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 Title

Justice

 Author

Paul Elmer More

 Author Notes

American critic and scholar, proponent of the New Humanism advanced by Irving Babbitt.

 Essay - 1/1/1915

It is an odd but undeniable state of things that a writer should feel a certain need of apology when he asks his readers to consider with him such a topic as that which stands at the head of this essay. For, after all, no other subject of debate, I suppose, is so perennially interesting and fruitful as the definition of the abstract virtues. That at least was the opinion of Socrates long ago, when he told his friends of the market place that he should like nothing better than to pass his whole life long in this kind of conversation; and any one who reads the newspapers today ought to know that, despite our apparent disdain of such themes, we really have the same insatiable curiosity towards them. What else is all our ocean of print about the present war but an effort to fix the responsibility for its origin where it justly belongs? And what else is our discussion of the national traits of the various combatants, our talk of militarism, liberty, culture, humanitarianism, efficiency, and the like, but an endeavour to arrive at a clear definition of that virtue of justice upon which civilization itself is thought to hang?

Now, in a way, justice is easily defined: It is the act of right distribution, the giving to each man his due. Nobody will question this definition; but obviously, also, it carries us nowhere until we have further defined what is right and due, and have discovered some criterion by which we may know that a particular act in the conduct of life falls within our general definition.

The impulse of the modern man will be to look for an objective standard of justice in the law and operation of nature in the animate world; and, immediately or inferentially, he will find there what he seeks. He will observe first of all a great variety of creatures and species existing side by side. He will next be impressed by the fact that they differ one from another in their similarity or dissimilarity to himself, and in their power of satisfying his own sense of fitness and value. He will see that among these creatures and species a struggle for existence, sometimes open and sometimes disguised, now violent and now gentle, is going on, and apparently has been going on for an immeasurable space of time; and he will instinctively give a kind of approbation when that creature or species prevails to which he attributes the greater measure of fitness or value, and which he calls the higher, as being in some way nearer to himself. In general it will seem to him that in the course of nature the stronger, which prevail over the weaker, are also, as he judges, the higher. This common process of survival he will call evolution, and its law will appear to him to be formulated in the axiom: Might makes right. To both of the meanings implied in these words, viz., that might is right, as being the higher in the order of nature, and that might has the right to develop at the expense of the weaker, his reason will assent, and, in its first motion at least, will assent without reservation.

But there is another aspect of evolution which will be forced on the observer's attention. This process of subduing or eliminating the weaker creature or species is often accompanied with suffering. It cannot be pleasant for the less vigorous animal, when food is scarce, that the sturdier should gobble up whatever is in sight, and leave him to starve. Nor do we suppose that it is altogether sport for the little fish to be chased by the big fish. Sometimes the law of might acts by what has the appearance of deliberate torture. Any one who has studied the habits of pigeons in a dovecot will have seen a typical example of Nature's way of dealing with weakness. Let one of the flock suffer an injury or fall ill, and he is forthwith made the victim of downright persecution. Instead of pity, his comrades are filled with a kind of rage, striking him with beak and wing and driving him away to die in solitude.

Now our reason may tell us that all this is a necessary factor of evolution, and must occur if the higher creatures are to prevail over the lower. But besides reason we have feelings, and, however we may admire the widespread benevolence of Nature, from at least part of her operations our instinctive sympathy with suffering is bound to withhold its assent; we are bound to regard them as painful, and they may even seem malicious. Seeing these things, so impassionate an observer as Charles Darwin could be forced to exclaim: "What a book a Devil's-Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of Nature." If, in judging the procedure of evolution, reason says that might makes right, feeling will often reply that weakness makes right, in the sense of having right, even when not being right.

Our attitude towards Nature is thus complex. Her work in a way, as Walpole used to say of the life of man, is a comedy to him who thinks, and a tragedy to him who feels. When the difference between two competitors is great, our reason predominates, and we feel little sympathy for the lower; our feeling may even side with reason against the sufferer. Certain creatures, whether because they are remote from us in the scale of being or because they are elusive enemies of our comfort, so affect us with disgust that we are quite ready to acquiesce in their torture. There is a joy for most men in destroying vermin and seeing it writhe in agony. No good American would feel compunction for the pangs of the brown-tailed or the gypsy moth, if some entomologist should discover and let loose a parasite to prey on the vitals of those pests. But when suffering comes to creatures higher up and nearer to us, we cry out that Nature is malign; and when our own welfare demands the death or discomfort of such creatures, we are likely to become apologetic, if not remorseful. There is "complicity in the shambles," as Emerson says, and so unbalanced men argue that meat is baleful, and run to vegetarianism and other expedients to escape the inevitable law of evolution. Fanatics in India have carried this repulsion so far as to make it a point of religion to strain all the water they drink, lest some living organism should inadvertently be swallowed, and to sweep the ground before them lest some insect should be trodden under foot. With them sympathy altogether outruns reason.

