Chapter 6 - JusticeJustice arises naturally out of the human condition, but it is a very weak form of justice.
In a number of the world's great religions, one finds the concept of heaven and hell. The basic idea is that there is a place that you go after you die where your good deeds are rewarded if you are good and your bad deeds are punished if you are bad. Of course there are differences between faiths. Certain branches of Christianity believe that going to heaven depends solely on the acknowledgement of Christ as Savior - this is the only determinant of whether a person will escape punishment in Hell or not. The Restorationist branch of Universalist Christianity believes that those who are sent to Hell for punishment are eventually restored to Heaven when the punishment is over. Some religions, such as the Baha'i, believe that Heaven and Hell are not separate places, but some sort of continuum that delineates the distance of the soul from God. Even the concept of reincarnation is sometimes expressed with a component of retribution for sins and reward for good: the form of the next incarnation is dependent upon one's behavior in the past.
All of these speculations meet a basic human need that there is justice in the world - if not in this life, then in the next. Recent experiments have shown that people are willing to give up something if it helps ensure that transgressors are punished. But too often it seems that bad people can get away with murder, figuratively and even literally, while no good deed goes unpunished. The question arises if there really is justice in the world at all. It is possible to show that, depending on the nature of how people respond to the actions of others, justice arises naturally for any social creatures, but it is very imperfect - probabilistic in character and very attenuated, so that not only do the sometimes innocent suffer for the sins of the wicked, but even their victims suffer.
Because the natural forces of justice are so imperfect, humans impose their own justice upon transgressors. This has met with different levels of success. For example, sometimes a focus on justice in individual cases can lead to an unjust society.
Justice was described in Chapter 3 as a force that returns equity to moral acts. Justice is the attempt to restore a balance in well-being that had been disturbed. In most cases of justice, this imbalance can be seen to be simply due to the fact that one entity's well-being is improved at the expense of another. In cases of social justice though, the imbalance is due to different groups progressing at different rates.
The metaphors that help to describe how justice comes about naturally are the concepts of conservation and feedback. Conservation of some property is observed when that property remains the same in some system even though there have been other changes. In physics there are a number of conservation laws for different properties such as momentum, charge, spin and so on.
Conservation laws are defined and confirmed by observation and experiment. Some hypothesized laws that seemed to make sense are shown not to hold, such as the conservation of parity in nuclear physics which was shown to be false when nuclear reactions were recorded where the number of cases of one parity did not match that of the other.
In the physics of motion, inertia is the result of conservation of momentum. Inertia is the tendency of a body in motion to remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force. This is the first of Newton's laws of motion. This conservation law was not known to the early Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, who believed instead that objects composed of certain elements would tend to seek their level. The level of each of the elements was the following: earth was the lowest, followed by water. Above that was air and the highest was fire. This concept meant that motion of an object that was taken it out of its element would naturally change and eventually reverse itself until the object would get back to the level which is appropriate for it. For example, a rock, thrown up in the air would return back to the level of other rocks, composed of earth. A bag full of air, opened below the surface of the water, would bubble up until it reached the level of the atmosphere. This erroneous belief is in itself a conservation law, where the elemental level of an object is conserved.
Aristotle's law of motion tried to equate two different properties: motion and density. The four elements that the Greeks recognized were actually four states of matter. Earth is the solid phase of matter, water is the liquid phase, air is the gaseous phase, and fire, having enough energy to remove some of the electrons from the electron shells, is a plasma phase. Matter at normal temperatures tends to have different densities depending on the phase it is in. Solids such as iron or quartz tend to be denser than liquids such as water, which has more density than the nitrogen in the air. Fire, being at a higher temperature, is even less dense than air. There are exceptions, though. It is well known that the solid form of water is less dense than the liquid, so ice cubes float.
What this view of physics missed was that the density of matter is changeable - it is a property that is not conserved. Instead it was believed that matter was composed of these four elements; as if the densities were mixed together in certain proportion but they did not change.
