The Seven Principles of UU:
• 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• 3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• 4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• 5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
• 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
When David Norlin first contacted me about speaking today, he mentioned the seven principles adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and that they were hoping for comments on these principles. I had not been aware of them before this, and was very happy to make an acquaintance with them. One thing that struck me right away was the word “justice” which is mentioned twice—in the 2nd and 6th principles. Justice is a guide the formation of human relations, and it is thereby part of the goal of world community. So I thought I would offer some reflections today on the question of Justice.
I. Justice and Fairness
Justice in philosophical circles is a very complex subject, but getting clear about it is one of the most important moral challenges today. And that is because in many respects justice is itself being challenged on many fronts.
In common parlance, justice can simply mean being in accord with the law, or it can refer to someone who rules on what is lawful or not. The concern even from ancient Greek times is that justice is giving what is due or appropriate to someone. Fairness is essential to many forms of justice. So if there is a dispute about an inheritance, justice would be to recognize the legal situation of the will, and to insist that the will be followed, even if that angers some individuals and pleases others.
The role of fairness is more important in everyday interactions: a parent who distributes candy, and gives the same amount to every child except the one she doesn’t really like as much, acts unfairly. And children are good at sensing a lack of fairness.
Fairness is also seen in questions about retributive justice, the justice that oversees punishment of crime or offenses. Normally we would find it unjust to sentence to death someone who stole a television from a store. We would also find it unjust to dismiss pedophile charges against someone because we know the individual and we’re sure he won’t do it again.
II. Punishment and Injustice
Currently the injustice in our system of criminal sentencing has come under ever greater scrutiny. In a 2001 published study David Mustard found very large differences in the sentences of criminals, the relevant variables being race, class, gender, education. And this is true for many different kinds of crime. We have all become aware in recent months of the unusually high arrest record for blacks as compared with whites. And, along with this, is the extraordinary amount of individuals in jails and prisons in the United States, compared with other countries around the world.
One of the things that contributes to injustice in the sentencing of criminals is the insistence, contrary to the evidence of imprisonment, that our society is too lenient. So laws have been devised to prevent this. The third-strike-you’re-out laws are a case in point. Recently the fairness of such laws has been brought into question because there are times when the “third strike” is very far in severity from the action of the first several criminal acts. Sending someone off to prison by reason of this makes some people think that justice is being done because we are strict. But in fact strictness is sometimes just an excuse for a lack of good and thoughtful judgment. Justice requires good judgment, even more than strictness or heavy-handedness.
III. Distributive Justice
Let me change the focus a bit here from retribution and punishment to distribution of goods and services in society. Justice is a positive virtue as well as a negative one. But what is this kind of justice? Is it just another liberal name for welfare? How should we think of it?
Let me go back to the initial example of a parent giving out candy to her children. There a just distribution would normally be a fair distribution, where fairness is mathematical equality—the same for each child. We could give differential amounts under some circumstances. So for example I could tell my children that based on how many times they helped out in the kitchen during the week they would get some appropriate reward. Some would get more than others, but normally even children can accept that this is in principle fair.
Let me stretch this example a bit. Suppose you have three children, one of whom is confined to a wheelchair and has no ability to help at anything. You then give awards proportionate to how much they helped in the kitchen, and needless to say the child in the wheelchair is on the losing end, not just once but forever. Would that be fair or just?
IV. Care and Ethical Partiality
When it comes to society’s goods, there are people who will claim that justice is when each person earns their candy or salary or what have you. Obviously in such an economy it makes sense to have the highest employment possible. But in the end there are always large groups of people who can’t earn much of anything: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, young children. So we give them, if not nothing, then as little as possible. We don’t want them to be a drain on the rest of us. To spin this a different way : the more I have to give through taxes and the like to people who can’t earn their own living and cover their own expenses, the less I have for my own family. And surely the care and concern I have for my own family trumps any consideration of the good of others.
Feminists such as Carol Gilligan have made much of care as an ethical principal, a principal which it seemed male philosophers had neglected in their preoccupations with abstract ideas of justice and the common good. She was no doubt correct about this. But is justice understood as distributive justice for all undermined by care?
There is a similar argument from a viewpoint more in vogue today. If the notion of care is restricted to “my own interests and livelihood”, then self-care may well demand that government be scaled back as far as possible, taxes be reduced to zero. On this libertarian view, justice is giving to each person their due, and each person is due things only through their own labor and work. Social welfare programs of any kind are inimical to this idea of justice.
It may seem thoroughly unjust to put libertarian justice in the same camp as Gilligan’s notion of care. And they are clearly different in many ways. But they do have one thing in common: the substitution of care for a larger view of justice. (I add parenthetically that Gilligan has addressed the issue of justice in her later writing, so I am not being entirely fair here to the whole of her thinking.)
