Objective Justice

Frequent Catallarchy commenter Mark gives his definition of Justice in the comments below as follows.

Okay, I've talked with my wife some more between last night's post and now. I think I have a definition of Justice that I am happy with.

There are two pillars to the foundation of Justice.

1) Every individual owns their life. This is a rock-hard, objective fact of the world. Someone can threaten you or try to persuade you, but ultimately you decide what you want to do. Someone might physically constrain you or even destroy you to prevent you from actually doing what you want to do, but they cannot choose your actions for you.

2) If you respect my life, I'll respect yours. This has no guarantee in the world. Someone can commit a crime against you and try to take your life or possessions against your will. An individual chooses whether or not to live according to this principle.

Justice is the application of these two principles to the behaviour we observe in the world. This definition doesn't go as far as determining fair punishment for an individual that commits a crime against someone, it only lets us label an act as right or wrong. We look at the facts of the case and decide whether the accused was guilty of an act which caused injury to another individual. We use reason to pick apart the subtleties of the case to distinguish bad luck from intentional harm.

If you accept this definition of Justice, then when you say, "Marxism is wrong", what you mean is, "I can show you that Marxism is inherently dependent upon some individuals lacking the respect for others' lives that they demand in return." Someone can certainly set up a government based on Marxism, but that doesn't make it right. Even if no one makes the argument against Marxism, you can expect to see the effects of the crimes on which it is based in its real world application.

I need to polish the presentation, but at least I feel like I have a working definition.

Micha, can you find traces of the subjective in this definition, or of trying to justify the definition because it leads to some particular outcome?

Sage, how close is this to your own personal conclusions?

Bill, does this make sense in the context of "Open Range"?

Share this

Premise #1 looks like a

Premise #1 looks like a positive statement, but there are many who would deny whether this is so. The philosopher G.A. Cohen, for example.

Premise #2 depends on your view of how we respect other people's lives. Libertarians have a negative conception of respect: all one needs to do to respect other people's lives is to act passively. Socialists have a positive conception of respect: in order to respect the live of a starving child, we are obligated to feed him.

In the same way that you believe Marxism is wrong because it involves disrespecting some people's lives (by violating their claims to self-ownership), so too Marxists believe that capitalism is wrong because it involves disrespecting some people's lives (by violating their claims to positive rights).

Isaac Asimov, old socialist

Isaac Asimov, old socialist that he was, came up with his famous laws of robotics, which worked well for individual robots:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It all started going horribly wrong for Asimov when his robots literally cascaded into cathartic inaction, when Asimov introduced a fourth utilitarian law, the 'zeroth' law, in his bid for the perfect socialist Galaxia:

0. A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

There being no way to scientifically judge what is good for the 'whole of humanity', the only way Asimov could get out of his own self-made socialist trap, was to rely on telepathic robots, such as R. Daneel Olivaw, or rogue intuitive humans, such as Trevize, who could know things for certain without the need for logical deduction. (and Asimov called himself a scientist - obviously one in the tradition of Kant! :-)

Your two 'laws of humanics' seem to be heading in the direction of Asimov's original three robust 'robotic laws'. Do you think it would be possible to adapt Asimov's three laws in some way, in combination with your two new 'humanics laws', to come up with a similarly robust code for human action? (as opposed to independent robotic action)

But hell, keep going, Y'hear! ;-)

Micha, This seems to me

This seems to me that what you are talking about is that there are two views (at least) of justice. One is how society as a whole views justice and the other is how an individual views justice. For example, in the past slavery in society was viewed as just by many human societies. The view was quite different for the individual slave. I suppose my question is, in determining an objective justice how much should be based upon individual experience vs. the totality of experience of a society.
It may be that since the sense of justice is inherently personal that the ultimate judge of what is just will be the individual's reaction to events and is ultimately subjective in that sense. However, based on the shared experience of human existence perhaps some commonalites can be formed and thus a form of "objective" justice can be created. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is one place to start.

Also I think we can state as that there is no (known?);) thing such as mind control, that statement one is correct. People control their own actions regardless of the type of influence another person may attempt to use.

Micha, Fair enough comment


Fair enough comment about the ambiguity of Premise 2--I suppose I assume a lot of libertarian baggage that I haven't identified. I'll try to expand on some of the things the premises include (though in the interest of getting out a speedy response, I reserve the right to add more later!)

Premise 1 background includes:

Ownership of your life has consequences that are best put to the test using the thought experiment of placing one or two people in a context where they are isolated from institutions (this is why Westerns can be so appealing). With no competition for the resources around you, you can adapt them to suit your own needs. With no government to segregate you, you and a companion can speak to each other so long as you both wish to.

