What Is Justice?

May 27, 2008

For many people, the idea of "justice" simply
means retribution meted out by a system of punishment.  Indeed, I think
most people think this way, don’t they? 

To me, the Sichuan
earthquake raises an opportunity for examination of how justice is
perceived by members of society.  What is justice?   Is it the same or
different in this culture versus my own?  In my world, justice is a
concept far broader than a sentence handed down in a criminal or civil
court.  Justice is all about ethics and morality in the broader social
sense.  Sichuan provides a framework within which to look at the issue
of the larger concept of social justice, merely because it brings one
issue into sharp focus:  disparity between rich and poor, between haves
and have nots.  Yes, everyone was affected.  I don’t want to downplay
any loss.  But some were disproportionately affected. 

N.Y. Times ran an article dated May 26, 2008, entitled "Grief in the
Rubble: Chinese Are Left to Ask Why Schools Crumbled," by Jim Yardley (
click here to see article )

photographs are shocking.  A well constructed, intact school (that was
used by monied children) stands tall beside the literal crumbs and
powder of a school constructed using inferior techniques and materials
(used by poor children, several hundred of whom died).

Does an
extremely disparate standard of living between rich and poor (and even,
in this case, a different standard of care that assumed proportions of
life and death), say something about the overall state of justice
within a society?  In other words, how do overall social conditions
reflect justice?  Many people think that the way society is structured
— how people are treated, how people are valued, the value that is
placed on life, the opportunity for all to have a good life — is a
fundamental component of justice.  In fact, the most powerless and most
unable to help themselves are children and animals.  I’ve heard it said
that if you want to gauge the moral development of a society, look at
how it treats its animals, because animals and children are those least
able to protect themselves. 

The demands of morality are also
not personal to one individual. There is a popular saying in the U.S.
that "you can’t legislate morality."  This is anything but true!  Laws,
and the mechanisms by which they are enforced, are based upon and
reflect the morality of a society.  When an individual fails to comply
with the basic standards of morality in a culture, it is incumbent upon
government to protect others in society from that individual’s harmful
conduct. This is where police come in handy!   I think how much police
are needed in a culture boils down partly to an ability in that society
of individuals to think altruistically, to consider the possibility of
an Other who has the same worth as Myself.  How far that concept goes
determines moral consciousness and the collective morality of a

The modern moral philosopher Jurgen Habermas, from
Germany, writes about a tiered system of morality.  It’s been many
years since I’ve read his writings, but Habermas divides morality into
six stages, with pure selfishness at the bottom and then progressing up
a pyramidal scheme toward altruism based on uinversal principles at the

Fundamentally, he views the lowest level of morality as
being governed purely by greed and self interest.  In this view, others
are seen as purely instrumental — as means to an end:  "How can I use
this person to achieve my objectives?"  No altruistic motive drives a
person who operates at this level of morality; he is strictly out to
serve himself.  Since a person with this level of morality does not
have inner controls, he must be governed and policed by strict rules. 
The only thing he responds to is fear of punishment. 

example of this might be a car speeding on the highway.  The only thing
that stops the driver from speeding 120 mph through a children’s
crossing zone is the fear of perhaps getting caught by a policeman. 
People like this use radar detectors in their cars to evade the
police.  In the scheme of risk benefit analysis, they may be aware of
the issue of foreseeable consequences, but they don’t care so much
about what those consequences might be for others.  They just want to
get where they want to be, and fast, without regard to others on the
roadway. The only thing this person responds to is a strong police

Legislation and police enforcement.  This is what
regulatory agencies are all about.  For instance, agencies responsible
for permitting and inspecting buildings in earthquake prone areas. 
by an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude, it’s obvious that many buildings
will not escape unscathed no matter how well they are built.  But that
doesn’t mean the building ought to turn to powder and crush all those
inside, either. 

The big question everyone knows about the
Sichuan earthquake is this:  Why did so many buildings crumble, while
others were left intact.  Well, obviously we know why the buildings
failed.  It was shoddy construction.  The builders in Sichuan were able
to get by with it because of who the buildings were constructed for: 
not only children but often children of lower socioeconomic status. So
many of those buildings were schools, housing tens of thousands of
students.  The answer has everything to do with morality and justice: 
the morality of the people who built and inspected the buildings, and
the justice that flows (or fails to flow) from that attitude. 

policeman failed to police, in that the inspectors allowed the
buildings to be built and occupied.  Even worse in my mind, from a
morality viewpoint, is the fact that someone constructed those schools
to shoddy building standards knowing the risk. 

are nothing new to Sichuan Province.  They are clearly foreseeable. 
Someone actually took the profit they made from skimping on materials,
or from not spending the money properly, and enriched themselves
personally.  And those children paid the price. 

