Should Opponents of Injustice Join Forces?
Societal division and violent expression
In my long life, I’ve not seen or heard of a time when this country was more divided than today, and those whose views differ less willing to listen to each other, let alone entertain the thought of compromise. The outcome of this stubborn and irrational approach to local, national and international problems looks bleak, and the risk of violent revolutions and even a World War III, with nuclear weapons, is talked about glibly as a real possibility, by various national leaders, and those looking for an audience. The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved in 2017 a half minute closer to midnight (11:57:30). What does that ‘mean’? Really nothing objective. But all such scare tactics do illustrate that marketing is the primary method of politicians and those whose interests they serve, which clearly are not ‘in the public interest’.
In any case, war is not inevitable today. It never was. America’s war with England, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean ‘Conflict’, the wars in Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria might not have occurred if various decisions and events – some of which were purely accidental – had gone another direction. One instance of “hundreds of turning points” Jamie Malanowki discusses in his HistoryNet article “Was the War Inevitable?” (5-2-2017), relates to the influence of an impassioned speech given by abolitionist John Brown at his trial. Here is part of that oratory, which was reported in the press, defiantly calling on slaves everywhere to follow his example:
“I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right… Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!”
The piece was widely distributed in the North and South. Its message brought fear to slave-holders, and largely unified them against the North, when previously they had been divided. It was a strange accident that Brown was able to deliver it. After his botched 1859 attack on an armory near Harper’s Ferry, Brown holed up in the armory, with some followers and hostages, and was quickly surrounded by a company of Confederate marines, under Lieutenant Israel Greene. When he refused to surrender, Lieutenant Greene’s company attacked, and Greene himself struck blows to Brown’s head and chest with his sabre. That surely would have killed him then and there, but for the fact that Greene had put on his dress sword by mistake, which was very flimsy, as he later reported, and was “bent double, as it was left by a thrust upon Brown’s breast”.
This fluke is only one of the countless accidents, mistakes and decisions that might have gone another way, influencing the time, character and even existence of wars involving America. As this story shows, they are not inevitable. This suggests that well-intentioned and well-informed people can work to lessen the probability and the destructive character of conflict.
It’s not hard to see extreme divisions also exist within and among other nations, both in Europe and the so-called developed Western world, as well as in developing and ‘third world’ regions. Following ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, I believe all this divisiveness, here and around the world, ultimately rests on two aspects of human nature: (1) our desire to dominate others, which has no self-imposed limit, and (2) our desire to gratify ourselves, regardless of harm to others. They constitute aspects of our minds, or spiritual characters, which have degenerated, so to speak, over many ages of giving favor to worldly desires and beliefs; but they are spiritual nonetheless. They constitute the birth conditions of our minds or spirits at birth, at least as old as language (which makes deceit possible). What I call the ‘culture of modernity’ increasingly allows these traits free expression, in extremes of competition, inequity and breakdown of community and social order.
What is injustice?
However, I don’t want to focus here on these unhappy trends, which amount to spiritual degeneration. Nor can I say how they can be counteracted, which is a question of moral growth, and altering motives, which philosophy can’t accomplish. Injustice, I believe, is easier to see than motives, and easier to combat than moral decay. That’s the point to which this post speaks: “Should opponents of injustice join forces?”
My quick answer is “No”. But before discussing that claim, we need to understand what the question means, and define terms. (This is a habit of most philosophers – for which they are sometimes ridiculed – depending on how obvious the terms seem. This remains to be seen.) The key term here is “injustice”. We would know it if we knew what justice is.
Now that question – What is justice? – is very old. It’s the central problem around which Plato (the greatest philosopher in western history) wrote his most important work, The Republic. Like most of Plato’s dialogs, it’s an extended discussion by Socrates (Plato’s teacher, and literary spokesman) with friends (chiefly Glaucon and Adeimantos – Plato’s brothers). The topics vary, but all relate to two main questions – what justice is, and whether we should live justly. In the process, they discuss qualities and illustrations of just (virtuous) and unjust (vicious) persons, as well as just (well-guided) and bad (misguided) cities and governments. For generations, Plato interpreters (mostly philosophers) have argued over whether he thinks justice is more a matter of virtue (individual moral character) or of politics (group welfare in a state), or equally of both. I would add that his views changed ove time.
A general summary of these problems, interpretations and arguments is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: “Plato: The Republic“. A book length analysis, also available in e-book format, is James Orr’s Plato’s The Republic, CRC Press (2017).
