Monday, December 1, 2008

On Justice - By Stephanie Ortiz

I. The issue of justice in relation to human nature is a topic that has been discussed for centuries within society. As a culture expands and evolves, an understanding must be reached to determine what is just, what the appropriate punishments for our governed laws should be, and how to redefine this as it is deemed appropriate. With this in mind, and with the obligation to society that justice has, how do we define what is just as it relates to human nature?

II. For a generalized definition of the concept of justice, we must include impartiality, the ‘right action’ and conformity. That is to say, justice is a quality or standard that is impartial, decides the right action, and conforms to a set standard, presumably by society. This is open ended enough to have modifications for what is just, depending on which generation interprets it to be.

III. Philosopher David Hume makes some headway in what he believed to be just, and what he believed to be our basis for comparison when it comes to human nature. In The Philosophy of David Hume, an adapted work by V.C Chappell, the complete works of Hume are translated with a forward from the editor. His main thesis is that human nature dictates that humans are ruled by passions, be them calm or violent, and that we then later reason why we do what we do. Hume argues pointedly that reason is a slave to the passions.

“Every rational creature, it is said, is obliged to regulate his actions by reason, and if any other motive or principle challenge the direction of his conduct he ought to oppose it, till it be entirely subdued or at least brought to a conformity with that superior principle (225).”

In his work, he continues on to say that it is irrational for us to believe otherwise that human nature must in some way control our passions, and that our system of what is just and unjust must take this into account. He states this quite eloquently by saying “reason alone can never be motive to any action of the will, and secondly that it can never oppose passion in direction of the will (225)” It is in this way that he establishes that reason is a slave to the passions, that humans must first desire something and then rationalize afterward why.

Hume also expounds upon human nature, in a somewhat simplistic but effective treatment of why humans function the way that they do, arguing “the mind by an original instinct tends to unite itself with the good and avoid the evil, though they be conceived merely in idea, and be considered as to exist in any future period of time (232).” It is here that Hume argues that humans seek good because we are wired to do so by the nature of our minds.

On the passions, he simply states the following:

“Beside good and evil, or in other words, pain and pleasure, the direct passions frequently arise from a natural impulse or instinct which is perfectly unaccountable. Of this kind is the desire of punishment to our enemies and happiness to our friends, hunger, lust, and a few other bodily appetites. (Hume 233).

Thus our passions are ‘natural’ impulses, and we desire good and evil naturally as such.

Coming full circle with his argument, Hume states his thesis “thus upon the whole, it is impossible that the distinction between moral good and evil can be made by reason, since that distinction has an influence upon our actions of which reason alone is incapable (241).” Which is to say, Hume believes that reason is inherently flawed because we are human, and we must discard this as a basis by which to dispense justice, and instead turn to a more rational explanation, that we act because we want to, not because its reasonable.

IV. Thus, if we are to be just in a society, how are we to take human nature into account in order to make sure we are impartial, have a universally applied law, and ensure others conform to it? In what way might we act in order to be just?

VI. After the philosophy of David Hume was published, Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason as a direct response. In his later work, Critique of Practical Reason, he takes his knowledge of Hume and juxtaposes it with what he believes to be correct about human nature. He writes:

“The sole objects of a practical reason are thus those of the good and the evil. By the former, one understands a necessary object of the faculty of desire, and by the latter, a necessary object of aversion both according to a principle of reason (Kant 60).”

In this sense, Kant and Hume both agree that humans can be ruled by their own passions, and that we naturally gravitate to those actions which will seek out pleasure and avoid pain. However, Kant connotes pleasure with good, and pain with evil.

As his thesis, Kant argues that “any further motives that would make it possible for us to dispense with that of moral law must not be sought, for they would only produce hypocrisy without any substance (75).” Throughout the work, Kant comes back to this argument, that as humans with rational minds, we must use our reason to guide us, and suppress that which would violate our moral laws, because it would be unjust, and because God has equipped us with the tools to assess situations accordingly. This is discussed in the Critique of Pure Reason and is continued into Practical as a practical means to lead our lives with reason. Eloquently he states it as the following “pure practical reason merely checks selfishness, as natural and active in us even prior to the moral law, is restricted by moral law to agreement with the law; when this is done, selfishness is called rational self-love (Kant 76).”

In regards to justice, Kant says that with our rational minds, and with our reason, if we use our reason to seek justice, all will agree that there is a sense of fairness about things, so long as we follow the correct maxims.

“For even though he who punishes can do so with the benevolent intention of directing this punishment to this end, it must nevertheless be justified as punishment, i.e. as mere harm in itself, so that even the punished person, if it stopped there and he could see no glimpse of kindness behind the harshness, would yet have to admit that justice had been done and that his reward perfectly fitted his behavior (Kant 39).”

This is to say, that even from the outside, should one view the punishment, or infliction of justice on another person, even the person being punished would argue it was fair, and Kant even introduces the concept that the punishment must fit the crime – we cannot be overzealous in our actions or too lax either.

