In the movie “The Purge,” some young people demand that a couple respect their right to kill a person. These young people were convinced that they were doing what was right because, once a year, the State gave them the right to give free rein to their violent instincts. However, having a right to something does not guarantee that behavior is fair.
Although this is an extreme and dystopian example, the truth is that we have so internalized the concept of justice that we have stopped responding rationally. The mere mention of that word pushes us to believe that we are right or to feel that we are supported by some kind of inalienable right.
And that emotional reaction leads to choice blindness that prevents us from thinking clearly. As a result, it can lead us down a path that, contradictorily, distances us from the justice we hold up as a banner. And if we want to be fair, perhaps we should focus more on the consequences instead of limiting ourselves to judging what is right or wrong from an egocentric and morally superior position.
What is fair and unfair can change depending on the circumstances
At 8:15 on August 6, 1945, an American plane dropped the first atomic bomb used directly on a civilian population on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On March 9, 1945, the United States destroyed part of Tokyo with its M69 napalm bombs, leaving around 80,000 dead and a similar number of injured. On August 11, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. That decision cost the lives of thousands and thousands of people and caused terrible suffering to many others.
When President Harry Truman addressed the American people that August 6, he said: “The Japanese started the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. Now we have returned the blow multiplied. With this bomb we have added a revolutionary new increase in destruction in order to augment the growing power of our armed forces.”
A few years later, in a letter to James Cate, he tempered his tone by telling that “The dropping of the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave free nations a chance to face the facts.”
It is impossible to know if those bombs actually saved more lives than they destroyed. At the time, public opinion was not particularly alarmed or dissatisfied, but in subsequent decades there has been much debate about the morality of its use since it is difficult to justify its terrible consequences on the civilian population.
However, until very recently, some of the people involved in dropping those bombs still believed that it was the right and fair decision. And the concept of justice can vary quite a bit depending on historical conditions, culture and, obviously, the perspective of whoever analyzes it and, sometimes, manipulates it according to their interests.
Life is unfair – whether we like it or not – simply because the concept of justice involves moral disquisitions and reasons that are alien to the forces of nature. Justice, in its broadest sense, implies that people receive what they deserve, but that “deserve” is quite subjective, fickle, and subject to interpretation.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of South Australia revealed that our assessment of the rise or fall of high achievers depends largely on our subjective values and the level of liking or disliking that person generates in us. In short, our perception of what is fair or unfair and what a person deserves or not depend largely on the emotions it triggers.
In this sense, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that justice derives from mutual agreement between members of a society while John Stuart Mill believed that it is only achieved when the greatest number of people achieve the best results (although that means that a minority will have than to resign to suffering injustice).
In reality, our current concept of justice comes largely from a religious worldview, which is based on an ironclad division between good and evil, which emanates from a kind of divine commandments that are not questioned.
This conception gave rise to what is known in philosophy as the Euthyphro’s dilemma: Do the gods order what is morally good because it is intrinsically good or is it morally good because the gods ordered it? We can apply that same question to the norms, laws and moral codes by which current societies are governed and with which many of us agree more or less consciously.
As a result, we tend to believe that justice is an irrefutable, self-evident, and always correct concept. It is not like this. Revenge that may seem fair to us in a moment of anger may seem terrible when the waters calm down. Punishment that may seem fair in one culture may be completely disproportionate in another.
It is enough to think that during the Middle Ages, capital punishment was carried out by hanging and that women condemned as witches died at the stake, acts of “justice” that today seem completely terrible to us. From that perspective, right now we could be supporting acts of justice that are not such. How to avoid this trap and act as fairly as possible?
How to be fair? 3 questions to make the best decision
The word justice, in itself, has different etymological origins. In classical Greek, for example, it referred more to a marked direction or line than to an irrefutable moral principle. In Sanskrit it indicated a region of the sky while in Latin it referred to the law and regulations imposed by the State.
Today, we often say that justice exists when a person receives what he or she is entitled to; that is, the benefits and punishments that correspond to him according to his characteristics, works and particular circumstances. However, stating that a certain person or act is good, moral or virtuous does not necessarily mean that it is just, although we often mistakenly identify both concepts.
We may believe, for example, that if someone lent us his coat when we were cold, it was good or generous, but in reality it was an act of charity or empathy, not justice. Likewise, we can affirm that a certain person or act is immoral or wrong, but that does not necessarily mean that it is unjust. Is it fair that a person earns according to what he works or according to what he needs to support himself?
As the philosopher William Frankena stated “Societies can be kind, efficient, prosperous or good, as well as just, but they can also be just without being notably benevolent, efficient, prosperous or good.”
How to get out of that loop?
Plato believed that justice was more about balance and harmony between the individual and the social. Therefore, if we want to be fair, instead of making moral assessments that derail us or make us particularly vulnerable to emotional manipulation, we should focus more on the consequences of our decisions and actions by asking ourselves three simple questions:
1. Is it convenient, positive and fair for me?
2. Is it convenient, positive and fair for the other?
3. Will it make the world a better place or help others in some way?
Thinking about the consequences, not only about what we would like to receive or what we believe is fair, will allow us to broaden our perspective and adopt the psychological distance necessary to make a better decision and avoid falling into emotional hijacking.
We must remember that sometimes the line between justice and revenge is extremely subtle and easy to cross. That what may be fair for some, may not be fair for others. And that our conception of justice does not always coincide with that of others.
Therefore, perhaps the question is not “How to be fair?” but “What is the most positive and beneficial decision for everyone?” And look for the answer trying to leave everything else aside.
Feather, N. T. (1999) Judgments of Deservingness: Studies in the Psychology of Justice and Achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Review; 3(2): 10.1207.
Buchanan, A. & Mathieu, D. (1986) Philosophy and Justice. In: Critical Issues in Social Justice; Philosophy and Justice; 11-45.