We see, therefore, that into our judgment of Nature two elements enter, and that our sense of justice demands the satisfaction both of our reason and of our feelings. And we see also that there is nothing in the actual procedure of Nature which would indicate any regard on her part for our judgment. When we consider the persistent preservation of many low forms of life whose welfare means for mankind only disease and misery, we are almost driven to doubt whether the end of evolution is even such as to satisfy our reason; and, without any doubt at all, the method of evolution is often repugnant to our most instinctive feelings. The fact is: the very idea of justice or injustice has no real application to Nature. She proceeds by a law and for a purpose of her own, and to judge her by our human standard, as we inevitably do if we judge her at all, is a pure fallacy. Our approval will not influence her a whit; not all our clamours will move her to relent. She will continue to warm us at the fires of life to-day, and to-morrow will ravage our cities with earthquake and conflagration. She moves on her way, impassionate and unconcerned, with sublime indifference to our creeds--the great mother at whose breasts we have clung. And we, if we are wise, will curb our resentment equally with our commendation; knowing that "ill is our anger with things, since it concerns them not at all,"

But there is another lesson to be learned from the indifference of Nature besides the need of regarding her works with corresponding detachment. The very impertinence of applying our moral standards there where they are so openly disregarded is a proof that our sense of justice is not derived from watching her calm method of dealing with her own, but springs from something within our breasts that is not subject to her sway - from a law, that is, that transcends the material law of evolution, being, if we use words strictly, not natural at all, but supernatural. Huxley was right and knew of what he spoke when he declared that our moral ideas have no relation to the doctrine of evolution.

Nevertheless, though we are debarred from the hope of finding in Nature an objective standard by which we can regulate our conduct, the manner in which we inevitably apply our idea of justice to the animate world is a clear indication of the character and composition of that idea. By analyzing the demands laid by us upon Nature we can see more plainly than by mere introspection what the condition of justice in the soul itself must be--rather, perhaps, the mind unaccustomed to the painful labour of self-study can here see itself magnified, so to speak, and projected upon a screen. Our idea of justice would be fulfilled if we saw that Nature satisfied two different faculties, or kinds of activity, of the soul--the reason, which demands that what is the stronger and more like itself should prevail, and the feelings, which demand that the higher should prevail with no suffering, but with the happy acquiescence, of the lower. And so we infer that the soul itself would be in this ideal state if the relation of its own members satisfied these demands. We reach, therefore, a clear definition of justice: it is that government and harmonious balance of the soul which arises when reason prevails over the feelings and desires, and when this dominance of the reason is attended with inner joy and consenting peace; it is the right distribution of power and honour to the denizens within the breast of the individual man.

The definition is not new, but was known of old to philosophers and poets who held it sufficient to look within themselves for moral guidance, with no thought of seeking in the inhumanities of Nature for corroboration of their faith. You will find such a portrait of the just man drawn at full length by Plutarch in his life of Aristides, whose righteous decisions swerved "neither for good will nor for friendship, neither for wrath nor for hatred," and upon whom we are told that all the spectators at a play once turned their eyes on hearing the poet's praise of a hero:

For not to seem but to be just he seeks,

And from deep furrows in the mind to reap

Harvest of ripe and noble counselling.

And Shakespeare draws the same portrait from a slightly different angle:

For thou hast been

As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing;

A man that fortune's buffets and rewards

Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those

Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled

That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger

To sound what stop she please.

These have been the commonplaces of self-knowledge, and have needed no confirmation from without; but we are children of another age, and must see wisdom with our eyes and learn truth through our ears. And so we may profit by carrying the analogy of evolution a little further.

