I wrote this a dozen years ago, and I’ve posted it here before. It’s apposite today, because, to all indications, we are all about to be involuntarily inducted into a cannibal cult. My question for you: Will you choose to be devoured by your neighbors, or will you elect to devour them instead? –GSS
What I want to discuss is Socrates’ question about whether it is better to inflict an injury or to have an injury inflicted upon you. It’s a favorite of sophists and sophomores, I know, but I think it strikes at the very core of justice. The justice I seek and seek to defend is not “out there”, apart from myself. Justice (or injustice) is not what others do to me, it’s what I do to myself and to others. Where I find myself availing myself of the fallacies tu quoque or two wrongs make a right, I am rationalizing injustice, and the worst havoc I am wreaking is upon my own ego.
The Nazarene’s answer to Socrates was this: It is better to have an injury inflicted upon you, because redemption is still possible to one who has not inflicted injury upon another. I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t believe redemption hinges upon any one event. But I do believe that a “justice” that is itself unjust is vain at best and evil at worst.
We can make a joke by saying, “Political philosophy is the means by which ethical systems betray themselves.” There are actually a host of reasons for this, and all of them are amusing to me. For one, a political system has a meta-goal apart from the ethical system in which it is rooted: It must function in the real world.
Moreover, the political system itself has a meta-ethical or even extra-ethical goal in that its proponents will tend to imbue it with what they view are essential survival characteristics even if these betray the ethical system in which the political philosophy is putatively based. Any form of argument that the polity can or should or must do what it would be immoral or criminal for any individual to do is a form of this error. The counter is, but if we don’t inflict this injury, the polity won’t survive. And the counter to that is that a dispute resolution system that survives by crime is a predator, not a justice system.
Moreover yet again, it is very common for proponents of political philosophies to claim that these essential survival characteristics are in some way manifestations of nature, rather than expressions of ideas. The usefulness of this approach is beyond doubt: Nature is not open to dispute, where ideas always are. The challenge to this, of course, is to carry the claims back to the object. If the manifestations cannot be observed in nature, they are creations of the mind. This doesn’t make them necessarily invalid, but it does make their defense invalid. The general process — man is what my theory needs him to be — is what I call metaphysically creative solipsism. A less polite name would be “conjuring”.
Finally we come back to the schoolyard rationalizations that each of us remembers from the hazy days of youth: “You do it, so we can, too!” (the fallacy tu quoque); and, “He hit me first!” (the fallacy two wrongs make a right). Without intending to joke, I think that one way of understanding political philosophy in general is as an attempt to rationalize all of the bad impulses of childhood. By answering in a way opposite that chosen by the Nazarene, the proponent tacitly admits that there is no essential difference, in his mind, between justice and injustice, it’s all a matter of whose ox is gored.
And I know I make advocates of forceful dispute resolution apoplectic. The issue is not the essential survival characteristics of a culture or a polity. The issue is not effecting the retribution of a vengeful but seemingly indisposed god. The issue is not “me and mine” or “might makes right” or any other rationalization for doing unto others precisely what your political system attempts to forbid them to do unto you. The issue is justice. What is it, and how do we achieve it?
Now the obvious contrary — defended with hysterical hyperbole, entirely frictionless slippery-slopes and cacophonic brass bands — is this: If your proposed system of dispute resolution forebears to commit crimes in pursuit of its own enduring existence, then how will it survive?
And that is something you need to think about. For on the one hand, the question admits that all of the political philosophies we’ve talked about so far are defended in “might makes right”. And on the other, it asks, by implication, is it possible for a political system to persist without being defended in “might makes right”?
I don’t know the answer to that, although I think it’s a wrong-headed question. Carried back to an individual person, the question is: Is it better to inflict an injury or to have an injury inflicted upon you?
I love working this way.
If predation is the only way your political philosophy can persist, why would you want any part of it? In contrast to that belief, I believe the moral is the practical. But even if it should turn out that morality is bested by criminality, I should not want to be a proponent of criminality. I would choose to be injured rather than to be forevermore an inflicter of injuries.
How about you?