A conservation law that addressed the composition of matter that finally supplanted the Greek view was encapsulated in the periodic table - a theory of different elements, each element being an atom with a different number of protons that give the elements their mass, and whose electrons are organized into electron shells which give them their chemical properties. This conservation law applies to chemical reactions: that is, situations where the nucleus of each atom is unaffected. The conservation law states that if you count the number of atoms of each element, where an element is an atom with a certain number of protons in its nucleus, the count of the number of atoms of each element are the same. Besides this basic conservation law there is a second conservation law concerning chemical reactions. This law states that the overall count of the number of electrons in all of the atoms, before and after is the same. These laws are the law of conservation of electron charge.
A basic part of physics is to define the properties of matter and energy. We can see in this example that physics has sometimes begun with a concept of some property that is an inherent, fixed, and immutable property of matter, where different quantities of this property lead to the differences we observe around us. A deeper understanding, though, leads us to postulate some other underlying property that can be distributed through a system, but is the same after a redistribution.
Besides conservation we also need to consider feedback. Feedback is when the output of a process turns around and influences the inputs of the process. When a positive change in output is fed back to become an even more positive change then there is a situation of positive feedback. We also have positive feedback when a negative change becomes a cumulatively more negative change, because the negative quantity has become greater. If, on the other hand, a negative change in the outputs is fed back to become a positive change and a positive change becomes a negative change, then we have negative feedback.
Although in human interaction, the act of positive feedback is considered good, this it cannot be maintained for long outside of restricted circumstances. Positive feedback is usually thought of as an input to a person praising what they have done, with the goal of having them do even better. This cannot be taken too far. If the person, in their attempt to do even better can get to a point where they work too hard to attain the next level, this is ultimately detrimental. So positive feedback is effective only within certain limits.
Two situations in which positive feedback result in uncontrolled behavior are population explosions and monetary inflation. The negative effects of positive feedback can be seen in the genesis of wars. Sometime a negative action is responded to with an even more negative act. This leads to more and more negative acts which finally explode in war. At its most benign, positive feedback of this type will not increase the degree of the response, but instead result in a reduction in interaction between the parties, which will feed back to cause a resultant further reduction in interaction, which, instead of leading to an explosion, will eventually result in no interaction at all.
Negative feedback is preferable if a stable situation is desired. This type of feedback is built into many automatic systems, both mechanical and electronic. It can be found in cruise controls and autopilots, bathroom toilets, ovens and air conditioners. Negative feedback can be applied to make a system stay at a preset limit, the way an air conditioner is set by setting a thermometer.
There can be systems with negative feedback that have no absolute fixed setpoint. These types of situations are found in nature between predators and prey. An increase in the number of deer, for instance, can lead to an increase in the number of wolves who eat them, which can lead to a decrease in the deer population if there are more deer eaten by wolves then are being born. This will lead to a reduction in the deer population which leads to some of the wolves starving. Although it would seem that there can be a certain fixed level that would apply to a particular pair of predators and prey, the negative feedback can be such that there can be a range of possible stable situations, not just a single level.
Conservation laws and feedback both function on the degree of well-being in the world. The conservation laws in human behavior are not as absolute as they are in physics, though - conservation means the properties are approximately the same before and after a moral act occurs. But, averaging over many such acts, given a certain level of well-being, the resultant level of well-being will be similar to what it was before. This level cannot be specified exactly because humans are more complicated than physical objects and are therefore affected by changes in the environment that would cause changes in well-being even if no moral act takes place. As to moral acts, there may be general principles that are in common between similar acts, but when it comes to the details each act is as unique as the players involved.
This variability makes it hard to determine if there is a conservation law at all. Human nature being what it is, we might postulate certain innate properties of humanity, which, although they are manifested slightly differently in different people, are essentially the same within certain bounds. On the other hand, what might appear to be an innate property could be mutable, but bound by a conservation law that make predictions about the limits of change. Of course, the third possibility is that there is no such constancy at all in human nature - we have been observing people in only a limited number of circumstances due to the limits of this earth and our human history, and that this supposed innate property could manifest itself in people in different places in almost infinite ways.
To address the question of a conservation law we first note that historically, human nature has been variously viewed as essentially virtuous or evil depending on the philosophical tradition of the viewer. This is a claim that humans naturally function so that they maintain a certain level of well-being in society. Since humans tend to act consciously when they consider actions that are good and bad, a virtuous person is one who tends to make good decisions. An evil person is judged to be that way because their decisions tend to be bad - certainly for others and sometimes for themselves. This does equate good and bad with virtue and evil as if there is some sort of perfect volition at work. Whether or not this is actually the case will not be discussed here. Instead we will frame things in terms of good and bad, leaving out whether the person made moral or immoral decisions.
