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Not Being Able to Make What is Just, Strong, One Made what is Strong, Just.

In Pensees, Blaise Pascal writes:

Justice, Force.—It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed. Justice without force is impotent; force without justice is tyrannical. Justice without force is contradicted, because there are always bad people; force without justice stands accused. So justice and force must be put together; and to do so make what is just, strong and what is strong, just. 

Justice is subject to dispute; force is easy to recognize and is indisputable.  And so one could not give force to justice, because force contradicted justice, and said that it is was unjust, and said that it was force that was just. And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.

The week that Sandra Bland died in police custody, I was working through this passage that Derrida quotes in The Beast and the Sovereign with friends, colleagues and students in Italy.  Today, two days after another young black man was shot in Ferguson, MO, I have been recalling this passage.  Pascal recognizes our problem: we need justice to have force, but if all we have is force, there will be no justice.  What is the just way of giving force to justice? Pascal explains that the problem with putting them together is that force is, well, more forceful than justice and not only willing, but able to contradict justice and not only to contradict justice, but in contradicting justice, to assert force itself as just.  So since we couldn’t give power and force to justice, instead, what happens is that force passes itself off as justice and we think that we have put justice hand in hand with force. This plays out particularly in the way that reason(s) are taken to be legitimate, to have force, as we say, when they are the reason of the strongest, and not to be reasons at all when they are merely in the service of justice without force.  The reason of the strongest becomes best not because it is a good reason, but because it has the force of the strongest behind it.  Like justice, reason–reasons–are taken to be reason, rationality, good reasons, when they carry force.  But reason can carry force just because they are supported by strength, because they serve power and they make those who wield them powerful or they protect their power.

With all this in mind, I was listening on NPR to the explanation of the chief of police that the officer in Ferguson on August 9 perceived that Tyrone Harris could use his car as a weapon and this justified deadly force.  I burst into laughter.  Such an explanation would make it reasonable to use deadly force against anyone driving a vehicle.  (I cannot find this clip online though now and I was driving across the country so I don’t remember what the local station was.)  Before the video footage of the Walter Scott shooting surfaced, the officer who shot Scott claimed he felt threatened.  The grand jury believed the officer who performed the illegal chokehold that led to Eric Garner’s death when he said that he tried to stop the hold as soon as Garner said he couldn’t breathe.

Much has been said about how racism operates in police defenses of their actions on the basis of feeling threatened.  Where structural racism–racism that doesn’t depend on individuals having conscious anti-black feelings–produces the black man (and woman, as the incident at the swimming pool in Ohio shows) as a criminal and our image of the criminal as a black person, the defense of deadly force on the basis of feeling threatened will justify more lethal force against black people. In this situation, the reason this justification is a problem is not that it is only reasonable because those who are in power say it.  It is a problem because it circularly justifies itself on the basis of a racism that is never acknowledged but always at work.

There is another kind of reason I want to examine, one that assumes that the reason or the force is good just because the police officer used it.  Someone I know said to me recently, I know police officers, they don’t just shoot someone.  If they did, there must have been a reason.  That seems like the converse of what Pascal is pointing to: if we have made the strong just, whatever the strong does, must be justifiable, because the strong always act with justification.

But if Pascal is right, it seems that the dilemma that we face in recognizing that justice and force are indeed separate and so need to be united is how to determine whether they have been united on behalf of strength or on behalf of justice.  Pascal notes that uniting them on behalf of justice fails, making the just strong is difficult if not impossible.  Why?  Here it isn’t because there are bad people who need justice to be enforced because they don’t want to be just.  It’s because of force.  Justice can’t be made strong because force can be too easily separated from justice–it can too easily and quickly say, no justice, you are not just, I am just, because I am strong. It seems to me that Pascal leaves the last line open to several interpretations.

And thus, not being able to make what is just, strong, one made what is strong, just.

Not being able to give force to justice, we made force just.  One could say that we forced force to be just, or she could say instead that we just allowed that whatever strength does is just.  I’d like it to be the former, I think we have made it the latter.  We accept the reasons of those in power, because they serve our being in power too.  We find just what force does, what strength does, because we too are the strong.