If we see these two examples of care in a very narrow sense, one can see why appeals to “social justice” are sometimes reckoned as socialism by astute commentators like Rush Limbaugh. But we can’t beg the question: is the cause of distributive justice today doomed in light of our commitment to home, hearth, and self?
V. The Importance of Distributive Justice
There is no doubt that what has been traditionally called distributive justice is under serious attack in this country and in many other places. To begin to address the issues raised here, I think it is important to step back and ask the question: just what does distributive justice look like and why should it exist?
Civilization around the globe has always relied on redistribution of goods for one reason or another. In the earliest agrarian civilizations, redistribution of food went to priests and kings, for the purpose of insuring the safety of the city-state. Therein was the original tax without representation. But whatever its inherent injustice, redistribution did serve the purpose of insuring survival. The armies staved off threats from other nations, and the high priests staved off divine threats.
The original trickle-down economics came with the growth of the wealth of monarchs and aristocracy, their homes, their armies, their lands. In the medieval period in the west, the Christian monasteries owned much of the land, and many bishops were simultaneously members of the landed aristocracy. So redistribution of goods served the interests of the ruling classes, which in some cases were both religious and secular.
In the modern age, the growth of a middle class made wealthy from industries of various kinds also made possible and necessary the beginnings of at least a minimal commitment to public welfare, notably public education, utilities, roads, infrastructure and the like. It was clear to at least some that the welfare of workers demanded that some of the immense wealth possessed by the aristocracy should be shifted back to workers who needed it for sheer survival. Increasingly movements arose to force the owners of factories to provide basic goods such as food, clothing, and shelter for those who labored. But economic growth required greater investment in education for all citizens and a multiplicity of other goods. Welfare was for the present in part, but also for the future. The possibilities of redistribution of wage labor increased as wage labor itself came to prominence.
We know much of the story after that. The imposition of things like sales and income taxes, inheritance taxes and the like grew as the need for a dependable safety net for citizens seemed to be in the best interest of the nation-state. Taxes are almost universally hated and seen as unjust impositions, but when a person looks carefully both at the outcome of taxation and the impact of taxes on social welfare it is clear that taxes are not always bad things at all.
Taxes support the defense of the nation. They support those who are old, who cannot work, who are disabled physically or mentally, who are children in need of education—and the list goes on. Taxes for these ends are not only good, but in some measure ethically required for us to realize our obligations to one another. And yet taxes can impact citizens in some bad ways: high taxes on land, high sales taxes especially on food, are just two examples of regressive taxes which negatively impact social welfare.
Let me focus on one example to illustrate what is happening more and more these days.
Public school education was instituted in part to integrate the children of the relatively poor into American society and the American work force. The assumption was that a modern industrial work force was not workable without a public commitment to education for all.
VI. Privatization vs. Distributive Justice
But there are serious cracks in the public’s support. Some want to undo the public commitment to education, to privatize it, to make it a business, with the end result that commitment to the poorest children, and to those with special needs of any kind will not be able to afford an education, or at least not without being encumbered with enormous debt.
I know people who will say they see no reason why their hard earned tax money should go to public education when they don’t themselves have children in school. The point seems to be that the only time a person’s money should go to education is when it is really for their own family, and not for anyone else. This is a care ethic of sorts, turned back against the social fabric.
A similar sentiment may be found with regard to the use of taxes in maintaining national parks and museums. The idea of the day is to privatize everything, thereby relieving the public of taxes. If I want to take advantage of going to Yellowstone, I can pay my own way. And Yellowstone can become a private business.
Health care and Social Security are also under increasing attack for many of the same reasons. Health care, one hears, needs to be privatized and social security should be taken out of the government’s hands.
My point here is not to engage the usual arguments about all this, but to consider the nature of the contemporary standpoint. That standpoint is one where the individual, the individual self and possibly the individual’s family, is the highest good, whose welfare should take precedence over any other claim from the public, because the public by rights has no claim over anything. This is a view where the individual is a kind of ethical portal through which all other commitments must be either allowed or not allowed to pass. And the argument is forceful because the individual increasingly feels under attack from the world around him or her.
VII. Fear and the Ideology of Individualism
Thomas Hobbes back in the 17th century noted the importance of a fearful population for a political leader anxious to maintain absolute power. Fear individualizes; it cuts us off from others. The fear of losing our livelihood, of losing our own limited security, leads to a hatred of all taxes, a strong dislike of anything reeking of a social program for the benefit of others. Charity may be ok for the individual, but charity is not perceived as necessary.
There has always been a measure of egoism in human history; there has been occasionally a measure of selfishness; but not until modern times has there been an ideology of individualism. Individualism as an ideology is founded on a claim about the individual being the only source of ethical rightness and goodness, and goes hand in hand with a rejection and fear of government, internationalism, taxes, and public welfare programs of any kind.