One of these viewpoints is the Christian concept of original sin. This is the belief that humans are essentially bad in comparison to what is attainable from the viewpoint of the Almighty. This is usually described in terms of the human capacity to do things that result in a lowering of well-being of others. This leads to a condition where society functions in a state of malaise.
A different viewpoint is that which sees the world as a good place. That is, despite the bad actions of people at various times, the world itself is essentially a place of well-being where although the capacity of pleasure and happiness can fail to be realized in certain times and places, the world will in time right itself.
Both of these viewpoints look at the world as having these elemental properties of goodness and badness. That is, goodness and badness are innate properties with certain fixed quantities the same way we see the world as made up of atoms whose elemental properties are fixed. Besides the obvious difference that one viewpoint sees mankind as bad and the other sees the world as good, there is an interesting difference in how these properties are stated. Original sin is given as a capacity of people to function in a certain manner - a property of action. The other viewpoint is given as a capacity of people to exist in a certain state or condition of well-being.
Original sin states that people have the capacity to do bad, but this statement is made in terms of people's falling short of the glory of God. That is to say, people are certainly capable of doing good at certain times, and in fact do. The problem is that people do bad things, and in the Christian viewpoint, people tend to do more bad things than they do good. But the question is whether the two balance out or not. Even if less good acts are done and more bad acts take place, each good act may have a greater positive effect than a number of bad actions that each has a smaller effect. In that case, even though there are more bad actions, the cumulative effect is that the world is a better and better place as time goes on and both viewpoints are simultaneously correct.
Those Christian who take the darkest view of original sin would disagree with this estimation. They tend to believe that the number and degree of the bad actions tend to outweigh the good. This leads them to consider the world as having fallen away from its initial state of goodness. At worst, the world can even be seen to be worse and worse the more we go along.
This belief in an innate capacity of human action has both a nature and a nurture component. The nature component is genetically determined - it is the degree of goodness a person is naturally capable of. The nurture component is the capacity for doing good or bad that society imposes upon the person. This may be different for different societies.
The same question that applies to individuals - whether they are innately bad or good - can also be applied to human societies. The innate capacity of the society is institutionally determined, creating a certain climate of morality that is handed down through the generations, preserving a certain basic capacity to societies even as they change. There is a capacity for change, just as individuals can be better or worse than the innate capacity for virtue or vice that humanity has as a basic characteristic. But a concept of an innate capacity for morality in a society would lead one to claim that society can only be perfected so far, or that society can degenerate only to a certain level below which it would cease to function as a society.
If the capacity for good or bad in the world we live in is considered as an innate property of our environment, it does not mean that good things are constantly coming our way to such an extent that they outweighs the bad. If that were so, our lives would eventually be raised to such a height of ecstasy that we could not contain our happiness. Instead we have a question of balance. What might come to us might bring us sorrow or pain, but for most of us, most of the time, what comes to us sustains us sufficiently that life goes on. Because life goes on most of the time and that requires a preponderance of good, it is reasonable to conclude that the world is basically good.
These two views of the innate qualities of mankind and the world may be true simultaneously. If either viewpoint is wrong, it may be wrong in either or both of two ways. The first way is that the claim of that particular innate quantity is wrong - no such quantity can be found that is consistent over all of human nature. If it is not the case that people are intrinsically bad in their actions, it may appear that this is the case due to the world being an intrinsically bad place. This would mean one innate property is true and the other false. Or they could both be wrong and that no property this type holds at all - humanity is neither good nor bad, and neither is the world.
The second type of error is that there is an innate quantity, but that the quantity being claimed is in error. That is mankind could be essentially good or the world is essentially bad. Whether this is an error or not is really a question of perspective. The Christian viewpoint of mankind's essentially bad is obviously true if the standard of comparison is a god capable of being perfectly good. But this viewpoint does not actually say very much about human nature. It may make a statement about humankind's eventual salvation, but it does not really describe how well people function in the world. Yes, we fall short of a standard of perfection, but are we good enough? Again, this is a matter of perspective. We can be considered to be good enough because humanity has thrived enough to populate the world. Or one can establish an attainable ideal of human functioning that is represented by exemplars of human behavior who actions lead to the best level of human well-being that is realistically attainable and ask how close humanity comes to this level. This may lead to a conclusion that says humanity is falling short of this ideal, but is not inherently bad - just not as good as we could be. This perspective has practical results, because a measurement of this type can point the way to improving the human condition.