What we call the injustice of evolution is due to the fact that the struggle in Nature is always between two distinct and different organisms, and that therefore the prevalence of the one is likely to be at the expense of the other. Hence we should infer, as indeed we know from quite other lines of argument, that, if the idea of justice can be realized in the soul, this is because the faculties of the soul are not separate entities but merely different members of one and the same entity. And so, looking into our experience, we find the matter to be. We find, that is, that as the attainment of justice means the subordination of one part of the soul to another, it is accompanied with the manifest satisfaction of the reason, and at the same time not infrequently with mortification of the feelings. We can have the approval of conscience only by controlling and, on occasion, denying a stream of desires which spring up in the breast and clamour for free course; and this act of control, when it is exercised in the form of denial, is necessarily attended with some degree of pain. If that were all, the analogy between nature and the soul would be complete--but with contrary results. For, whereas nature appears on the whole to go her own way serenely, sacrificing the lower of her creatures to the higher with no care for the pain she may inflict, or, rather, scattering pleasure and pain with impartial hand, in man the consequence would be a repudiation of justice altogether, and the surrender to the desires of his heart, with no thought of moral progress. It is absurd to suppose that any man in his senses would sacrifice his pleasures and voluntarily inflict pain upon himself. Humanity would not place itself in the position of a Brutus, who, having striven all his life to act justly, and having found that fortune took no account of his principles, was ready to leave it all with the bitter cry: "O miserable virtue! thou art but a word, and I have been following thee as a real thing!" It is no answer to say that, even in the balance of pleasure and pain, justice in the end is profitable. If the truth is so, as it may well be in the sum of time, that consummation seems so far away, and often takes so little account of the individual, as to afford but a feeble counterweight to the urgency of many immediate desires. Were there nothing beyond this, justice would be admired perhaps, but scarcely practiced. Nor is it sufficient to hold that the desires will be checked by the stronger desire to enjoy the good opinion of one's fellows. There is the old fable, which has troubled the moralists for thousands of years, of Gyges, who by means of a magic ring could make himself invisible, and so fulfil all the lusts of the flesh while retaining the reputation of virtue. In a lesser degree that power is within the reach of every man.

No, we have another motive to justice besides the calculation of pleasures or the force of public opinion, a law of reward and punishment that does not follow afar off on limping feet, but is ever at the side of the man when he acts, rather is within him, is his very self. The just man may be, and often is, torn by the conflict between the knowledge that he is satisfying the demands of his reason and the feeling of pain that arises from the suppression of certain desires, but the soul of the just man is nevertheless one soul, not two souls, however it may be divided against itself; and besides the feelings of pleasure and pain that trouble one of its members, he has another feeling, greater and more intimate, that belongs to his soul as a unit. This is the feeling of happiness, which is not the same as pleasure, and may exist in the absence of pleasure, and despite the presence of pain; and opposed to it is the feeling of misery, which is not the same as pain, and may exist in the absence of pain, and despite the presence of pleasure. It is not easy to explain these things, it may be impossible to analyse them satisfactorily; but we know that they are so. History is replete with illustrations of this strange fact, and he who weighs his own experience honestly will find it there also, that a man conscious of doing what he believes is right, may be lifted up into a supreme happiness, against which the infliction of pain, though it be torture to the death, is as nothing. And so a man may enjoy all the pleasures that this world can give, yet suffer a misery for which the only relief is madness. Philosophy and history together have given a peculiar fame to the letter sent by Tiberius to the Roman Senate from the luxuries of Capreae: "May the gods and goddesses bring me to perish more miserably than I daily feel myself to be perishing, if I know what to write you, Senators, or how to write, or what indeed not to write at this time." It is not only the mind of the tyrant which, if opened, would be found lacerated within by the wounds of passion and evil desires, as the body of a slave is lacerated by the scourge; every unjust man shall know that the misery of the whole soul is something different, not in degree but in kind, from the pain of thwarted desires. A great English artist who painted the portrait of one of the older generation of our railway financiers, whose name has become also a synonym for the reckless abuse of power, is said to have observed that the face of his sitter was the most miserable he had ever seen. Only the heart of the unjust man knoweth its own bitterness. And, in like manner, every just man shall know that happiness is not a balance of pleasure against pain, but a feeling different in kind from pleasure. Happiness is a state of the whole soul, embracing both the faculties of reason, on the one hand, and of the desires, with the feelings of pleasure and pain, on the other hand; or, one might say, it is the state of some superior element of the soul, which finds its good in the harmonious action of those faculties. And it is because we discover no such higher unity in the field of Nature, where she can make compensation for the suffering of evolution, that we are debarred from applying the canon of justice and injustice to her procedure.