Beyond this
general lack of concern for the little children generally who would
inhabit those buildings, there is the issue of why the poor children’s
schools collapsed and the rich childrens’ schools didn’t.  Why should
the poor bear the brunt of shoddy construction?  And now that so many
have paid the "ultimate price," the more important question, in my
mind, is what will be done about it moving forward? 

Will the
response be "same old, same old"  — suppression of media reporting,
targeting of a few scapegoats for execution, and then return to the
same old policies that enabled the shoddy construction in the first
place — or will the response to protect people be as spectacularly
positive as the government’s initial response to the disaster itself? 
Unfortunately, a frequent response is pure denial of a problem. If a
pesky reporter is writing investigative journalism articles about
pollution, or if a lawyer is making a nuisance of himself challenging
the detention of a dissident, a frequent response of authorities is to
silence that person rather than to examine and address the problem. But
there could be a different attitude now. We hope. A tragedy — and
guilt that ensues from that tragedy — can indeed provide the catalyst
that spurs change in a new direction.  Hope springs eternal. 
the article "Grief in the Rubble," the parent of one of the victims is
quoted as saying, “We want to bring justice for our children. . . . We
want the local officials to pay the price.” 

Unfortunately, in
my view, this understandable attitude seeking retribution will not
cause anything in the current system to change.  All retribution, in
the form of confessions and executions, would result in would be a few,
token executions of public officials who were scapegoated.  After they
were “dealt with,” the problem would be presumed to have been solved
even though none of the factors which contributed to it have been

Unlike Western law, Chinese law does not so
explicitly distinguish between criminal and civil liability.  An
official who takes bribes or who fails in his job may be executed (as
was the head of the drug licensing agency last year).  My personal
perception is that these executions satisfy the public bloodlust as
retribution for evil, and surely the fear of this type of punishment
must provide some incentive for public officials to do their jobs. 
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really address the root of the evil.  Unless
the true attitudes and practices that enabled the shoddy building
standards — all of the attitudes and practices that enable it,
including values are rooted out and addressed — the problem will
remain.  It won’t do any good, overall, for a few unfortunate officials
to "pay the price." 

The only thing that will change things in
the long run is to change the entire system.  I pray that these
shocking photos will bring some people to their senses when it comes to
the idea that money is to be pursued at any cost.  It is possible for
entire systems to change, after all. And China is a country that can do
A mudslide  in  Sichuan has dammed a river and the
water is rising to dangerous levels.  The China Daily reported
yesterday 1,800 men are each carrying 10 KG of explosives into an area
only accessible by air or foot, to blow up the mud slide and release
the river.  Wow!  I mean, when the Chinese (civilians or government
alike) decide to make something happen, they really know how to do it! 

Indeed, when the Sichuan quake first hit, the government made a
commendable, a really outstanding, response.  The People’s Liberation
Army went in through perilous mountain passes and got supplies in and
people out.  But the PLA, and government in general, can’t do it all. 
At some point, people must move beyond reliance on the "big policeman
in the sky" as the sole source of moral conduct. While blame can surely
be levied on government officials who enabled the shoddy building
practices, the buck doesn’t really stop there.  Their laxity, though
enabling, was not the root cause.

To effect long
lasting, fundamental change, the building practice themselves must
change, starting with developing a culture where compliance with good
building practices is enthusiastically endorsed by those who construct
the buildings.  In this case, the buildings were constucted by monied
construction companies, not public officials.  Those companies have
bosses, and the bosses of those companies made the decisions to
construct with shoddy building materials.  It is not enough to censure
"public officials."  Even though some measure of accountability must
also be demanded from the government permitting and inspecting bodies
that enabled this degree of laxity, the first layer of accountability
must come from those who made the decision to build unsafe buildings in
the first place. 

A greater change of heart is needed.  This
change of heart must begin with how the less fortunate are perceived
throughout society.  The less fortunate must be perceived as having
value merely by virtue of being human, with lives worthy of being
protection in the first place. 

According to Habermas, this
concern with society in general is the next stage in the development of
morality: altruism.  Altruism is an ability to be concerned about an
Other, the ability to be concerned with how that second party will be
affected by our decisions.  If we are so concerned, then we don’t use
the wrong blend of sand to make our concrete, and we use enough steel
rebar to make sure the buildings are properly supported.  Why?  Because
of police?  No.  Because we don’t want to be responsible for the deaths
of people inside, no matter who they might be, when the inevitable
earthquake shakes the ground.  We have developed an altruistic
concern.  We recognize that laws are for the greater good of society. 

I recall, Habermas goes so far as to equate this level of morality with
the moral development one could expect of a ten year old.  The person
concerned only about getting caught, on the other hand, Habarmas
equates as being on the same stage of moral development as a three year
old child. 