Plato is a master writer, in terms of style and content. He can engage and fascinate readers, helping them identify with characters, and think rationally about the deepest questions of life. Some of the themes The Republic asks us to consider are these:
Injustice is spoken of early in the work (Book II) – even before justice is considered, which is curious. It is ‘discovered’ by accident, in the dialog, when Socrates’ friends test him, hoping he can make his views more convincing (although they are already among his devoted followers). They ask ‘Why should anyone be just, when it’s clear to any normal person that she will get more benefit from being unjust – especially if she hides her injustice through deception, deludes others, and gains a reputation for being just?’ In response, Socrates suggests a thought experiment: conceive how a very basic society should be structured, to see where it’s justice lies. So he describes a very rudimentary possible society – including only the functions completely necessary (food, clothing and shelter) – but quickly shows that ‘specialization’ (farmer, tailor and carpenter) would maximize everyone’s benefit. (Is that a just society, or an efficient one; or are they the same?)
The people of this simple society could ‘get up and go to bed with the sun, sleep on straw beds, and lead a healthy, happy life’. I think Socrates is baiting his listeners here. They ridicule this pastoral community. What? No poetry, no artwork, no schools? This is a ‘life for pigs’. It’s too simple; it isn’t human. Socrates takes their suggestion. ‘Oh, you want a luxurious society’ with ‘cakes and dancing girls’. He continues to grow their imagined society to including imported goods, overseas ventures, and competitive markets, and shows it will eventually have to go to war. But war clearly proves the existence of injustice (even though each side will claim their cause is just, which can’t be true). Now what caused this injustice? Socrates answers Greed. He doesn’t define the term, but I can suggest that either greed is desiring more, without limits, or it’s giving in to these desires. Are desires unjust, or actions, or both?
Book III considers qualities of a good leader – one who can bring about a just society – and the problems of educating people to fill that role. Everyone should have an opportunity. In a just society, all citizens receive ‘basic education’, starting with music and gymnastic, which can help develop ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. Other skills and disciplines are added, as appropriate, like mathematics and astronomy, until a pool of suitable candidates is established. The ideal leader will have the traits of a true philosopher – primarily her objectivity, love of learning, and self-control.
In Book IV, a just society and a just person are seen to have parallel structures. A just society is one whose three main groups perform their proper roles, and are in their proper hierarchy. At the top are prudent or wise rulers (‘guardians’); in the middle are brave or spirited guards (‘soldiers’), and the largest group with the least autonomy are industrious workers (‘producers’). A just person is she whose mental activities (her ‘soul’) are similarly ordered by their importance, and function well to achieve good ends – i.e. she will ‘reason’ without prejudice, be ‘courageous’ without pride, and ‘desire’ useful pleasures without excess.
Book V discusses the nature of women and their roles. Against the norms of his own culture, Socrates says there is no good reason to prevent women from having the same education as men, and when they develop the skills needed, they will be fully eligible to be leaders(‘guardians’).
Book VI shows that the traits needed for leadership are those inherent in a true philosopher (‘lover of wisdom’). But these traits are hard to develop, and are generally looked on unfavorably or ignored. Philosophers seem to be lost in the clouds, and disconnected from ‘reality’. Or are they? Socrates says it’s not s philosopher’s fault that others don’t value what she seeks to know. He uses the analogy of a doctor. It’s appropriate for a sick person to seek out a doctor – not the other way around (quite in contrast with today’s medical practice). True lovers of wisdom won’t be sophists (‘wise-guys’ – i.e. popular public figures of his day). They mastered the art of public speaking, to win debates, and were paid to ‘teach’ their students how to do the same, in order to gain prestige and position. Sophists weren’t motivated by the love of wisdom, but the love of power and wealth, for which the appearance of wisdom is effective.
To illustrate these ideas, Socrates tells a parable about a ship that loses its direction as soon as land is no longer in sight, because there is no real navigator at the helm. (Anyone can steer a ship while it’s within sight of land.) Various opportunists from the crew seek to be appointed by the captain, who is “good” (well-meaning), and “tall” (has appropriate authority), but lacks knowledge of navigation. (The captain represents the mass of citizens in a democracy who have the power to govern, but not the insight.) He appoints various persons who seek the navigator role, based on their false claims of expertise, which are backed up by their faction of loyal followers in the crew.