And not only is happiness the reward of that deep spiritual health which we call justice, but it is the warrant and test of that condition as well. We may err in our judgment of what is right at any moment, and err sadly in the choice of those desires which we suppress and those to which we give free rein, and our errors may be clear at the time to those who are more enlightened than we are; we have no guide to practical wisdom in this world, save the oracles of experience that direct us by the flickering signals of pleasure and pain. But we have a sure monitor of the will to act righteously in the present feeling of happiness or misery, and we have a hope--a divine illusion it may be, for it has never among men been verified by experience that in some way and at some time happiness and pleasure shall be completely reconciled by Nature, who, by mysterious deviations beyond our mortal ken, is herself also a servant of the law of justice. And so, if we were right in defining justice as the inner state of the soul when, under the command of the will to righteousness, reason guides and the desires obey, we can express the same truth in this brief equation of experience: We seek justice for the sake of happiness, and we are just when we are happy; or, more briefly still: Justice is happiness, happiness is justice.

But man is a political animal. His life is closely knit with that of his fellows, and it is not enough to trace the meaning of justice to a state of the isolated soul; we must consider how this virtue bears on the conduct of a man among men, in society. Now, we might be content to say that a man is just in his conduct when, having attained to equilibrium of his own faculties, he acts in such a way as ought to produce in others the same condition; and this indeed is the sum of the law in the unrestrained dealing of a man with his neighbour. But society is something more than the spontaneous association of free units; it is an organization with traditions and government, necessary to it for the reason that it is made up of individuals who, not being infallibly just and wise, must be guided and constrained by a conventional code of relations. Hence there is a social justice of the community which complements, or even supplants, the conscience of the individual, as there is in the same sense a social injustice. Manifestly the problem here is far more complicated than when it is isolated in the individual soul.

Abstractly, no doubt, the definition of this social justice is simple and ready at hand. Society is composed of men who vary in the degree of individual justice to which they have attained, some being by disposition and training more self-governed, more rational, than others. By an inevitable analogy, therefore, we extend to society the idea of justice learned from our personal experience, precisely as we extended it to Nature. We cannot, in fact, do otherwise, since this is the only idea of justice possible to us. We think that society would be justly organized if its members were related to one another in the same manner as the faculties within the breast of the just man. The application of the analogy to nature showed that progress was obtained there not by justice at all, but by the operation of a law which in our human arrogance we often condemned as unjust. What shall we find in society?

Here, first of all, we come into conflict with two opposite theories of social justice which are as old almost as history, and which will doubtless go on flourishing as long as the human mind retains its tendency to gravitate to the indolent simplicity of extremes. One of these theories passes now under the name of Nietzsche, who sums it up in the famous maxim: unusquisque tantum juris habet quantum potentia valet. If we are impelled by present circumstances to abhor such a conception of social justice, we should at least remember that it is no startling creation of a logic-ridden madman, but was promulgated in all its essentials by various sophists and politicians several hundred years before the Christian era, if it does not go back to brother Cain himself. Nietzsche, however, derives his principle avowedly from the apparent procedure of evolution. He approves of that procedure without reservation and converts the law of might into a criterion of social justice because he judges the acts of Nature by the reason alone, regarding pity as the last temptation of the sage. His theory is falsified by a double error: it supposes that mankind will be willing to base its conduct on an idea of justice derived from natural evolution, and in despite of that inner consciousness which demands the satisfaction of both the reason and the feelings; and it assumes that social progress guided by strength and reason alone, whether possible or not, would be towards the higher, because happier, life. And even thus, I am taking Nietzsche on his rational, or philosophic, side. In practice, as men are made, Nietzscheism would not result in the control of reason, but would give loose rein to a particular group of desires, the libido dominandi. There is this real inconsistency in the system, but for purposes of illustration I am justified in isolating one aspect of it. Nietzsche's "will to power" does in theory demand the prevalence of those individuals whose survival in evolution meets with the approval of reason, however in effect it might mean the predominance of the inferior type.

