About ten years ago, after my epiphany in Thailand, I tried to put together a philosophy based on virtue and happiness. The central idea was one I endorsed earlier in discussing karma: that overall, in most cases, the more virtuous you are, the happier you will be. I would still endorse that thesis; I’m just much less likely now to think of happiness as the sole purpose of life.
So after the Thailand trip, I started trying to compile a list of the virtues. This was before the long and comprehensive lists found in André Comte-Sponville’s book and the research of Peterson and Seligman, so there were some virtues I missed just because I didn’t think of them. But another virtue was a deliberate omission: justice.
Love and honesty, I thought, did all the work that we might think justice needs to do; justice is superfluous. (Walter Kaufmann made a similar claim in The Faith of a Heretic.) Being honest makes it easier to trust and be trusted by the people around us; giving love allows us to be loved. So the two each make us happy, and together they produce most of what is conventionally thought of as morality: love makes us concerned for the consequences of our actions on others, honesty prevents us from doing deceptive things. Justice seems unnecessary, and especially, it doesn’t make us happy. So it’s dispensable.
I think I had this view about because of an ambiguity in most discussions of justice.
Comte-Sponville’s often edifying book exemplifies the problem. While he says justice is the most important virtue, he doesn’t give us reason to believe that it is a virtue – at least, not a personal virtue in any way comparable to the other virtues in the book (gratitude, gentleness, compassion). Most of Comte-Sponville’s discussion of justice draws on John Rawls, and Rawls is clear from the outset of his book that he sees justice as a virtue of social institutions, not of people. Comte-Sponville could have dropped his justice chapter entirely, and the account of personal virtue presented by the book would not have been diminished; what that chapter addresses .
Eventually, though, my views changed. I came to realize that justice is a virtue after one difficult incident. Continue reading