There is in fact a person on board who truly knows navigation, but no one is aware of her. She is perfecting her skills somewhere in the back. Since she has neither interest in gaining power, nor ability to influence others to ask her to guide the ship, she remains unnoticed. In time, the crew becomes mutinous, using up all the stores, while the ship wanders aimlessly. The story ends there; the outcome is not promising.
This parable of the troubled Ship of State is, I think, a perfect picture of contemporary politics, based on unfounded claims, sales pitches and thumbs-up ‘likes’ to impress and deceive a public that doesn’t know enough to appoint good leaders. It’s clear that Plato thinks democracy can’t work for this reason. The best rulers would be those who love wisdom, are aware of the true needs of society (based on their belief in and commitment to seek the Good), are unmoved by personal goals, or efforts to corrupt them, and who have the physical stamina, charisma and people skills that leadership requires. These are Plato’s famous (or notorious) “philosopher-kings”.
Book VI further discusses the “greatest good” – The Good – which is undefinable, and is the source of the principal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. In the account of “Divided Line”, The Good is likened to the greater of two suns ruling over two worlds: our ‘celestial’ sun, dominating the changing visible world of nature; and The Good (The Sun), dominating the invisible world, which is incomparably greater, more real and beyond valuing – indeed, the standard of all value.
These two worlds are developed further in Book VII, with Plato’s most influential parable – The Cave – that describes a philosopher’s difficult journey to find reality, and her frustration because her experience cannot be put into words, nor can she share it with her still-unenlightened fellow citizens. Only if and when they are unwillingly dragged out into the true light can they find wisdom and happiness. (I see the persuasive power of Plato’s many stories one way of moving people to make that hard ascent.)
Books VIII, IX and X present, respectively: the types of state constitutions (good and bad); government by a philosopher or a tyrant (which are diametrically opposed); and the value and risk of fictional art (Socrates calls it “poetry”, such as Homer’s stories) in moral education. Citizens need to stop thinking that what sounds appealing is true.
The last section of the Republic recounts the “Myth of Er”. He is killed on a battlefield, and experiences what happens after death, but is commanded to return to earth, to tell others of the choices they need to make here, to find joy in the hereafter. From every place on earth, the dead all come to a wondrous open space, with openings to the sky, and the earth, where judges are seated, who tell each person which she must enter. This wide plain is surrounded by a river – Lethe (forgetfulness) – and all the arrivals, who are tired and thirsty from their long journey, are tempted to drink there. A disciplined person won’t drink from that river, and so will remember what her teachers said about the good choices she mus make to find her ‘happy place’. Otherwise, she will choose according to old habits and desires, and spend many painful returns to earth, until she understands and actively seeks virtue, and leaves the limiting world of nature behind for good. It may take many earthly lives, to gain wisdom and virtue, but eventually good soulds will find eternal happiness.
Plato emphasizes that we are ultimately responsible for choosing our eternal state; we are not sent there by the gods. In other dialogues, he develops his view that no rational person could have suffering as a goal (although it might be a means to a goal). Since the higher law is that suffering will ultimately come to any wrong wrong-doer, doing wrong must result from ignorance. This is an ‘eastern’ (e.g. Hindu and Buddhist) view of life, but it influenced Christianity greatly, especially in its early history.
It should be clear now that the question for this essay – “Should opponents of injustice join forces?” – involves concepts that are complex and require clarity and reason. Moreover, some of the points Plato discusses do not have definite answers, let alone can they be answered briefly, or even in a book, or many books. (I’ll return to that point.) It is partly because of its very complexity, that it can be answered. The best answer is ‘No’.
I am not ignoring the long history of arguments and disagreements (summarized in the articles mentioned above), but that’s a problem for academics, or professional philosophers, who sometimes resemble sophists. For my purpose here, there is no need to join the argument about what Plato really wants to emphasize most, let alone critique whatever that may be. However, I am sure that Plato calls justice a virtue – the last of the famous “Platonic virtues” that greatly influenced Christianity – i.e. wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. As I outlined above, in the Republic, justice is something spiritual for Plato. It exists in the unseen world of the mind and the higher realm the mind can access. It isn’t the product of organic processes, natural laws or random accidents of matter. A just person has a virtuous spirit; and the higher law she seeks is also spiritual. As I claimed above, the ills of the world come from invisible inner states – our deepest loves and desires that move us, together with what we discern or believe as a result of those motives. As the Abrahamic religions claim, only God is judge of such mental states.