Vastly oversimplifying in my brief summary, the
next stage above the specific concern for others in our group,
according to Habermas, is a general concern for overall good.  In
philosophy this might be very similar to Hedonism (what action brings
the most overall happiness).  This level is characterized by a concern
that goes beyond merely you or me and the person in the building.  It’s
a concern that says we should be worried about all buildings and make
sure they are all safe for all people. 

And then at the top of
his moral pyramid (perhaps the moral equivalent of self actualization
in Maslow’s Triangle) is a generally altruistic concern for adherence
with moral principles because they are good in and of themselves for
the benefit of all people.  Just as most people never reach Maslow’s
stage of "self actualization," most people similarly never reach the
stage of being morally altruistic.  Most remain centered somewhere
around the self or immediate loved ones, tribe, or culture. 

my experience, most people I encounter in my daily life, on the street
here in China, are operating at the very base level.  Just today, for
example, I was riding my bicycle along the street.  A car pulled out
right in front of me and stopped.  If I hadn’t been able to stop in
time, I would have been hurt.  The driver, a young female, wasn’t
malicious. She simply was not concerned in any way for me one way or
the other.  No concern whatsoever.  In her life, I and my bicycle were
of such little consequence that we did not exist.  If I had hit her
car, her main concern would have been whether I left a scratch. 

days ago during Munchkin’s swimming class, I had a different but
similar experience.  A woman, with two children in tow, assisted by her
mother and two paid helpers to manage the two children (conspicuously
wealthy), interrupted the swimming class to try and have a private
conversation with the swimming coach.  I sensed the attitude written
all over her:  "I have prestige, I can demand the coach’s time at the
expense of others, and (implied), the other people in the class are
worthless to me." 

This also happens in my home culture, of
course.  There are people who cut in line, people who break the rules,
people who speed their cars in school zones.  Implicitly, the message
all of these people are sending is, "I am concerned for myself, I am
not concerned for others."  It’s epitomized in the saying, “Look out
for number one.” (Number one is slang to mean that I am only looking
out for myself.)

China has a lot of people.  It is impossible
to be concerned for everyone.  When one is so concerned, the burden is
overwhelming.  As Sophie told me so long ago, "If I gave one RMB to
this person, and to that one, and to every beggar I see, I would have
nothing left."  One response is simply to give nothing, to choose not
to be concerned, to choose to overlook.  A lot of people in China take
this approach, or they donate to their temple.  If they donate at the
temple, then their guilt is assuaged. In effect they can say, "I gave
at the office." 

I’m not sure how to effect a sea change,
culturally, but I’d advocate on behalf of a change in the area of
altruism.  It’s apparent from the response to the earthquake that the
Chinese can respond to the needs of others in an altruistic way.  It is
a good thing.  I hope that every Chinese person who has contributed or
helped realizes what a powerful impact each individual can have. 
Separately, we are nothing.  Separately, we are mere worms. 
Collectively, though, we are dragons.  Collectively we can indeed make
the world a better place.  Collectively, we can construct a society
where all children go to safe schools. 

Collectively, I hope
that the failure of the buildings will result in real examination of
the causes.  The real cause wasn’t sand and mortar.  The real cause was
an attitude deep within peoples’ hearts and minds.  It’s an attitude
which presumes that others, less fortunate others, were somehow less
deserving of care and concern.  Scapegoating and executing a few public
officials and a few factory owners won’t change that widespread
attitude.  But if light is shone on the problem, then actually real
change can begin, and the lives of the poor can actually become
better.  That is justice. 

Amos 5:24: "But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." 

Luke 12:6-7: "Are
not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them is
forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Do not fear; you are worth more than many sparrows." 


1 Comment

Filed under Ethics

One response to “What Is Justice?

  1. привет

    I think there are some very deep-rooted historical and socio-economical causes to the attitude you can see day in day out. It won\’t change, unless there is a huge revolution. You know in Chinese there is an old saying to the effect of: it\’s easy to change mountains and rivers but true characters remain the same. It\’s disheartening to see the Chinese people as whole (but not every single individuals) has degenerated into such a state. Personally I would say the communist movement, and the cultural revolution in particular, damaged all the good old values of the traditional Chinese confucius mindset. Traditional, \’classical\’ Chinese attitudes (largely Confucius) espoused or handed down by some old \’intelligentsia\’ and well-educated are nothing like this. True Chinese thinking has been completely hi-jacked by the communists. Blame Marx!!!
    I just read someone else\’s blog entry of a recent report on China, mainly the mentality and attitude of its people, by the AsiaPacific division of the famous RAND Corporation. That is very incisive and perspicacious. Pity it\’s in Chinese on the blog. Perhaps you can google it to see if you can find an English version.

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