As a response to Hume, Kant rallies again that our senses are fallible, and we must use reason with an understanding that to leave judgment up to the individual’s sensation will not yield consistent results.

“Only rationalism of judgments is suitable to the use of moral laws, for rationalism takes no more from sensuous nature than which pure reason can also think of itself, i.e. lawfulness and conversely transfers into the supersensuous nothing more can be actually exhibited by actions in the world of sense according to a formal rule of natural law in general (73).”

It is in this sense that Kant explains that at least rationalism can be universally applied to moral situations, whereas the sensuous and violent nature of humans is neither consistent nor can be universally applied.

VI. With both Hume and Kant in mind, consider the following ethical situation. Two girls – Kathy, and Cindy, have been friends for eight years. Kathy was in a three year relationship with George until George decided he needed time and space to think about his relationship prospects and breaks up with Kathy. Kathy continues to live in George’s father’s house for another year sorting through the mess, and attempting to get her life back together. Cindy has similarly gone through an unfortunate breakup, and helps Kathy through the process. One day Cindy meets a young fellow named Will, and they are quite happy together for six months. Kathy is ready to move into a place of her own, and looks for roommates, Cindy offers her younger sister as a candidate, but unfortunately things fall through. Being an upstanding guy, Will volunteers to move in with Kathy, citing ‘it might be awkward, but you’ll just have to trust me.’ Two weeks later Will ends his relationship with Cindy, citing ‘I’m just not in love with you any longer.’ Cindy takes some space away from Kathy and Will, knowing that even friends from childhood will still have jealousy issues, and she does not want to displace this frustration on her friend. Cindy informs both her former flame and her friend that should any relationship follow from the two roommates, she cannot continue to be friends with them. Kathy reassures her long term friend that she has nothing to worry about, because she still has feelings for George. Eight weeks pass, and out of the blue George calls Cindy and leaves a suspicious message on her voicemail asking if she has heard the good news. Cindy contacts George the next day to find out what could be the matter, as they have not spoken in months. George reluctantly tells Cindy that he sat down with Kathy and was considering giving their relationship a second try when Kathy informed him that she couldn’t, citing her relationship with her roommate, and gives specific details indicating that Cindy would not be told about this, consented, or asked if this would make her uncomfortable. Cindy attempts to contact Kathy and Will but her calls mysteriously go to voicemail.

What should Cindy do in response to this action? Assuming that George’s information is correct, what is the most moral way to approach this situation?

VII. In treatment of this situation, Hume would argue “a virtuous motive is requisite to render an action virtuous (254).” Kathy has clearly not had any virtuous motives in initiating a relationship with her long term friend’s ex-boyfriend, and clearly the only response is to understand that human nature accounts for this, and if her friend was acting on her own behalf, there is nothing Cindy can do. Hume might also argue “no action can be virtuous, or morally good unless there be in human nature some motive to produce it, distinct from the sense of its morality (255).” Which is to say, perhaps it is in Kathy’s nature to act this way, and it is not that she is without morals, but she simply follows a different code, and justice cannot be rendered on this action. “After the same manner, when we require any action, or blame a person for not performing it, we always suppose that one in that situation should be influenced by the proper motive of that action, and we esteem it vicious in him to be regardless of it (Hume 254). Hume argues that we cannot assume we have the same moral code from one person to the next, and that each situation can only be judged by the individual within it. Based on this information one might argue that Hume would not necessarily condone Kathy’s actions, but could certainly understand them, and may even go so far as to say that she has not violated any moral laws.

Kant, on the other hand, would argue that Kathy has wronged Cindy, destroyed their friendship, and based on a natural law, and the system of a maxim in which all people can follow, she has in essence violated the Golden Rule. He writes “any further motives which would make it possible for us to dispense with that of moral law must not be sought, for they would only produce hypocrisy without any substance (Kant 75).” However, though Kathy may feel that since a moral law has been violated she is entitled to dispense justice, Kant would also argue that to be magnanimous in this situation would be the maxim of all possible situations, because on the whole society sees a person who is wronged and does not seek revenge as more ‘moral’ than one who does. Though this may be perceived as self righteousness, knowing that her positive behavior will inspire positive actions in others despite the negativity of the situation is a maxim that is better to live by because it is self-perpetuated. It is clear that Kathy has produced ‘hypocrisy’, but Kant would argue “the desire for happiness must be the motive to maxims of virtue, or the maxim of virtue must be the efficient cause of happiness (117).” That is to say, that though revenge may help Cindy through some process of catharsis in the short term, society would certainly frown upon this act and consider it lacking just as much virtue as the wrong itself. She should instead seek actions that will increase her own happiness, and not concern herself with what her friend may be doing.

The appropriate solution then, is to follow Kant’s advice – fight the motives to dispense justice without physical proof, and continue to follow maxims that she would want enacted as a universal law, if she seeks further action she could inform her friends of what she knows as objectively as possible, and let the chips fall as they may.

Works Cited:

Chappell., V.C., ed. The Philosophy of David Hume. New York: The Modern Library, 1963.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Educational, 1981.