24 April 2009

On Justice: If You Want War, Work for Justice

I was fascinated by this reversal of the bumper sticker "If you want peace, work for justice" and had to work out my objection to it. The crucial point of the original post is that war can be caused by the application of mutually exclusive definitions of justice. Here's how I responded:

I see what you mean about the apparent incompatibility of definitions of justice. I think your analysis neglects the crucial feature of holding strictly to abstract ideals when there is the option of grounding a conversation in concrete circumstances and the morality of specific actions.

The essence of morality is the prevention of harm and the promotion of beneficial behaviors and circumstances. This essence is cognitively driven by five apparently universal criteria based on mostly unconscious assessments of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Taking Jonathan Haidt's model of moral cognition as a starting point.)

The problem that you point to is the incompatibility of abstract notions. As long as both sides are exchanging abstractions then you are absolutely correct war is likely, if not a foregone conclusion.

When you have a concern for the safety of your child, then if you meet someone with a concern for their child's safety, then it's likely you can work together for that common cause. The possibility for resolution of conflicts is to frame the conversation in terms of the concrete harm that is inevitable given that the parties to the conflict insist on dealing exclusively with abstractions and strongly avoid observing the concrete details of the situation. It is often possible to find common moral ground in the concrete details. One common moral concern is that everyone wants to protect their children from harm, for instance. There are probably many other avenues for finding common moral ground from which to have a discussion. The art of creating this kind of conversation successfully rests in framing the conversation in the concrete and minimizing the abstract, except to reinforce lines of moral thought that converge on workable outcomes.

This was demonstrated at the Camp David Accords. There is a section of the documentary “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” in which they are talking about how he helped craft the Camp David Accords (I hope that's the right source) and apparently when the difference was made, it was made for concrete reasons of emotional importance to the people in the conversation.

Jimmy Carter was working for justice, meaning the concrete reality of reducing the harm caused by violent conflict. He was not there imposing an abstract ideal. He was holding a gracious space in which a meaningful conversation could be had. He was focused on relating to each man in the conversation as a fellow human being concerned with the welfare of others. It was holding that gracious space in which the focus was on creating real meaningful relationships that was an act of justice. When the men could see the concrete reality of suffering, then they could reframe their position to accommodate first seeing the other as a fellow human being and then as a representative of other human beings who also deserve not to be harmed. Normal people easily fight against abstractions, but they resist fighting when they see someone just like them being hurt.

For me a just world is one in which we honor the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. The criteria of justice I want to hold you accountable to, and that I expect you to hold me accountable to, as well, is whether my actions cause harm, real concrete harm in the world. Not imagined harm to dead or imaginary people, but real harm to living people. That's a reasonable criteria for justice, I think.
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