There is a great advantage to the use of potential terror in creating the mindset of individualism. When everyone feels fearful and threatened by one group or another, then the mere feeling of being threatened is legitimation enough to kill someone else.
Democracy is an enemy of fear. Democracy is not built on an ideology of individualism, but on recognition of the individual’s embeddedness in a web of real and potential social and political relationships. In such democracy, the meaning of courage is very clear. Courage is recognizing that the full development of the individual requires a commitment to other individuals and their full development.
Justice requires a great deal of the individual. For one thing it requires knowledge and understanding, not just of what justice is in the abstract, but of what injustice is in the concrete. In real life injustices can often go quite unrecognized. The injustice of prison terms of inordinate length for minor drug crimes or a minor infraction that counts as the third strike you’re out and sends you to prison for decades—these are things that, unless they happen to you or your family or your friends, you may be unaware of.
VIII. The Incoherence of the Ideology of Individualism
This kind of ideology masquerades as something ethical. But it contains a fatal contradiction, since it puts me at the center of the moral universe, and resolves conflicts with others by simple self-affirmation. This ignores the question why someone else who claims individuality as an ethical philosophy cannot do so. To put it in other terms: individualism is not much more than an irrational and incoherent ethical philosophy resting on a presumed superiority of this individual over another. What reasons could ever be given for this kind of position that everyone else could not give?
If individualism is not a coherent ethical philosophy, then is every form of partiality incoherent? Let’s look at an example: parents have the opportunity to save their two children from a sinking boat, but doing so makes it impossible to save other children who are in the same dangerous situation. Is it wrong for parents to prefer to save their own children? Surely not. But there are obvious limits to this. Suppose the parents could save not only their own children, but others as well. Could they say: we’ll save our own, but not others because we only care about our own family? That would be an instance of partiality that is utterly unethical, in the end because it cannot give any good reason why my family possesses ethical importance, and some other family does not.
IX. Partiality and Justice
Partiality in our ethical judgments is both good and inevitable. Partiality may establish some kind of practical everyday order in our ethical goals. But partiality does not have final say-so over who has ethical rights over and against our own. Partiality is essential to justice, but it does not exhaust the meaning of justice.
This leads inevitably to the ethics of justice and fairness in society generally. Is justice an example of an extended partiality, which all individuals that make up a society constitute a large kind of family where all have equal rights? And what would we mean when we say that everyone in a society has equal rights?
One minimal definition of justice or a just society is one where each life is affirmed on the basis of a right correlative to a duty. So far so good. But surely this is not the end of the matter. A just society is one that embodies much more than simply a right to life. One might add that a just society is one in which people’s ability to create a sustainable good life is maximized. Does justice demand equality in every respect?
Justice does demand that freedom be as extensive as possible. But what limits are there to freedom, and thus to justice?
Some of the ideas of the late philosopher John Rawls may be useful here. Unlike some liberal thinkers in the past, Rawls thought that some kinds of inequality may be inevitable in fact. But he made two important provisos to this admission: first, inequality must in the end promote the freedom of all. An example: inequality with regard to my freedom to use water in California right now may be irritating, but inequality in water consumption will help sustain the population and economy much better than not. Golf courses need more water than people do for drinking and bathing, but surely the aesthetics of a green field is less important than the survival of humans.
Another important proviso is that all political offices should be open to all as much as possible. This insures justice and freedom as much as possible. It is questionable just how much offices are open to all today. It is no coincidence, for example, that most of our representatives in Congress and at the highest levels of government are all independently wealthy, or at least much wealthier than you or I. And frankly, it is beyond the financial means of many ordinary people to run even for local or state offices. Our political offices function like they might in an oligarchy, not a democracy.
These principles are not arbitrary, Rawls says. He says that if you did not know what social class or economic situation you belonged to, you would choose these principles or something like them. This is a kind of hypothetical argument under a veil of ignorance. It’s not hard to see how this kind of argument is intended to eliminate unfettered partiality as much as possible from ethical reasoning, without compromising freedom any more than necessary.
We all have partial interests and concerns that we want to defend. We cannot eliminate such things, nor should we necessarily. But when my interests lead to the enslavement of others as a way to keep labor really cheap, we need to ask ourselves: would I choose to live in a society where I might turn out to be a slave? If not, then I should not support a political or socio-economic system that requires this kind of enslavement.
X. The Political Utility of the Ideology of Individualism
I said earlier that individualism as a modern ideology is an incoherent ethical philosophy. Generally, incoherence like this does not go far in the world. But modern individualism has had a much more successful path to prominence than one might have thought. It has done this, I would like to suggest, by a variety of political and religious moves that draw one’s attention elsewhere. Individualism has turned out to be an important façade for political and religious maneuvering.
