Essence of Justice

The introduction to Plato’s Republic invites us to eavesdrop on a conversation about one of humanity’s dearest questions: what is justice? The three characters in the debate are Thrasymaschus, Socrates, and Glaucon.

I say that justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party… what is good for someone else, imposed at the expense of the subject who obeys him. (Thrasymachus, in Plato, Republic 338c, 343c)

Thrasymaschus argues that every state has a “strongest element” that determines what is right and wrong. Right and wrong, therefore, are nothing more than the rules established by the most powerful. When a “wrongdoer” breaks a law or behaves unjustly, he has only acted against the interest of this most powerful element in the state. He is subsequently reprimanded or punished by those who are more powerful than he is. Indeed, the “strongest element” in the state has one objective — to remain the strongest element. Therefore, the laws it decrees are imposed in its own self-interest. (338e-339a) Justice is leverage for the powerful.

Socrates, who believes that justice itself is the highest calling of humanity, argues back. A ship captain’s greatest interest is the safety of his crew. The same goes for medicine: a doctor’s greatest interest is the health of her patients. (342c-d) Therefore, Socrates proposes that the greatest interest of a ruler is ultimately the wellbeing of those under her authority. (342e) Justice is therefore not simply whatever is in the interest of the most powerful, but rather whatever is in the interest of everyone. Rulers are entrusted to maintain justice because it is the right thing, not because they gain a personal advantage for doing so.

Glaucon proposes a third interpretation. He suggests that justice exists because people hate suffering the abuse of others. Inflicting wrong on others might be beneficial to you, but when there is nothing to protect you from others hurting you, the payoff is outweighed by the cost. “This is the origin and nature of justice,” he explains. Justice is merely a pact: I agree to not hurt you and you agree to not hurt me. “It lies between what is most desirable, to do wrong and avoid punishment, and what is most undesirable, to suffer wrong without being able to get redress.” (358e-359a) Justice is therefore nothing more than a negotiated, utilitarian invention to alleviate suffering.

For Thrasymaschus, justice is an apparatus of the powerful.
For Socrates, justice is an ordinance of the divine.
For Glaucon, justice is a contractual agreement between parties who are tired of playing tit-for-tat.

By squaring the characters against each other in a debate, Plato forces his readers to reflect on their own assumptions about morality. Do you avoid sneaking into your neighbour’s house and taking his stuff because it breaks a transcendent moral code of conduct? Or because your government threatens to lock you up if you do it? Or because you’re acutely aware that stealing from him might incite him to take revenge?

Today, when you allege that a certain behaviour is just or unjust, how do you define the essence of justice itself?


On Justice

This coming week (November 10-14) the Caesura Letters spends a few days reflecting on justice.

Justice is one of those ideas that is easy to shrug off… until someone punches you in the face. With Plato to provoke our thoughts, we’ll unpack and reconsider the concept of justice, approaching this epic theme of moral philosophy in the terms of every day life.

As the aforementioned punch in the face reminds us… the idea of justice is something we all do, in fact, have some opinions about. Subscribe to the Caesura Letters now.


Race is a Verb

Speech is the shadow of action. (Democritus, quoted in Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IX.7.37)

In his critical theory of race, Kendall Thomas, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, proposes that:

“race” is a verb, and that we are “raced” through a constellation of practices that construct and control racial subjectivities. (Kendall 1993:1806-7)

In other words, your “race” is not something you are, it is something people and society do to you. It is a categorization made by others. Since “race” has disintegrated as a biological or physiological theory, we must confront it as a socially and culturally manufactured idea. For instance, the criteria that signifies whether a white person is White or a black person is Black — and the specific degree of whiteness or blackness that is required to be included in either “race” — are fluid, historically arbitrary, culturally dependent, and never consistent. In more technical terms, John A. Powell, from the Institute on Race and Poverty, puts it this way:

Before someone can be said to possess a racial characteristic or identity, there must first be a process of “racing” in which the attributes that differentiate racial classifications are designated and signified. (Powell 1997:104)

If, in fact, “race operates as a verb before it assumes significance as a noun,” we must ask the question: who, exactly, is doing the racialization? The historical precedent is clear to Powell: it is a top-down process driven by the most powerful and dominant social group. (Ibid 104)

If Kendall and Powell are right, then our assumptions about the role of “race” in society demands critical reconsideration. Most of us, it seems, are happy to suppose that “race” refers to some innate characteristic of ethnicity. Subsequently, because of these differences, “races” find themselves involved in struggles for power, equality, and dominance over one another. But what if this theory is backwards? Instead, what if it is because of one group’s dominance over another that the concept of racial differences are invented to cement and leverage the power dynamics? Wherever you find the idea of race, you find it brandished as an appliance of domination.

Ashley Montagu writes, “The meaning of a word lies in the action it produces.” (Montagu 1974[1942]:432) Today, when you hear (or use) the concept of “race” and apply it to either yourself or others, try considering the word as a verb, not a noun.


