By Basil E. Gala Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Kids are very keen on fairness. “It’s not fair” is one of their favorite expressions next to “You promised!” Justice is reserved for adults and is usually associated with legal matters, although we often speak of social justice. Social justice occurs when all members of society receive their share of entitlements. Justice and fairness are romantic concepts, having little to do with the real world: shares are distributed based on the power held by each claimant to the goods.
That is the same as saying might makes right. Not so, it’s how things are, not how they should be. Religious people believe that justice is one of those teachings that have come down to us from God. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is known as the golden rule. Variations of this ethical rule exist in every culture and religion. Similar religious ethics are generally incorporated into the law of each land. Common law is based on decisions by courts. Statutory law is written by the legislature or ruler. Napoleon’s four legal authorities put together what is known as the Napoleonic Code, largely adopted on Continental Europe. Religious or not, we want things relations between people to be amicable and smooth, without strife.
Strife in a society, even as small as a family, leads to bloody conflict sometimes, which is dysfunctional.
Disputes have to be settled in some fashion. In the past the chief of the tribe or the king made legal decisions. Everybody knows the story of the wise King Solomon and the two women who claimed one child. Disputes about who takes what between rulers, however, are settled with the force of arms. Russia takes Crimea from Ukraine with superior force.
We all like to deal with people who are just and fair towards us. Aristides of ancient Athens was such a person. He sided with the aristocracy but was known for his even-handed justice. Themistocles who represented the common people in Athens opposed Aristides and won a propaganda war against him. Aristides was exiled (ostracized) by popular vote. One illiterate citizen decided against Aristides because he was tired of hearing Aristides was so just.
These days we have demonstrations for what is called racial justice. Some people think that they are not getting their fair share of the country’s goods. Some of them steal goods feeling that society owes these to them because of past injustices. Goods we use today are produced by workers and their companies at some cost. They fairly belong to those who pay for them in the market place.
Working for industrial enterprises, people may demand fair and higher wages than employers are willing to grant and workers go on strike. Strikers picket in front of plants and may prevent strike breakers from going in to work. Company managers then call in security personnel who beat up or kill some pickets. Such a situation is bad for production in the country, so companies may locate their plants in less developed countries where workers are happy to labor for lower wages.
In America and some other countries, legislatures sometimes pass fair pricing laws. That means goods cannot be sold below a certain price, or below cost of production, known as dumping. As a result, goods don’t sell as quickly to empty shelves for fresh merchandise and consumers pay more for the goods, a situation unfair to consumers. Case in point is price supports for milk and other agricultural products won from legislatures by the farm lobby.
In sports and games we have rules to establish fairness and equity. Foul plays are not allowed and penalties accrue to those who commit them. In boxing fighters are matched according to size: heavyweights don’t fight bantamweights in the ring. It would not be sporting or much fun to watch mismatched fighters. But outside the ring it is common for a big bully to beat up a little guy.
Philosophers sometimes also act as rule makers to design a society that will function justly and fairly towards citizens. Plato’s Republic was such an attempt at an ideal community, ruled by a philosopher king, of course. Only a philosopher would know what’s good for society to be able to rule effectively. Unfortunately, not many societies now or in the past have had philosophers running things. The rulers are either power guys known as tyrants or demagogues able to fool the people most of the time.
Ancient Athens was a democracy with wise rulers such as Pericles and with demagogues. Citizens received fair treatment and had rights and privileges provided they were native born Athenians, male and free, not slaves.
Freedom is certainly one of the most precious goods for people. Yet it is often taken away from them by stronger nations. European settlers in America enslaved the natives to work in mines and fields. When these died from diseases, Africans were seized and transported across the ocean to replace them. At the time of the Civil War twelve million blacks toiled as slaves. Was such a situation and just towards fellow human beings?
Yet, in 1776 the American colonists declared independence from the British Empire because of unfair taxation. “No taxation without representation” was their rallying cry.
The French government supported the American revolutionaries. But in 1789 Bastille was attacked by starving French mobs angry at the unfair treatment at the hands of the nobles. Aristocracy and august monarchy collapsed in France, Europe’s most populous state then.
The Greeks declared their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and fought bitter battles for their freedom. As Christians they were unhappy with the unjust tributes they had to pay to Muslim Turks. They had the support of European powers, Russia, England, and France, and individuals, such as Lord Byron. It has been said that the tree of liberty is nourished by the blood of patriots.
Social and economic justice too is a perennial problem for society. What economic system is more just, capitalism, socialism, or communism? The system does not matter—goods end up in the hands of those who can wield power. That is not just. In some social animals, such as monkeys and humans, recent experiments at UCLA show there is an innate sense of fairness in dividing up food.
Fair treatment of all members of society is preferable for reasons of utility, according to John Stewart Mill and other utilitarian philosophers. A harmonious community is more productive and prosperous. An example of such a society is modern Germany, where people seem to have found the right balance between the rights of workers and those of managers or owners.
John Rawls, an American philosopher, who wrote “A Theory of Justice” in 1971, spells two basic principles: First, each person is to have the most extensive personal liberty compatible with the same for others. Second, arrangements in society should be such as to benefit those least advantaged and employment opportunities should be available to every person equally. That would be a modern social contract for a peaceful and progressive society.
Finally, we can perhaps agree that it is fair that all persons in a society should have an equal opportunity to succeed and get to keep what they earn. Setting up barriers to advancement for some people because of their color, race, or religion does not contribute to an effective community. Successful and valuable person emerge from all levels of society. All humans should be able to elevate themselves with good work and enjoy the fruits of their labor.