Saturday, March 3, 2007

Justice vs. Virtue

This post is a response to one of my lectures this week. The issue at hand isn't one I have ever considered before, and I doubt you have either. The problem is whether the government's responsibility to promote justice is lexically prior to its responsibility to promote virtuous citizens. Lexically prior (for those who are unfamiliar with the term) means that no matter what, justice always trumps virtue. The problem with lexical priority is that you are not allowed to sacrifice even the smallest amount of justice in order to gain a momentous amount of virtue. That, to me, seems plainly unreasonable. In class, however, it was clear that not a few students stood by justice's lexical priority. In other words, a society where everyone is equally well-off (materially) but where all the members are total jerks is preferable to one where there is slight injustice in wealth but everyone is virtuous.

At first, I was completely confused as to why anyone would hold that view. It just seems plainly obvious that virtue is important. But then I realized two possible reasons they stood by justice's LP. The first reason involves urgency. It's easy for someone in my (privileged) position to preach integrity when I am not a victim of injustice. If I were living in poverty, my opinion would probably be very different. I acknowledge this objection whole-heartily. And I agree that right now, justice is the issue du jour. If we must implement knave-promoting policies to bring people out of poverty and up to some basic threshold of flourishing (think Nussbaum, for example), then that should be the order of the day. Conceding this does not entail the LP of justice, however. After some point (of which, I'm not about to draw the line of distinction), it seems irresponsible to promote knave-like citizens in return for some small improvement in justice. Instead, at the expensive of perfect justice, the government should revamp its policies to promote more virtuous citizens. So the objection of urgency doesn't fly, because I'm not trying to defend the LP of virtue...I just think virtue, like justice, is an inherent good that should be given due consideration.

The second objection, one which I think was the real culprit during discussion, was how to define the scope of responsibility the government has. Without delving into political theory I'm unfamiliar with, I'll try to flesh this objection out a bit. The government is responsible (in the post-Rawls era at least), in the opinion of most people I've encountered, for trying to establish a just society. That may include some form of redistribution, or social welfare, that would ensure that most (or as many as possible) citizens have the capability to live a flourishing life. Material goods are a crucial resource for most people to accomplish this. So...policies are needed that will more equally distribute material wealth. These policies, unfortunately, may have the negative effect of promoting self-interest (because they are shaped in such a way that the system is benefited more when people are more self-interested...and then the system harnesses the fruits of said self-interest...or something like that). I'll agree that the government is responsible for promoting justice, because I think justice is a public (and private) good that can not be achieved without some coordinated action, and the government is the best tool we have.

Where I depart from my comrades, unfortunately, is my support of virtue. I believe that at some point the government is responsible for promoting virtuous citizens, and I'll tell you why. If the policies of the government had no effect on the members of society, I'd be hard pressed to make my case. In fact, if the government didn't have any effect on the integrity of it's citizens, then I'll concede that the government can stay out of it. Instead, the family, religious organizations, and such can do the hard work. But in reality, the government has a profound effect on the American ethos. For example, the Jim Crow laws were not merely a by-product of racism, but they also promoted and reinforced racism among citizens. If the government is responsible for enforcing and breeding racism, and if we agree that racism is bad enough that it is morally reprehensible for the government to promote it, then I would argue that the government has a responsibility to fix (as far is it is capable) the problem. In the same way, if the government turns people into materialistic, self-interested jerks, then the government is responsible (once justice is no longer an urgent issue) for promoting more virtuous qualities, in so far as it doesn't have too high a cost for justice. If the government played a role in making knaves, then it should help change them back into knights. This rests on the assumption that virtue is an inherent good worth protecting, and it benefits both the individual and society (in the same way that justice does). Some may deny this claim, but before they do they should seriously imagine living in the world they would allow the government to create. Would you honestly prefer an equal share if you had to live amongst horribly mean, selfish people (and you would probably be one of them!)? Doubtful. Why? Because virtue is valuable, whether or not you are willing to admit it...

This issue touches on the difference between the communitarian and libertarian political views. The former promotes the good of the community, the latter promotes the good of the individual. What is the place of the government? Probably somewhere between the two views, though I'd lean towards a more communitarian responsibility (as a way to combat the horrid individualism that has consumed our society). Unfortunately the individual is defended by our society so fiercely that it is almost bringing about its own downfall. Protecting an individual seems worthwhile when the people we want to protect are worth protecting, but it may come to the point where we produce such terrible citizens that its not even worth protecting them (yeah that's mean, and kind of controversial...I'll admit it). The worst part of that scenario is that once you produce such a horrible lot of people, they'll be so terrible that their own character's won't possess the capacity to want or be able to become more virtuous. So at some point, it may be too late. Don't think it couldn't happen, because we seem to be well on our way.

On another note, I'm starting to read Kirkegaard. So look forward to a post on that soon.
And, I read an interesting blog the other day by a guy who was an atheist, but after studying philosophy in college he became a Christian. It was really interesting because you usually hear that people deny God after studying philosophy. His testimony is cool because he admits that there wasn’t one knock-em down argument. He just gradually grew to accept God (first the possibility, then the reality). It shows that reason only goes so far, and after a point it’s up to faith (and this is for both the atheist and the believer). So if you want to, you should check it out.

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