If no such property can be said to hold, then humanity is neither innately good or innately bad and so for the world. This would mean that the degree of good or bad in our actions has an arbitrary setpoint that depends on the situation that we find ourselves in. If this were so, then the typical human, if born and raised in a utopia, would function all their lives as a paragon of virtue, and if they were unfortunate enough to live in some dysfunctional society, they would rely on their baser nature to get by. If this is the case instead of having some innate level of functioning, then there are some observational predictions that can be made that would be able to distinguish between the two cases. If there were an innate level of good or bad in humanity, then a person, placed into a utopia would, on the average revert back to a normal state of imperfection, and if placed in some negative situation, would tend to rise above that state, leading to an eventual correction. These arguments apply equally to the existence of an innate property in the world, where eventually every Garden of Eden reverts back to a more normal state, and some inhospitable desert eventually gets transformed into a place where life can be sustained.
Although no definitive answer is given here as to the innate quantities of goodness and badness, we can still show that there is a conservation law at work in human behavior. The law simply states that humans have a tendency to respond to good or bad actions with a similar level of good or bad actions themselves. This conservation law has been amply demonstrated by experimentation: for example, people who were abused as children tend to grow up to be child abusers themselves. Even without experimental verification though, this law can be derived from first principles.
If there is an innate capacity for good or bad, then people would to tend to act in a way consistent with that innate capacity. Different people would tend to have different innate capacities, though. If there were no conservation law, then there would be no difference in a person's response between being treated well or ill. Within the variability of human action, a person would tend to respond at about the same level, consistent with their capacity.
But this implies a mechanistic functioning of human beings that is inconsistent with human nature. This type of functioning would be seen in organisms that are driven by their instincts. This extreme of unresponsiveness does not even occur with other mammals. Once there is a capacity for learning, there is a response to actions that incorporates the levels of goodness and badness of the actions that the organism has been subjected to along with other details of the action.
Even if an innate tendency towards a certain level of good or bad were functioning, this would not totally override, but only influence the degree of goodness or badness in the response. This is a consequence of the conditions we discussed in the chapter on the moral absolute. That is, there is an absolute standard of well-being, but it is determined by finding the maximum possible well-being attainable. This must be so, because as time goes on, human ability has worked to make it possible to attain well-being in more and more possible ways. Therefore, if the innate capacity of humanity limited the response of humans to respond to novel ways of moral functioning, we would be limited in the capacity of well-being we would be able to learn.
For example, issues of well-being around money and its exchange are not innate in humanity. Wealth as a measure of well-being came along later in human civilization, and has been constantly changing as we have gone along. If we are limited in our response to novel situations, we would not be able to develop concepts such as charity around money. Instead we have developed such concepts once money entered into human society. Actions such as giving alms or embezzling money entered the human repertoire and these behaviors were passed from person to person as they were experienced. This does not mean that a victim of a holdup turns into a thief themself. But it does mean that if the degree of thievery increases in the world, there is a basic conservation of action that left to itself, preserves this activity at a certain level.
The existence of this approximate conservation law is further shown to exist due to the fact that there is no absolute cutoff between a sufficient and an insufficient level of well-being. That is, as human history has gone on, the level of what is acceptable has changed. In the distant past, a subsistence level of food, a certain level of health, the comfort of ones housing and clothes may have defined a good life, but this level of comfort would not be acceptable in advanced societies of today. This lack of an absolute cutoff between well and ill implies that the level of acceptable functioning we have in modern society is different from that of the past and also different from less developed societies, and therefore we respond to the actions of those around us with a level of good or bad that maintains the level of well-being in the society we find ourselves.
This conservation of action leads to a feedback situation. Our outputs are influenced by our inputs, and this in term influences the outputs of the people around us. There does not appear to be an innate character of positive or negative feedback in human nature, though. Different types of situations lead to different forms of feedback. Some feedback conditions lead to stable situations, others lead to cases where things get out of hand, until all society breaks down. But although this breakdown can happen, it is not due to random action - it can usually be shown to be a continuous change in the situation caused by the feedback in the system.
