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Justice as the Antidote to Power

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Previously, I posted here a passage from THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES where different dimensions of wholeness were defined, and which led up to the point where the systems of nature and civilization were going to be explored in their relation to wholeness. ("Dimensions of Wholeness" posted last week here:
As I indicated at the close of that entry, what that exploration discloses is how the problem of power in the evolution of civilization has subverted such forms of wholeness, so important to the well-being and preservation of life.

That discussion then culminates in the section posted here below, describing what is the remedy for the disease of the rule of power: Justice as the Antidote to Power.

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4. Artificial Wholeness:
Justice as the Antidote for Power



The Restraint of Power

Power acts like an instant pathogen, in E. Odum's phrase. It is a sudden new phenomenon in the living systems of the earth, and it works as a poison eating away at the health (O. E. haelp, which means "whole") of those systems. To restore that health, mankind must find a way of restraining power. In the old regime, all forces could flow unrestrained because the synergistic evolution of those forces effected a kind of prior restraint. Civilized people and their systems, however, have sprung forth armed with powers that no whole order has granted or reviewed in advance. "Surely the mountain lion," writes Gregory Bateson, "when he kills the deer is not acting to protect the grass from overgrazing" (1972, p. 504). Yet when those among us who are like lions kill those who are like deer, none but the lions profit. There is for us no way back into the old regime where creatures can be free in action because they are controlled in design. We humans who have redesigned our own powers for action must construct also our own system of restraints.



This restraining system must allow something other than power to rule the conduct of civilized systems. The design of restraints has two components, one practical and one moral. The practical aspect derives from the paradox that, to a significant extent, only power can control power. It is necessary therefore to design systems with "checks and balances" so that powers cancel each other out and make room for other factors to govern. (The wholeness of the ecosystem too, derives from checks and balances ofa sort.) But if we ask what kind of order is desirable to replace the regime of power, we are led to seek some moral principle that we wish to characterize the workings of our systems. Also, as we probably cannot manage so to arrange powers that all are canceled, we require a moral principle by which those who do wield powers should act. Leaving aside the practical problems of system design, I investigate now that moral dimension of the desired regime of artificial wholeness.

Morality is only a human problem, for only humans can subvert wholeness by doing what comes naturally. We attempt to introduce moral force to check the natural drives of self-interest that prove dangerous in the unnatural conditions of anarchy. We want the play of power to be checked by a moral principle that leads away from corruption to synergy.

Consider two rules to comprise this synergistic principle. (a) Where power is exercised, I say, it should not be used to benefit the wielder of power at the expense of the' health of the system as a whole; and (b) where different parts of the system have conflicts of interest, the conflicts should be resolved not by their differences in power but by some moral principle which, if always followed, would ultimately be to the benefit of all in the system.

Justice as Synergy

We do not need to invent a name for this synergistic moral principle, because the rules described above capture the essence of a virtue central to philosophic thought for millennia. That virtue is called justice.

Over the ages, the concept of justice has had many meanings. It is nonetheless clear that its use here as a specific moral antidote to the problem of power is not idiosyncratic but lies near the heart of this ancient and important concept. To see the essential connection between justice
and power we can turn to Plato's Republic, that classic inquiry into the meaning of justice. The first definition given there is that offered by the character Thrasymachus who says that "the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (338C). This makes a good starting point, for basically it is a way of eliminating the idea of justice, of depicting the way of the world unconstrained by moral principle. What happens, happens, Thrasymachus says in effect. Earlier we encountered a similar defining away of the moral into the amoral, when Thucydides quoted the Athenians as saying: "You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (5. 90). The idea that "might makes right" is a denial of the relevance of the moral dimension. If "right" is in question only between equals in power, it is never really in question at all. What the Athenians are describing is concern not with a moral principle but with striking advantageous bargains, and this is but a continuation of the amoral principle of getting what one can. If "Justice" is whatever the strong impose upon the weak, then there is no basis for a moral critique of the corruption of civilized systems. Though they sweep away the problem of what should be, these ideas describe well what is (or at least what tends to be): the rule of power. And they serve for us the useful purpose of showing that moral concepts like rights and justice are specifically concerned with restraining the rule of power.

Just as the problem of power is the target of justice, so also are the two synergistic rules mentioned above at the heart of traditional views of what justice requires. (a) Justice requires that the whole not be subverted for the more powerful part. Thrasymachus again helps out, succinctly describing the injustice of the world: "(E)ach ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage. . . . (A)ll declare that what they have set down-their own advantage-is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds" (338E). This is the reality that, when we can depart from the realm of hypocrisy and arrive at a genuine morality, justice changes. (b) At the heart of the battle of justice against corruption is a notion of impartiality, of the need for rules that would ultimately benefit all because in any given case they are indifferent to whom they benefit. Justice with her scales is blind, determining rights without regard to the power of the parties in conflict before her. The rules of justice are those we would choose if we had no interest in the case, or rather if we did not know which of the conflicting interests would be ours. This essential aspect of justice is illustrated in John Rawls'sA Theoryofjustice . Rawls's hypothetical just society would be governed by principles that "free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests" would agree to in a situation where "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like" (1971, p. 12). Blind choice engenders a disinterestedness that makes possible the emergence of rules to maximize the interests of all. At the essence of the concept of justice lies a commitment to synergy in human affairs. It can therefore be seen that the moral principle by which the rule of power might be restrained for the sake of synergy is the venerable principle called justice. As synergy is an aspect of that wholeness we find in natural systems, the synergistic principle of justice can be viewed as part of a system of natural law; in our unnatural dilemma, we can turn to nature for moral guidance and imitate her natural wholeness with an artificial one.

Justice is the moral antidote to the poisonous rule of power. As the parable of the tribes shows power to be the primary problem of civilized life, so correspondingly, according to Rawls, "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions" (ibid.).

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Those interested in exploring this approach to understanding the human story, and the problematic way it has grown out of the biologically evolved order, may consult The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, the second edition of which is still in print from SUNY Press.

 

Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)
 
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