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Posts tagged ‘justice’

Power and the Pursuit of Justice

Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with  powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.”  I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.

As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power.  As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it.  Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power.  I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues.  Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.

The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power.  This point leads to several difficulties.  The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power.  The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone.  He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority.  The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice.  Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled.  Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge.  Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more

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? Read more

The Danger of Justice Done OR Why We Need a Bad Conscience

It’s been a hectic couple weeks in the various institutions that concern my life.  The discipline of philosophy reached a boiling point and some well-respected important philosophers finally said enough is enough and organized some collective action to put a stop to some pretty unethical behavior.  Leigh Johnson has blogged an Archive of the Meltdown if you want to read more about it.  And Wabash has been actively responding to some pretty serious issues that needed to be addressed at the same time.

I’m glad for these actions, but I’m worried, too.  I think there is a danger when we do what is just to congratulate ourselves a little too excitedly and to let that congratulations become an avenue for contentment and self-satisfaction.  I was reminded yesterday of a point Jacques Derrida makes about how our acts of hospitality and justice are–I want to go further and say must be–accompanied by a bad conscience.  Derrida recognizes that when he feeds the poor or gives a place to stay to someone in need he is leaving out all the other hungry and all the others with no place to lay their heads.  Responding to one Other gives that Other precedence over all the other equally demanding Others to whom we are responsible.  To suppose that we are good in these moments leaves out two important things: a) that our act was too little too late, almost inevitably and b) that there is still more to be done. Read more

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