This feedback system naturally leads to a certain level of justice in society. If someone takes an action that is worse than the typical actions of other people in the local environment, the conservation law predicts a tendency for the recipients of that action to respond in kind. This will affect others in the immediate environment, and eventually lead to a change in level of well-being in the society at large. Eventually this will come back to the initiator of the action, unless that person has left the environment entirely.
This level of justice is certainly imperfect. This means that the victims of an injustice suffer most, and that the perpetrator only indirectly. To achieve a higher level of justice requires human intervention.
If it is the case that humanity has a certain innate level of good or bad then this conservation law functions within the bounds set by this innate functioning. That is, if a person is treated well, they will respond in kind up to the maximum level of well-being that they are capable of. Similarly, ill treatment may be returned with ill-treatment, but not below a level that defines a basic humanity. Inside these bounds, there may be at different times a different setpoint established in accordance with the conservation of good or bad, but outside that range, any reaction will act only to preserve functioning within the operational range. What that means is that in a good society, the person who is even better will not be rewarded for this behavior because the other people are not capable of it. In a bad society, a person who is truly debased will go unanswered.
One important consequence of this conservation law is that one a society changes for the better or worse in terms of its level of functioning, the tendency is for that society to naturally stay at that level instead of reverting back to the previous level. A similar behavior is seen in probability theory in the arctangent law.
Consider a situation where someone is flipping a coin. There is a 50-50 probability that the coin will come up heads as often as it comes up tails, so that if you count the heads versus tails, they will come out about equal. But what happens if they don't? For example, what is the expectation if after 100 flips, there are 55 heads and 45 tails? Although intuition might say that after 100 more flips, there is just as much chance of coming out with more tails than heads than the other way around, probability theory shows that once there are more heads, the tendency will be that it will remain true that there will be more heads than tails. The arctangent law says "quit while you're behind": playing longer will not erase the setbacks of the past.
This type of behavior comes about when a something is learned without reference to behavior in the distant past. This can happen in periods where there is a rebellion or revolution from the past, or when the social situation appears novel enough that the old ways do not apply. In that case a different way of doing things will be taken up and copied by people who have come in contact with this new behavior or have heard about it.
When a new behavior is introduced where this novelty is unwelcome, people will have a tendency to revert back to the past. This is a negative feedback situation, where some change will be met with a reaction that has less of that change and some of the previous behavior. The effect of this is to reduce the level of change until society gets back to functioning the way it did before.
It often happens that a change has both good effects and bad effects. An example of this is the tradeoff between individuality and conformity in society. Individuality has the positive effect of personal self-expression, but has the negative effect that others have to make more effort to adapt to all these differences. Conformity allows us to know what to expect of ourselves and others, but at the cost of having to suppress parts of ourselves. When there is a situation in which changes can lead to two different states of well-being, approximately equal in their degree of personal satisfaction but different in their composition, society tends to veer between the two states in a kind of pendulum effect.
This crude form of justice described here plays itself out in ways that can be surprisingly long-lasting. The biblical phrase "the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, even to the third and fourth generation" is an example of this effect at work. Some of the social strife that occurred in England during the last century is this principle in action. The confiscatory levels of income tax on upper income levels was in part due to children of the labor class acting against the children of the ruling class in a way that embodied the resentment left behind from generations of injustice by the upper class in years past.
This effect of spreading the consequences of injustice to others in the local environment can affect the victims unduly, especially when the perpetrators are not to be found. It has been said that some of the problems in Russia in the last few generations is due to the Russian character never having fully recovered from the negative effects of the Mongol invasion of the 1200's.
This effect has an important consequence in our actions. If it happens that we are the recipients of an action that was bad for us, one of the first questions we must ask ourselves is what we have done that might have sparked such an action. If we ourselves were not the initiator of an action that may have resulted in this type of response, then we need to ask who in our immediate environment might have caused it. Our search needs to go back in time as far as required to match the duration of the behavior in the others. This needs to be looked at very carefully and ruled out before we can claim to be a victim of injustice.
