The Three Perspectives of Justice

The view from nowhere does not exist; it is accessible to no one.

I think that justice—the character trait—is arrived at through a lifelong dialogue among three points of view.

The first is your own, honed through proper notions of prudence, courage, temperance, charity, inheritance and hope.

The second is the person or people you are trying to figure out what you owe, or what they owe you. Hume’s faculty of sympathy, or what we call sympathy today plus what we call empathy, is your primary tool here, as well as a lifetime of experience attempting to understand yourself and others.

The final one is Smith’s impartial spectator; impartial not in the sense of objective but in the sense ofย not being partial, not having a stake in the outcome.

All three are in a way mental constructs, as we must have mental models of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and an imagined impartial judge observing the matter. And all three require nourishment through use and persistent critical evaluation over time.

You arrive at just decisions through the effective weighing of the claims made by these inner agents; you become truly wise when these inner constructs closely approximate real people who exist outside of your mental world.

23 thoughts on “The Three Perspectives of Justice

  1. David Duke

    I’m interested that you conflated or overlapped “justice” and “wisdom.” We certainly desire wise judges, but a wise judge who is unjust is not impossible, is it?

    1. My thought process:

      At some point phronesis got translated as prudence (probably because of the latin prudentia which doesn’t mean prudence the way we mean it, I don’t think).

      I do think prudence, understood as figuring out what our interests are, is a virtue.

      I don’t think prudence is constitutive of wisdom—I think it’s a subset of it.

  2. The character trait of justice is, to me, the predictable tendency to give people their due, fulfill obligations. Discerning what those debts and obligations are requires wisdom. Seeing them through requires a just character.

  3. David Duke

    Well, you mention that justice is a character trait which can be arrived at. Would that be psychological? Moral? And then a person with this attained character trait of justice would practice wisdom (of the phronesis subset). Is that fair?

    1. I think like all character traits it’s arrived at by forming habits as well as by growing wise (both of which take time and there are no shortcuts, sadly).

      I would say that wisdom is not the part that is practiced, except in so far as critical rethinking and sought experience are practices used towards its development. Rather, wisdom is what you need in order to practice justice, and the whole of virtue itself (of which justice is a part).

  4. David Duke

    “To discern” for you is a purely intellectual act; the idea of acting, perhaps? (You can see that I’m pushing out toward the epistemological, here)

    1. That’s kind of what I had in mind, though for Aristotle phronesis is closer to techne than episteme, which I would agree with (in fact I think there’s no meaningful distinction from techne)

    1. Techne is the skill involved in making; the knowledge required to practice a craft. You can only develop it through experience with the outer world. In fact, you can’t really develop it on your own, either internally or through external experience. You need mentors, guides, examples to emulate and people to catch you when you’re developing bad patterns or making mistakes you might miss. You need other people to help you become discerning, even for something as physical as woodworking.

      Phronesis is the same. You can only develop these inner agents through life experience, by observing other people, trying to see things through their eyes, becoming familiar with how they make judgments on situations they’re involved in or have no stake in. But this is not sufficient either; you also need to talk to other people about these impressions you develop, you need them to call you out when they think you’ve completely misunderstood the motivation or perspective of other people, or when you’ve completely missed the mark in terms of behaving appropriately in a given context.

      We learn by doing, and specifically by doing in a socially thick environment where we can get regular feedback.

  5. David Duke

    Hey, what did you mean by the very first line of this post? Is there a suppressed binary polar opposition you’re addressing?

    1. Socrates and Plato wanted all moral deliberation to occur from the point of view of the universe; rather than from a merely human perspective. I just wanted to say both that there is no such thing as a universal perspective, and even if there was we would never be able to access anything but a human one.

      1. David Duke

        What do you make of Zeitgeist, then? Vestigial whosits surviving the Enlightenment?

        More seriously: collective sense of justice?

    2. Zeitgeist: it’s kind of like “convention” or “common sense” only more time specific. Just refers to opinions or topics that are widely shared or widely paid attention to at the moment. At least that’s how I understand the term.

      Not sure I believe in collective justice, except in as much as part of giving your due means doing your part as a member of a community.

  6. David Duke

    It’s Hegelian, as he says, “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.” What I’m getting at is that, if there is no universal justice and if we work out justice amongst each other, justice becomes dependent on the time. Failing that, it becomes dependent on the self.

  7. In my Environmental Ethics class, I learned about two ways of defining social justice:
    1) Everyone gets their needs met
    2) Needs are met according to merit

    It occurred to me that much of the political divide (here in America, at least) may come down to which definition you ascribe to. I think we all want everyone to get their needs met, and we all want America to be the meritocracy that it was envisioned to become from our founding. I believe the real differences have to do with whether you feel out meritocracy is functional at this time, and what we should do about/for those who fall through the cracks in an imperfect world. Invisible privilege is a huge factor there, IMHO, as is one’s view of the functionality of free market capitalism as-is. It’s hard to see that things aren’t working for other people when things are working for you.

    1. The justice I had in mind is less the one of laws and systems, and more the one of what kind of person you are. IE what does it mean for one specific person to be “just”? In my mind it means giving his due; by some notion of what it is that he owes people (and I’m not talking just money here; whether he owes them loyalty, friendship, his time, etc).

      1. I understand. ๐Ÿ™‚ I see the two subjects as inter-related, as our personal views of justice are often influenced by social norms, and affect what an individual views as “just”. I do apologize if I’m off-topic. I don’t mean to thread-jack. Maybe it would be more on-topic to raise the question of justice vs. mercy. I’d love to hear thoughts on that, if it’s appropriate. ๐Ÿ™‚

      2. Fair enough! Just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. I think it goes both ways too; the norms impact individual justice and individual justice influences the norms.

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