At the most extreme, individualism becomes a paranoid life style called survivalism, a political movement focusing on the need to have guns to protect individuals against imminent government attacks. The individual’s life and well-being are threatened everywhere by taxes, by government health care, by immigrants legal or illegal, by racial and ethnic minorities. Today this ideology of individualism stands behind many political efforts to lower taxes on the wealthy, to restrict voting rights, and to keep the lawless members of minority groups in a state of constant wariness.
But there problems of inequality that go far enough beyond the everyday that it is difficult for anyone to begin to catch sight of them. An example: there is much political wrangling today over issues like minimum wage. We mostly have a sense that wages in some industries are hardly adequate to meet living at a poverty level. So we propose, or oppose, raising the minimum wage in the hope that this will address a serious inequality in our society.
Without answering this question, I would suggest that there are far bigger inequalities in our society that are not visible to most of us most of the time. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has published a monumental study of capital in the twenty-first century—though in truth it is a study of capital for the last several centuries. Enormous wealth is generated through the interest on what is called capital—estates, businesses, land, investments, inheritances—much of which is untaxed or taxed at a very low rate. Most of the 1%ers can actually live off this wealth without ever working at all.
We are under the impression that the great wealth that accumulates at the top of the economic structure helps society. But in fact it doesn’t. The burden on society generally increases as the tax base is siphoned off into tax shelters, and the rest of the population of a country is left to pay the bills. While Piketty aims much of his analysis at Europe, he includes the U.S. as well. We have only a vague sense of the problem. We are aware that there are CEO’s in the business world and elsewhere who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, not always from what they achieve, but sometimes simply because paying a high salary is a sign that the business is doing well, even if it isn’t. And our tax structure increasingly favors giving tax breaks to the wealthiest citizens.
I am not here to urge some particular political solution to these problems. I simply want to emphasize that wealth is a moral problem in modern society, and not just in some accidental sense. We often think of taxes as simply a burden. The modern doctrine of individualism promotes this view. But taxes aren’t just an economic solution to a practical problem; they are equally are reflection of our moral commitments as a society. We use our taxes to create, sustain, and promote a better socio-economic world for our children and grandchildren. It is not an acceptable view to regard the whole arena of education as a kind of business that is always losing money and should therefore be taught the virtues of austerity. I would never argue that efficiency is not important; but I will argue that education is not a business, any more than health care is, at heart, a business. For modern individualists, everything is a business, and the value of life is a product of individuals scurrying about in their businesses making as much money as possible. When everything is seen as a business, then much about human life has been falsified and demeaned. Aristotle claimed once that people in business should not be allowed to have a vote in the political assembly, because by definition their vision of things was too limited. Our society not only denies that; it has exalted the limited vision of businessmen into the only moral and political philosophy of the age that is worth considering.
In the world of justice, vision is a starting point, but it is a difficult one to achieve in practice. I think we all need to consider that the search for justice and equality in this age is far more daunting than the sexual crises we are led to believe constitute the problems of the age. Our preoccupation with sex is not unrelated to our preoccupation with individualism. Further, it is in the interests of the very wealthy to promote the view that something like gay marriage or access to contraceptives, or sex outside marriage, are the real injustices we have to face. And of course if there were not challenges in those areas, no attempt to blind citizens to other inequalities would ever work. But there is a real effort to keep the focus off the monumental injustices of the untaxed growth of capital.
To some extent conservative forms of Christianity have helped in this process. To put it bluntly: God, they understand, will judge us far more harshly at Judgment Day for our sexual misconduct than for our inaction with regard to poverty. So it is not surprising that the reaction of conservative religious leaders—even Catholic bishops—to Pope Francis’ many denunciations of global capitalism has been one of horror.
It is perhaps uncomfortable for religious leaders, used to going on about salvation through faith in Jesus, to realize that the Jesus they claim to have faith in spent far more time denouncing wealth and power than denouncing sexual misconduct. Jesus himself was understood in the Gospel of Luke as a sign and symbol of a challenge to the power structure. Mary, Jesus’ mother, speaks the following words in the Gospel of Luke, to bring to mind how Israel’s past will intersect with and inform the future:
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Today, it seems, God is on the side of the proud who sit in their thrones, while others eat crumbs they don’t even really deserve. The lowly need to get out and get jobs. If there are any.
I don’t want to end on a note of cynicism, but a note of encouragement and hope. The spiritual life is one not only of seeking justice at the personal level, in my life, in my family’s life, in my community; it is also one of seeking justice, and a vision of justice, for our society and the world at large. We cannot neglect the mind in the spiritual life because a vision of justice depends on that in our journey. And we cannot neglect the journey itself either simply because we feel that only our own small world is all that counts. We need to build on our own partial ethical concerns toward a larger social reality. Impartiality is not perhaps entirely possible, but sitting in a corner with folded hands is not an inevitability either. Vision, compassion, and courage are the prescription for the injustices we face.