thus “Prosperity degrades the environment.” Justice has nothing to do with it.
Here’s a political example of notions of justice hindering understanding: At the end of World War I the victorious Allies – Britain, France, the U.S. – felt considerable righteous indignation at the havoc Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany had wrought on the world. Justice demanded that Germany pay reparations. At Versailles, vanquished Germany was required to sign a treaty containing the “war guilt clause” that assigned it full responsibility for all ‘loss and damage’ suffered by the Allies. In January 1921, the reparation amount was set at 269 billion gold marks or almost 100,000 tons of pure gold, roughly equivalent to $394 Billion US Dollars of 2005. Thus, justice was done.
But, like the rest of Europe, Germany lay in ruins as a result of the war. Reparations where beyond the endurance of the population on which it fell. So this population was ready for persuasion to wreak vengeance. And this wrath is what enabled the dictator, Adolf Hitler, to lead Germany and the world into World War II.
That the reparations being assessed would impoverish the population and thus seed resentment and armed protest was clear to the thinkers of the time. John Maynard Keynes warned that demanding reparations would cost the Allies far more than it gained them. But, among the victors, notions of justice trumped understanding. It had murderous consequences.
After World War II the same victorious Allies were wise enough to treat Germany differently. The U.S. implemented the Marshall Plan which distributed rehabilitation funds to the defeated Germany rather than exacting payment from it. The result is that Germany has become a responsible and respected member of the world community. This is an example where notions of justice were cast off in favor of calculated reason and to very good effect.
Another example is this: In primitive times people ascribed all events to demons and spirits. To seek natural causes – the path of understanding – was suffocated by natural justice – the way the spirits want it. Ascribing a spirit origin to events instead of understanding the physical world by examining it is an example of notions of justice interfering with understanding.
The subject of mathematical probability could not get started until it was disentangled from moral baggage. (See “The Empire of Chance”, by Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, et al Cambridge U. Press, 1989) As long as it was tied up with justice – the just return for risk, a fair exchange, rendering what ‘in justice’ belonged – no quantitative progress was possible. Imagine betting someone even money that the next role of the die will come up 4 on these grounds: that your need for that number to come up will drive the Gods (or God) to produce it! Probability theory says the bet should be 1 to 5. Not even money. In medieval times the axiom that everything had a proximate cause – God, devils, angels, good, evil – precluded ideas of simple chance. It was thought that when you threw a die the number that came up was caused by an angel’s (or devil’s) decision. Causes were understood as coming from good and evil forces. Understanding was hindered by notions of justice.
Justice is concerned with what is right (just) and what is wrong (unjust), what is good and what is bad. What is just is necessarily based on some sort of faith; some axiomatic notions. The axiomatic faith need not be of a religious nature. But a canon of the Christian believer is that ‘justice’ is connected to God’s will. So finding His will in scripture is a pursuit of justice. To the sixteenth century mind scripture implied that the sun moved around the earth. So the work of Copernicus was banned and Galileo was persecuted for deducing, from observations of the sky, that, in fact, the earth moved around the sun. For science to progress notions of justice had to be caste aside.
For centuries during and before the middle ages the lending of money at interest was considered sinful – unjust. The pejorative term, usury, was attached to it. But, in fact, the lending of money at interest was a necessary feature in the great expansion of well being that marked the rise of society out of the dark ages of medieval times. It allowed the accumulations of capital necessary to the undertaking of great enterprises like ship building and eventually to road building and railroads. The notion of justice prevented clear thinking about how things worked.
A current example might be something like this: “I don’t want to support the exploitation of labor in the third world. I’m not going to buy things made there.” Understanding recognizes that business transactions are the lifeblood of the area and therefor of the workers in it. So in the cause of empowering the oppressed worker, a notion of justice, interfering with understanding, impoverishes him further. If we do want to implement justice then it’s best, first, to understand how, in fact, things work and then apply the principles of justice to see what can and cannot be effected.