I can't read the link to Cohen (I'll try to google for him later), but I think the main reasons I get goosebumps from the stories of Mohandas K. Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, is that they start with giving living proof to the fact that they own their own lives--they maintain their volition in the face of physical force.

Premise 2 background includes:

I was looking for a brief way to state this premise, and I'm still not sure I got it right. "Respect my life" means "Respect my ownership of my life" and "Respect my power of volition over my life".

I would maintain that positive rights (feeding starving children, housing the homeless, providing universal healthcare) all lead to a contradiction in respecting another's volition. Most of the readers of this blog probably have made a career, or at least a hobby, of doing this. A typical argument of ours is that if force is used to maintain a social system, (beyond proportional force to stop attacks on individuals) it is violating our volition. Another typical argument is to show that if a social system grants some individuals rights that are not granted to other individuals it is not based on equal mutual respect of all individuals.

Andy, Funny you should


Funny you should mention Asimov's robot laws--the thought had occured to me, probably because I listed them as two premises, or pillars.

Of course, the two premises are not at the same level. I wasn't entirely happy calling them pillars, they are more like one foundation and one choice, but I couldn't think of a handy metaphor.

The first premise says something about how the world works. It recognizes that volition exists in the world packaged in units of individual animals (including rational animals--humans). Individuals are the simplest units that make choices and suffer or benefit from the consequences.

The second premise says something about how we choose to live in the world, mutually respecting the volition of other humans. My position is that Justice follows from this.

I also thought a lot about a book by Ursula K. Le Guin (wasn't she Asimov's wife?)--The Dispossessed. It was about a world without institutions. The institution of marriage did not exist, but there were still many life-long monogomous relationships (just as such relationships seem common in different human cultures where it is presumably institutionalized differently). I am trying to separate the institution of Justice (current laws, court houses, sheriffs, and warrants) from the fundamental basis of Justice.

Of course, life is so much easier when the politicians that try to run your life accept these as "self-evident truths". The first premise speaks to our "unalienable rights", the second to "all men are created equal". I'm just trying to understand how the pieces fit together clearly.

Shadow Hunter, This seems to

Shadow Hunter,

This seems to me that what you are talking about is that there are two views (at least) of justice.


Maybe this is why Micha talks about Justice being subjective. I suppose you can start with a different choice about how you deal with others in the world and come up with a different system you call justice (of course, my definition with a capital-j is the right one!). If you choose to say, "I will respect your life, whether you respect mine or not" you are a pacifist and will not punish any crime or allow any self-defense. If you choose to say, "I demand respect for my life and refuse respect for yours" you are a tyrant or criminal (depending on how many people you can bully into following along). If you choose to say, "I respect the lives of those certified by the government to be freemen" you allow slavery, though I expect we can find some contradictions in the way you make your definition of what type of human volition to recognize based on what humans are currently in power. If you say, "I respect the volition of animals other than humans so long as they respect mine" you might end up as a vegan that won't chase the rats from their house (or maybe they only chase them if the rats hadn't registered a deed at the county courthouse!).

People can call just about anything justice. But the Justice I am trying to define is the non-contradictory system that approximates what we aspire to in the US and similar governments. I maintain it is objective because it is based on the facts of human volition and the logical consequences of a single, simple decision about how you deal with others.

If it is correct, it means that you can look at a saloon full of townspeople and say, "Do you agree that every human should respect your life just as you respect theirs? Look at the current situation and see how it contradicts this. Think about what the consequences will be of continuing to deal with someone who doesn't respect your life." Hopefully enough of them will be convinced to join you in a common defense of your lives that the evildoers can be overpowered or scared off.

Next installment here...

Mark writes: ...they are

Mark writes:

...they are more like one foundation...

We gotta stop with these Asimov puns! :-)

I also thought a lot about a book by Ursula K. Le Guin (wasn't she Asimov's wife?)

I'm not sure. When I was a socialist, I used to like Asimov, but drifted away from him when Trevize chose Galaxia. Whether Trevize's choice sparked my own personal long road to Austrianism, or whether the start of my own personal long road to Austrianism sparked this dislike of Trevize's choice, I really cannot say.

But whatever, I'm much more of a Heinlein man, these days! ;-)

PS: I'm just trying to


I'm just trying to understand how the pieces fit together clearly.

If you haven't got this book yet, Murray Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty may help you a lot. Or possibly the online For a New Liberty, particularly its central axiom.