Sometimes the greatest good for the greatest number of people isn’t so great after all. Not if it works to squash our sense of justice.
Call it a sign of the times, but the world we live in has so shattered our sense of personal identity that whatever sense of justice still exists in this world belongs to an abstract set of principles held by the mainstream. The casualty: individual appreciations for what is right and what is wrong.
We can call the dismemberment of our own uniquenesses in the present age as part of a “millennial,” “post modern” or even “post-post modern” phenomenon. It may start to explain some of the individual identity crises the cultural climate poses.
But it also means that a lesson the 20th century has left us with is that if the individual is to survive, the idea that what is good means what is good for society must somehow be reinterpreted.
On Monday, at the University Law School, Ronald Dworkin, the Oxford University and New York University School of Law professor argued that the prevalent academic understandings of justice have sacrificed the consideration any one of us should extend to every individual in this world to a system of uniformed political abstractions. The world has forgotten that justice is something each and every one of us can and does recognize inside our individual systems of values as something right and worth pursuing.
We don’t need to look much further than some of the issues which have flared up at the University recently for examples in which an adherence to political norms has outweighed the adherence to individual values.
There is an ongoing debate over the refusal of certain students with particular religious convictions to pay portions of their student service fees. The debate over the issue has focused less on whether granting the students their individual wishes would be a just or unjust decision as much as whether the actions conflict with political policies, such as the University’s dedication to diversity.
In another recent case, when the Progressive Student Organization protested ambassador Bill Richardson’s analysis of the Iraq situation, less attention was given to the question of whether members of the PSO had a right to express their dedication to particular interpretations of justice as to the issue of whether they conformed according to social standards. Allegations that the PSO was rude, unruly and obnoxious focused on notions of social propriety instead of considering more true issues of right and wrong.
Of course, an individual’s sense of justice does not always coincide with standard norms. And this is not to say that because one or a handful of individuals believe a particular cause is just, it is therefore just. Certainly, there have been a fair share of wackos to have come our way with the opinion that their sense of justice is the only one that matters.
What separates the individuals from the crowd in these matters, however, is the reality that their positions are indeed rooted in values and not political policy. The delineation can be boiled down further to a polarization of justice and law.
I’m hoping that most of us, when given a choice between the two, chose justice.
The most humane conceptions of society — just take a look at Thoreau — have considered the roles of everyone in this world as having the same potential to exercise the rights you and I hold important. That is, you and I should act as if our sense of justice would remain just as if applied to anyone.
We must, moreover, be willing to believe that even if we think our standards of justice are more important than anyone else’s, we would still extend the same rights to anyone in this world that we hope they would extend us.
Unfortunately, the world we live in may have sacrificed individual rights decades ago in favor of political principles to which we have no living connection.
Historian and professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Hazel Dicken-Garcia, suggests that “movements during the 1970s show a turn in practice away from individual rights — especially regarding concerns about shrinking resources, environmental concerns — which have tended to put the greater emphasis on the collective, public good over individual `rights’ to unlimited exploitation of resources.”
However, Dworkin says we can prevent the disappearance of individual rights if we assume that people have equal initial resources and should be left free to use them as they think best.
He says that because of the ongoing process of political sterilization “we should worry about the detachment of justice from what we want.” Consideration of our individual desires for what is right, Dworkin argues, injects value into each and every one of our decisions.
He emphasizes the responsibilities we — you, me and every individual — must uphold in the belief that justice is a good thing. The most effective notions of justice, Dworkin adds, are arrived at through every person’s individual consideration of higher values — values gained from sources we do not completely understand but can appreciate “religiously.”
Yet, we may need an intellectual revolution soon, and big time, if we are to reverse the direction we are headed, away from Dworkin’s values-centered ideal.
Our interaction with the members of our increasingly global society leaves the issue problematic. In our era, given an overwhelming number of communication avenues, the loss of the sense of a self rooted in time and place faces us daily. Whether we are fully aware of the condition or not, dislocations from the self — classically understood to be the very center of the being — occur with the increasing variety.
Consider any multi-phrenic scenario in which you might find yourself on a regular basis. We can call Brazil to visit with a traveling friend, fax purchase orders to an electronics company in Japan, FedEx a screenplay to a fellow author in New York, listen to bootlegs of a Dead concert in Canada fifteen years ago while chatting in a online private room with a cyber pal in Venice, watch a live report on CNN of deteriorating conditions in Sarajevo and Iraq followed by footage of the Martian space probe, have a hamburger and Coke at your favorite Vietnamese restaurant and watch an Italian imported movie with subtitles at the Uptown, all in one day. It’s enough to make you want to hold on to every shred of what you know of yourself — where you are, what you are doing, and where you have been and plan to go in this world — before it’s totally chopped up like tossed salad.
Even though it makes attempts to maintain individuality all the more difficult, it also makes them all the more rewarding.
Again, consider the particular moment in history that we are part of: The clock is ticking its way to a final countdown for the beginning of the third millennium. In less than two years, we’ll be able to say that we belong to an elite group of humans who have witnessed the dawning of a new era.
Perhaps the first thing we should celebrate is the fact that we’ve made it this far.
However, the main thing we need to consider might not be such a cause for celebration. No matter how far we have come, the opportunity for us to kill off the most critical aspect of humanity, the individual, appears to remain an option that our era is a bit too comfortable with.
We can start the revolution by recollecting our sense of the self and, in doing so, remember what it’s like to have a sense of right and wrong. We might be surprised to find that our values aren’t so different after all.
Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]