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Justice and Morality

February 19, 2013

The Republic, PlatoI spent a long time during my study of philosophy at university considering what a just society is, what a morally good individual is, and how to best achieve these things in society.

I read Plato’s Republic, and many of his other dialogues. I read the ethics of Aristotle. I read Rawls’ theory of Justice. The Stoic Moral philosophy of Seneca. The Utilitarianism of Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The Political Economy of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill. Capital by Karl Marx, and many of his other works. The Social Contract of Rousseau. The two treatise on government of John Locke. David Humes theory of human emotions. Kant’s categorical Imperative. Schopenhauer’s pessimism. The pessimism of the critical theorists: Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse. The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism of Weber. The Division of Labour of Adam Smith. The elements of the religious life of Durkheim. Many others also. These are just the ones that come initially to mind.

But through all of these attempts to provide a complete rationale for Justice and a particular kind of Morality. It does not seem we have got any further than the original scepticism of Socrates at the beginning of the Republic. If acting justly and doing the morally right thing was always rewarded. If the just man was always the happy man as Socrates tries to show later in the republic by convoluted rational means. Maybe then we could have a rational morality. But it seems that in real societies there remains this apparently irrational element, such that at times we must face pain and punishment for doing the morally right thing. “No good deed goes unpunished.” As the saying goes.

The Stoic embraces this and almost expects punishment for his deeds as being a sign that he has done good things. Plato tried to whittle it away in his republic by showing that in his heart the the man who acts justly is happier and better for it. The Utilitarianist tries to ignore the individual level and focus on justice and happiness for society as a whole.

Through all of this, I do not see an adequate rational explanation. And in a sense I am glad of this, and I see why this is the case. Justice and morality are tied up with our emotions and with our sense of compassion for our fellow beings, and for the people close to us. To take a cold, rational formula for acting morally, such as utilitariansm or the categorical imperative of Kant,  and try and combine it with the emotional warmth of compassion seems like trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.

A constructed argument cannot tell us always how to act, nor always justify our acts. We have to make decisions in the moment. As such the most important thing morally speaking is to have the courage to act in the moment. To stay in the moment in difficult circumstances, and take responsibility for a considered decision and line of action. It seems mistakes can be made by this means, but we have no choice for we cannot act morally after the fact or before the fact. Before the fact is blind obedience and after the fact is a belated rationalisation for your acts. We have to act morally here and now.

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One Comment
  1. Donald Miller permalink

    This is quite a good essay, and some good food for thought.

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