Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thoughts on justice

First, I think it's helpful to recognize the difference between what's in the mind and what's in the world. By "what's in the mind" I mean the mental models we build to represent reality... things like math, logic, language, scientific laws and theories, etc.

For example: the equation for a planet's orbital velocity is V=2πr/P - it's not that this equation actually exists, in the world, and that the planets just try really really hard to keep up in the right direction, at the right speed. The equations are something we create to describe what the planets are doing. We keep using them only so long as they accurately predict what's going on. You hear people talk about how the universe is so wonderful to operate according to these laws--but the laws are merely constructions of our minds that we map onto reality. Reality doesn't obey the laws; the laws obey reality.

By that same token... we don't discover these models; we create them.

And while we, you and I, don’t typically create scientific laws or mathematical models, we all create our own models—narratives—mental representations of how the world works, why things happen, and even what happens. These narratives are our unspoken, foundation-level beliefs upon which all other beliefs are built, and experiences interpreted. Since our narratives are so foundational, we hardly even think to question them—we just accept them. The problem is that mental models are mere representations of reality; rarely do they reflect it. To the degree these models are inaccurate, everything that is done with them and on their foundation will be equally problematic (at least in potential). So, it’s absolutely crucial to a) recognize our narratives, and b) think critically about them, and revise them where they need revision. That is, if you accept the premise that our narratives should reflect reality, rather than merely paint a picture--or, better yet, a caricature--of it.

Part of most everyone’s narrative is this notion of justice—that there’s some ontological balance that gets shifted out of order when someone does something wrong, and it can only be brought back into balance by doing something harmful to the offender (I don’t just mean physical harm—also things like jail time, fines, etc.). The unspoken, unchallenged ideas that make up this narrative include 1) a person’s actions influence what they deserve, and 2) if someone does something wrong, they deserve to “pay a price” for their wrongdoing. We accept these maxims almost universally.

I think they need further evaluation, and perhaps revision.

2 follows from 1. So if there is no justification for 1, 2 disappears. So, let’s take 1, “a person’s actions influence what they deserve.” The word “deserve” is typically used to refer to a person being worthy of either reward or punishment—it’s a concept of reciprocity. But underneath this lies another premise: A1) people have complete freedom of will. This is an idea I’ve argued against. And without that premise of free will, this maxim doesn’t work. Even if you do grant total freedom of will, the idea of reciprocity is still problematic. First of all, “worth” is not a real essence that exists in the world; it’s a mental model. Like all mental inventions, it could be otherwise; and like all things that could be otherwise, it could be better. Why do we even need this model of reciprocity/worth to begin with?

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