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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. While I was a visiting scholar in philosophy at the University of Texas, I lived in an apartment complex where the concrete walls were paper-thin, to the point where one could hear neighbours peeing in their bathroom. There was a terrible dispute there between my then wife (now ex-wife, for unrelated reasons) and our neighbours, who insisted on playing loud music at all hours. They didn’t want to speak to each other, so I went between them, trying to make everyone happy – the kind of thing one might be led to do by a worldview like Śāntideva’s, where only others’ happiness and not justice is a significant consideration. The result was the kind of masochism that Śāntideva sometimes seems close to advocating, where you let others walk all over you. Which might work all right if you’re a monk, but it’s a big problem when other people – like my wife – are depending on you. I wound up giving in to the neighbours’ demand that they keep playing the music loudly, and (justifiably) angering my wife as a result.

No solution was going to make everyone happy. My wife, the neighbours, and I all had very different, and incompatible, expectations of each other. How can one be happy in such a situation? What one needs above all, I came to realize, is a clear conscience, a sense that one has done the right thing. And in this case, not merely the loving or honest thing, but the just thing. One needs to have reasonable expectations of others, and act according to others’ reasonable expectations of oneself – which are typically very different from their actual expectations.

Once you say that, once you let in the idea of reasonable expectation, then with it comes obligation, and some of the related concepts one finds in Rawls and analytical moral philosophy (such as permissibility). You are obligated to do certain things, forbidden from doing others; it’s not that you can’t break your obligations, but that doing so will stain your conscience, make you feel guilty, make you less confident and less able to act well in the future. In that sense, acting unjustly is bad karma.

The key point here, though, is that this view of justice only holds up if Aristotle is right and justice is a mean. You’re being unjust if you act selfishly and demand more than you can reasonably expect of others. But you’re also being unjust if – as I had initially done – you cave in and let others demand more than they can reasonably expect of you. Just as importantly, justice here is a virtue of people, irrespective of its role in social and political institutions.

(In the end, in case you’re wondering, we just moved out of the complex. I wish I could say that my new understanding solved the problem, but it didn’t. I do think, though, that it helped me deal better with similar situations in the years that followed.)

Thanks to Jeff Colgan for suggesting this topic.