This is an email from a mailing list I'm on
In my earlier discussion I was referring to the idea that certain individuals have inherent qualities that make them superior at certain things. We can take the difference between Greyhounds and Dachshunds in running for example. In a quarter mile sprint, in a thousand races, if all other factors are equal, the Greyhound will win, one thousand times. This isn't fair, but it is just. On the other hand, if we allow the Dachshund a different starting point, one that allows it an equal chance of winning given an equal effort, this is fair, but not just. In dog racing it is clear that the better course of action is to allow all dogs the same starting point, and see which is faster, but in human society we have similar discrepancies in ability that affect our economic and sociological standing. If we follow the just but not fair model, we end up with a permanent, disenfranchised underclass, if we follow the fair but not just model, we reward incompetence, punish talent and demotivate all effort to succeed. This leaves us with the necessity of a compromise, and it is the degree and direction of this compromise that makes up much of the political difference among people.
My own thoughts? Prior to this I believed that justice is primarily concerned with punishing wrongs and making sure they don't re-occur, while fair is more about what should
happen, and how to fix the problems created by the wrong. A simple example of this would run like so: in medieval times it was customary to punish thievery by cutting the thief's right hand off. This would ensure a) that the thief was punished for his crime b) he wouldn't be able to re-offend (unless he was left-handed :p). Fairness would only require that the stolen goods be returned to the original owners at no cost to them.
The model described by the person in the email though seems to fit society's norms much more closely. Enough that I wonder whether fairness is a good principle to live one's life by. Then again, the fairness described only takes into account individual fairness, not global fairness.
It might be fair for any child to become whatever they want to be provided that they work hard at it, but its not fair to soldiers if they die because their general is an incompetent who only became a general because it wasn't fair to bar him from becoming one when he worked so hard for it. As soon as you introduce responsibility for other people into the system individual fairness no longer becomes the issue. I guess the idea I'm reaching for here is closest to Utilitarianism
Justice on the other hand.. now there's an interesting concept, and one which I can rant about for many many words. I disagree that a just society would create a permanent underclass at least given the fair structures we already have in place, such as mandatory schooling. He assumes that the underclass would have no persuasive/intelligent people born to it, that the upperclass would never be interested in 'slumming it', that no one in the underclass would be willing to put in the work to pay their way into uni... the assumptions are infinite. He seems to assume that a just but not fair system would evolve into a caste system where the rich are the rich and the poor are the poor and never the twain shall meet. This.. doesn't seem right.. I don't see how our current society could devolve into a feudal system without some serious dictatorship happening.
And now for the other half of my justice rant, which I was too lazy to type out until now.. A couple of months ago I saw the movie Hard Candy with a friend (kept nameless because I'm about to pan his opinions). I won't go into plot details but the main issue we were discussing afterwards was a)who has the right to punish crime, and b)what should the punishment be for serious crimes such as rape.
My friend held that all crime should be referred to proper authorities and that people shouldn't take the law into their own hands. To punish bad crimes he felt that it's better to keep criminals alive and make them suffer so that they will appreciate what they've done.
Needless to say, I disagreed on all these points :p Firstly, the proper authorities are just as fallible as the next person, the only difference is that they have more experience. It makes their judgements more consistent but not necessarily wiser. It's like how it has been argued that the reason we study ethics at uni isn't to teach us how to be moral (because people have an inbuilt moral compass or lack thereof already) but to make us aware of situations that may come up so that we can make a more considered decision rather than an irrational decision in the heat of the moment.
So I hold that it can be ok for individuals to take the law into their own hands since their morals are not any better or worse than an authority's, but only in extreme circumstances and when other avenues have already been pursued.
Finally, the punishment for serious crimes. My view on this is simple. If you're going to remove yourself from the human race by doing something that everyone can agree is monstrous (eg rape/pedophilia) then you deserve to be treated as the vermin you are, and to be exterminated. The concept of revenge is meaningless to me because it simply diverts resources away from people who could make positive use of them. Why feed the serial rapist when you could be feeding a child in Africa? And really, why should we care if they appreciate what they've done? It won't make their crime go away.
Add to that, that punishing the criminal as harshly as their crime deserves (since the argument was that they should be kept alive because death is too good for them) would require someone else to be monstrous to be able to order it done and then carry it out. And torture is a pretty bad crime in itself, doesn't that mean that they should be locked away and punished too? Except that to be lock them away and punish them requires the very skills that required those people to be locked away in the first place. And so on and so forth (I love recursive arguments :p). So really you're doing no one any favours by keeping the criminal around for revenge purposes, in the end you're only degrading yourself and wasting your time for someone who you've already decided is so bad that even death isn't a suitable punishment.
Ok, enough rant.