But injustice, as it is used in our question, can be judged, if one defines it to be something observable, in the world of laws, social norms, and behavior. That is how I view it, for answering our question: ‘Should opponents of injustice join forces’.
Ordinary ‘unphilosophical’ people will likely assume that the question can be answered. But unlike me, they usually think the answer is ‘Yes’. There may be differences among them, but not about what injustice is, or for that matter, what justice is (which they also assume). Arguments are only over instances or examples – i.e., what particular event, law or person should be called unjust. It’s like the difference between knowing what the color orange is, and arguing over what particular colored item should be called orange.
Here’s an example of that kind of dispute in recent American news media: ‘Is it unjust to fine or fire professional American football players who “take a knee” to signal their protest against racial injustice, during the pregame playing of the national anthem?’ Notice two views of injustice are implied in that sentence – one regarding the rights of a corporation, the other, the rights of an employee. Both are questions in law. But there are many other differences, about the ‘meaning of the anthem’, ‘respect for the flag’, ‘social custom’, ‘appropriate venues for protest’, etc. which bring out the nasty feelings.
Opponents of Injustice,
When I ask ‘Should opponents of injustice join forces?’ it’s clear to me that even though it can be seen in the world (as caused by unseen motives), injustice is not a simple or obvious notion. Nor is the idea of opposing it simple or obvious. There are many types of injustice, kinds of people who oppose it, motives for opposing it, and ways to oppose it. All these enter into any effort to make a rational practical judgment. The particulars might be categorized various ways, perhaps in a table like this, for example:
The types of injustice include: unjust laws (e.g. regressive taxes); unjust practices (e.g. redlining real estate); unjust attitudes (e.g. women belong at home), etc.
The kinds of people who oppose it include: those who were wronged (e.g. falsely imprisoned); those who sympathize (e.g. sanctuary cities) ; those who help the wronged (e.g. pro-bono attorneys), etc.
The motives for opposing it include: outrage (e.g. women’s march); saving face (e.g. editorial apologies); personal excitement (e.g. going to protests); ethical principles (e.g. the Burghers of Calais), etc.
The ways to oppose injustice include: publicizing it (e.g. cell phone videos); drawing attention to it (e.g. ‘take a knee’); walking away (e.g. leave town); resisting violently (e.g. Fidel Castro’s Revolucion), etc.
It should be clear now why my ‘quick answer’ to our question was ‘No’, opponents of injustice should not join forces. One person’s injustice may be another’s justice. Moreover, laws, practices, and attitudes require different ways of opposition, and not all opponents are capable of the same method. Finally, “to join forces” is a belligerent expression. In the extreme, it connotes military action, and the willingness to impose one group’s will on another by force of arms. Sadly, this is a characteristic in much of our national history, and of nations around the world throughout history. Deciding to take up arms against another nation can be justified, if at all, only as a last resort; and in a democracy, the default mode to choose it should be through governmental debate, constitutionally ordered. If the opponents of injustice find injustice in bad laws made by corrupt politicians, they cannot justify starting a revolution, unless they can show that they have the full support of the majority, and that the minority will not be unjustly harmed along with the corrupt governors, as unavoidable ‘collateral damage’. Obviously, that thinking is ridiculous. But talking about war makes popular entertainment in the media. War is the extreme of violence, of course, but I see an increasing thirst for violence everywhere in today’s media – including blood-letting entertainment, like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
There can be no ‘quick answers’ to our question for a reasonable person to make. It takes time, clear-headed thought, and open communication to come to answers. Unfortunately for people who are in a hurry to get what they desire, these answers are not black or white; they require practical compromises. Without understanding, society won’t turn around from its present unjust condition. That doesn’t mean Armageddon is inevitable.
As I said above, it would take many lifetimes, writing many books, to resolve the controversy in academia over the meaning and purpose of The Republic, because Plato believes in spiritual reality beyond this world, and an ultimate reality – The Good – which governs both worlds, which things are unknowable either by pure reasoning or by scientific experiment. In the final analysis, his position is a matter of faith. I think such questions have to be beyond certainty or direct experience. Why? If they were truly unquestionable – i.e. knowable beyond the possibility of doubt – there would be no possibility of freedom of choice about what is important, and what is true. Without such freedom, true morality and genuine faith would be ineffective and meaningless. Not even God can make people believe what is true, even though it validates their existence, and leads them to happiness. Happiness must be freely accepted, or it will be rejected; it can’t be imposed. I tried to develop this argument in book form: Modern Or Moral.