The other theory springs from the same tendency of the mind to sink to extremes, suffering in this case the attraction of the feelings. It has various names, humanitarianism, socialism, equalitarianism, --masquerading in as many a lovely ism, or isme, or ismus as any other international mania, and sometimes arrogating to itself the more plausible title of democracy. Neither is this theory essentially new, whatever superficial development it may have taken on in recent times. When Solon was chosen to reform the Athenian Constitution, a current saying of his, that "equality breeds no war," flattered the turbulent populace into acquiescence because they took the word "equality" in its absolute sense. Whereas in reality Solon was thinking of fair proportion, and on this principle reduced the oppression of the rich, while refusing to the poor an equalitarian Constitution. He saw, as we must see to-day, that the ideal of absolute equality is not only impossible in practice, but is contrary to our sense of justice. It is false and one-sided, being based on the exclusive appeal of the feelings, just as Nietzscheism is, theoretically, based on the claim of the reason. We think there is a higher and a lower in the scale of nature, we are conscious of reason and feeling in our own souls, we observe a similar distribution of characters in society. It would be pleasant, no doubt, to feel that every man had all his desires gratified, but reason, which is the faculty of seeing distinctions, binds us to believe that the State cannot progress in the orderly manner of evolution unless there, as in Nature, a certain advantage of honour accrues to those individuals who are themselves governed by reason, with the privilege of imposing their will upon those who, from the rational point of view, are inferior to them.

Social justice, then, is neither Nietzschean nor equalitarian. It is such a distribution of power and privilege, and of property as the symbol and instrument of these, as at once will satisfy the distinctions of reason among the superior, and will not outrage the feelings of the inferior. And if no precise rule can be given for striking this balance in law and institution, any more than an absolute code of morals can be formulated for the conduct of the individual, yet we have the same criterion for determining practically our progress towards this ideal as towards the ideal of individual justice. For there is a "pursuit of happiness" which is the right of every society, and which differs totally in principle from the license of pleasure--a feeling, which, by permeating society, may in a measure transcend and reconcile the envious divisions of discontent. Social justice and personal justice are both measured by happiness.

Obviously the problem is rendered difficult in the State by various complications, and obviously it can never be perfectly solved there, as, within the limits of human frailty, it can be solved in the inner life of the individual. For society (and in this complication lies the sum of the whole matter) shares both the character of the individual soul, as being composed of souls, and the character of nature, as being fundamentally not a unit but a collection of units. The constitution of a just society, therefore, will inevitably have this double aspect: it will correspond to what is justice in the individual soul, and at the same time it will disturb us by admitting elements of that seeming oppression which we are wont to call injustice in the procedure of evolution, but which is really the fatal inhuman law of things. In other words, in aiming at a just State we must always, while men are men, act in such a way as will seem unjust to those who, judging for themselves, judge by the feelings alone. The duty of the legislator, under these circumstances, will be to enact laws which shall conform so far as possible with the idea of rational proportion, distributing the advantages of power and property in accordance with the claims of superiority indeed, but not by the demands of an arrogant egotism; and measuring the probabilities of superiority by the most practical means at his disposal.

And there is another function of equal importance with that of the legislator. It shall be the duty of the teacher and moralist to impart to men the knowledge and to instil into them the feeling that their own true happiness as individuals depends neither on the unpitying exercise of strength nor on the envious striving after equality, but is bound up with that social happiness which can exist only when each division of society, such as male and female, and each member of society, has a distinct place and responsibility, and is recognized and rewarded accordingly. There is in every breast a spark of reason and a gleam of that self-knowledge which is happiness. On this the moralist must depend for confirmation of his teaching. There were indeed no society at all, unless a voice within each of us, in all but those quite brutalized by the lust of pleasure, responded to the law that men must serve as well as command.

Of both lawgiver and teacher the work is one of mediation, as social justice is itself always a shifting compromise. But the first rule for both, as the first and hardest lesson for each right-minded man in these days, is to discipline the heart to accept with equanimity the fatal fact that social justice must include a considerable amount of that disposition of Nature in dealing with her own which we, judging by the standard of the individual soul, are so ready to call injustice. The first step towards the equipoise of a soul just within itself is to recognize the necessity of a measure of injustice in the relation of man with man and with the world. We must learn from the god of realities how "ill is our anger with things, since it concerns them not at all."


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