The justice being described here is a form of retribution. Instead of trying to right wrongs, it just returns to an evildoer the same treatment that had been afforded to others. This form of "just desserts" also returns to those who do good a measure of the benefits they gave to others. Retribution alone is not considered sufficient for an adequate sense of justice. Justice requires a redress of the imbalance: a determination of inequities in human behavior and a restoration of equity when they happen. Justice is not served when the victims suffer more than the perpetrators. What is necessary is that justice restore to the victims what has been lost and ensure that the perpetrator not profit from an unjust action.
To attain a just society, it is best to function in accordance with the natural feedback of good and bad in human society. A perfect justice is neither attainable nor desirable, since feedback systems with an immediate feedback lead to instabilities. What is preferable is that there is a certain amount of lag in the response. This is know as hysteresis, and leads to a functioning that is overall much smoother and efficient.
Besides a time lag, there should also be a lessening of the response in relation to the degree of the injustice. Due to the complexity of human nature, absolute equity is impossible. It is impossible to restore things to the level that existed before. Because of this, so it is better to round down than up. That is, when taking an action to redress an imbalance, do not try to make things whole again, but err on the side of doing a little less. Otherwise, even though some individual cases may even out exactly, there is a possibility that if the differences are too often rounded up, the impression will be created that a further injustice was created in this overcompensation. This would lead to a situation of positive feedback, which often leads to disaster.
The advisability of a lag in the application of justice implies that it is possible for justice to be too swift. Every action has its consequences, including actions of justice. The consequences affect the future behavior of the wrongdoer who has been subjected to this redress and the victim. But the action also has consequences to the society around them, in a degree relative to the closeness of those to the parties in the action. Without having time to consider these effects, the beneficial effects of justice may be worse than expected.
In the spirit of moderation, it is possible to take too long, though. The point was brought up in Chapter 3 that as time goes on, the incorporation of past injustice into the prevailing functioning of society dilutes the effect of the injustice with subsequent events and makes it impossible to restore things to that previous level. The balance must be struck between justice too swift and justice too late.
Applying justice with dampening effects leads to mercy. Mercy is sometimes thought of as valuable because showing good to a wrongdoer leads to that wrongdoer doing good in the future. This is using the conservation effect that is the basis of this chapter to bring about a permanent change. A second reason for mercy is that mercy has a dampening effect on feedback, leading to an effective and maintainable system.
Justice in human society is often associated with the application of laws that carry punishments such as fines or jail. The penalties are imposed to change the balance between costs and benefits that exist for a particular person or group of people to better reflect the costs and benefits of this action as seen from the perspective of society as a whole. The intention in many cases is to prevent the individual from taking without giving back. This is the same thing as adding a governor or a thermostat as a feedback mechanism in a physical system.
Feedback enters into the type of punishment handed out to criminals. The tradition of sentencing has been driven by two goals: to punish an offender in proportion to the degree of the crime and also to provide a correction. Correction is the attempt to make it possible for the criminals to improve their lives so they will not be led back into crime. There is also a third factor that comes into play - a prisoner in jail simply has no chance to commit a crime against a member of the general public. These different effects come out of the application of justice at two different levels - justice for the individuals involved and justice for society as a whole.
The goal of the individuals is to redress the imbalance that the act creates. The goal of society is to ensure that the society runs smoothly. A first-time offender can have a certain tendency towards wrong-doing which can be made better or worse by the experience of jail. If a correction system works effectively, the tendency is lessened. It has historically been true that in a system of punishment, the tendency toward recidivism is increased. Historically, a correctional system has shorter sentences. The two effects tend to function in different directions. A system of corrections puts ex-convicts out on the street sooner, but with less tendency to commit crimes. A system of punishment creates people with higher recidivism rates, but having not had the opportunity to commit more crimes. As the criminal is older, both of these factors are attenuated. The older criminal is less like to go back to crime, and the sentence of an older criminal is a larger fraction of that person's life span.
This chapter applied the concepts of conservation and feedback to morality to understand the mechanism of justice. We determined that there is a natural conservation of good and bad in the way people interact with each other, even though there may be an innate level of functioning or an innate level in the world at large. This leads to a feedback system that establishes a crude type of retribution in the world. For humanity to improve on this, it is advisable to establish a system of justice whose feedback mechanisms are tempered so that the whole system remains stable.