How do we get out of this dilemma?  Are we capable any longer of seeing what is just or have we so confused what is just with what is strong?  If what we take to be just is really only what is strong, we would do well to stop enforcing strength in order to start considering without force, what is just.  If your response to that is fear–without force, order will be lost–you should consider why the forced order, the order that is only right because it is the one in force–is more important to protect than the pursuit of justice.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. You had me at Pascal. And I thoroughly enjoyed this.

    August 11, 2015
  2. jimrhiz #

    Does it clarify the argument if Pascal’s « la force » is translated not as “force”, but as “power” – in the sense of power-over, not power-to?

    Perhaps injustice actually consists in one person or group having power over another (or vice versa). Then Pascal is wrong, in the first paragraph you cite, in hoping to put justice together with power. His second paragraph correctly concedes that this must fail.

    August 11, 2015
    • Thanks for the comment. Some translations have “might” for “la force”. I think force is better because it includes the sense of giving force to something, which is the sense in which justice needs to be enforced. Justice needs to be backed up, if you will. The problem of justice without force is that nothing demands that it be maintained. So no, I don’t think thinking of force as “power over” explains this problem away because that doesn’t capture the problem of justice without force. I would say Pascal is right to see that justice needs force and it is for this reason that the problem of how to make it have force or whether to just make the force just stands.

      August 12, 2015
  3. Of course, you recognize this as a version of the _Euthyphro_ dilemma, which never stops dividing philosophers subsequently insofar as they are theologians, i.e., those for whom power and goodness are required to coincide at the top, and thus those for whom the validity of hierarchy is prima facie justified. Leibniz and Spinoza, when pressed, opt for opposed sides of the dilemma, as do Kant and Hegel, etc., etc. But all of that remains within the gravity of the wager on synthesis. By contrast, what happens to the dilemma if we cease to be theologians and hierarchs and start thinking the difference itself? I suspect that this is what your previous commenter was hoping to prompt you to consider. Your response – “I would say Pascal is right to see that justice needs force and it is for this reason that the problem of how to make it have force or whether to just make the force just stands” – presupposes the move by which hierarchical society labels the justice which refuses to participate in *their* forms of power as “weak” or “inefffective”. It’s the difference potestas/potentia which is missing here – a different kind of power which is *not* force.

    August 12, 2015
  4. Of course, you recognize this as a version of the _Euthyphro_ dilemma, which never stops dividing philosophers subsequently insofar as they are theologians, i.e., those for whom power and goodness are required to coincide at the top, and thus those for whom hierarchy is prima facie justified. Leibniz and Spinoza, when pressed, opt for opposed sides of the dilemma, as do Kant and Hegel, etc., etc. But all of that remains within the gravity of the wager on synthesis. By contrast, what happens to the dilemma if we cease to be theologians and hierarchs and start thinking the difference itself? I suspect that this is what your previous commenter was hoping to prompt you to consider. Your response – “I would say Pascal is right to see that justice needs force and it is for this reason that the problem of how to make it have force or whether to just make the force just stands” – presupposes the move by which hierarchical society labels the justice which refuses to participate in *their* forms of power as “weak” or “inefffective”. It’s the difference potestas/potentia which is missing here – a different kind of power which is *not* force.

    August 12, 2015
    • Thanks for the comment. I take this as the Thrasymachus problem, but I appreciate how it is the Euthyphro problem too.

      You introduce the notion that the problem with justice is not that it loses to force, but that it is weak or ineffective–impractical. That seems to me to be a third prong between making justice strong or making strength just–recognizing that strength is not just but somehow it’s better (a la Thrasymachus). That opens the space for considering whether justice is good or strength is good. In my reading Pascal suggests that strength needs a justification and so calls itself good while justice needs no justification but it needs recognition. The problem seems to be that justice does not carry with it the power to be put in force and so needs that from somewhere else. On this point then I would think potestas is that external force while potentia is the internal force (roughly speaking there are surely distinctions to be made more subtly than that).

      I would be interested in thinking about how justice as this internal force in community in a way that compels us toward it that Pascal might miss. For indeed I do think it does. And I think we are so far down the coercion hole and its effects, it’s almost impossible to recognize whether and how justice can universally compel.

      August 13, 2015

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