Welcome to Fame Quest

I found researching and writing for this Caesura Letters mini-series particularly compelling and introspective…

For the following two weeks (September 29-October 10, 2014), the Caesura Letters invites you to join an exploration deep into one of the most intricate aspects of our humanity — our impulse to be known and recognized by others. From Achilles’ heroism to our Twitter feeds, we will unpack various (and conflicting) perspectives on honour, fame, influence, and renown. It is a theme that bears itself out equally in our own innermost ambitions as in the collective landscape of our sociology. Welcome to Fame Quest. Subscribe now and join us.

Hereby humbling accepting all the ironies of broadcasting an inquiry into the practice of self-promotion, I do hope that you will subscribe to the Caesura Letters (if you have not already done so) and join the quest.


Beyond Here – Author’s Notes

Caesura Letters Volume VIIIToday I am pleased to announce the release of Beyond Here — the eighth volume of the Caesura Letters, The Daily Devotional for the Curious and Contemplative. This is another quarterly compilation of thought experiments, propositions, and ideas, presented in hopes of inspiring new perspectives on life.

As with other volumes, this edition gathers three months of the Caesura Letters into thematic ‘bundles’, dancing between the arts, sciences, and humanities. This volume explores mindfulness and intentionality, bias and cognition, the meaning and value of work, the purpose of leisure, the value of literature, perspectives on leadership, life in the city, and self-cultivation.

Ebook (ePub, Kindle, PDF) Paperback


Perspectives on Depression and Mental Health

This coming week, I am publishing a series about mental health in the Caesura LettersThe Daily Devotional for the Curious and Contemplative. Here’s a snippet from the update on the Caesura Letters newsfeed:

As always, we’re looking for perspective in life, and few issues are throttled with more controversy and conflicting perspectives than the issue of mental health. At the same time, few issues are more central to the lived experience of daily life. Starting Monday, start each day this week with a contemplative reflection inspired a timeless question… what is a healthy mind? Subscribe now and join us.


Adaptive You

As a spin class instructor, I have conversations about fitness many times a week. I’ve noticed that we tend to describe fitness as a state or as an end goal — “I’m getting fit,” “That person is really fit,” or “I’m really out of shape.”

I wonder if our language and terminologies about “fitness” are unwittingly bewitching us? Objectively speaking, it is far more accurate to describe “fitness” as a spectrum or a continuum, rather than a state of being. No matter how “fit” you are, you could always technically be “fitter”. (And what does complete “unfitness” mean, exactly?) In other words, you can never really “get fit” in a literal sense — that is, you never cross a magical threshold and get a certificate of achievement that says, “Congratulations! You are now Officially Fit!”

I think the concept of adaptiveness makes a little more sense. Like all living creatures, the human body is a continually adapting organism: If you sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and Smarties, your body will adapt to these demands. If you run 5km every morning, your body will adapt to this demand instead.

Your body adapts to whatever you do in order to be fit for that purpose. The composition of your body is a case study in adaptation: it is remarkably well acclimated to whatever you do on a regular basis. At the cellular level, these adaptations are not necessarily positive or negative, your body has simply adapted to the demands placed on it. These might be demands to store excess caloric energy or demands to increase cardiovascular capacity and muscular strength.

Little by little, day by day, you are constantly undergoing this lifelong process. Your body is continually conforming itself to the world you inhabit, the activities you perform, and the diet you consume. Indeed, it is the essence of life itself to revise, modify, and conform to its particular situation. Adaptiveness is what it means to be alive. The big question is: what are you adapting to? One thing is for sure: you are adapting to something.

When people say they want to “get fit”, what they mean is that they want to adapt their bodies to a different environment or set of demands. But from this perspective, you can’t “get fit” in order to change the way you live — you have to change the way you live if you are adapt to something else. The psychological dimension between the brain and the body is a huge factor here: add an extra twenty pounds and your body reacts by infusing you with a lethargic attitude that prompts you to wallow in Candyland. But get accustomed to an exercise-induced endorphin rush and you’ll feel miserable if you don’t get your daily dose! You can never eliminate the reciprocal patterns of thinking that influence your behaviour — but you can significantly influence them. More precisely: you can only shape who you are by shaping the variables that you must adapt to. Therefore, “getting fit” is simply forcing your body to create new feedback loops of adaptation.

Therefore, I think adaptation might be a more holistic framework for thinking about health than chasing the idea of fitness. For instance, before every meal you might ask yourself, “Do I want a body that acclimatizes itself in order handle this kind of caloric load?” You might also ask yourself, “What kind of activities do I want a body adapted for?” As a human, you are in the unique position to take responsibility for the adaptive nature of your own body. As we said, it is not a question of if you will adapt, but rather a question of what you will be adapted for. It is a decision that you make over and over again, all day long.

I don’t really think of myself (or anyone else) as “fit” or “unfit” anymore. The label doesn’t seem that helpful. Or at least it seems very arbitrary. Instead, I think of us all as well-adapted to the lives we are living.

So the question is, what are you choosing to adapt to?