So Much Bathwater

One of my happiest memories occurred around 1998 when the family and I went onto the back porch at sundown. My dad peeled sections of grapefruit with a folding knife and passed the chunks to my mom, my sister and me. The sky turned the most flamboyant shades of purple and orange as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. A family of swallows darted after the insects flying over our patch of strawberry plants. I rubbed the cuts and scrapes on my knees and elbows, secure in the knowledge I’d be back in the desert, running around and bouncing off rocks the next day. The dogs sighed and curled up, the white fluffy one strategically lying at my feet so that I would run toes through his fur. What peace, what contentment, what a glorious indifference to better worlds, to “the way it ought to be,” to anything you could call justice.

I’m almost finished with a book project called “Overcoming Justice.” In the course of writing this book I defined justice as an appeal to a reified “the way things ought to be” or, even more fundamentally, a belief that there is a way “things ought to be” that is somehow ethically superior to the way things actually are. It’s Plato preferring his forms to the ground beneath his feet, it’s the Disciple Paul turning against the “things of this world” and the “corruption of the flesh,” it’s Michel Foucault inventing ever more ingenious means to be miserable as he pursued a “liberation” possible only in his imagination.  

In the case of researching and writing this book I found justice to be a disturbingly real equivalent to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation. I found it to be sanctified misery and a general contempt for existence. I look upon calls for a “better world,” the “search for liberation” and “fairness” and I see, at best, a desire for revenge hypocritically clothed in righteousness. At worst I see a pure, undiluted misanthropy. Let me illustrate with a few examples:

  1. I have a friend who is unhappy, insecure and marginalized. He told me that the goodness of a man can be determined by the amount of rage he feels – the more rage the better the man. When I asked him why that was and he explained that the world was not as morally stringent in the traditional Christian sense as it ought to be and that, as a result, we ought to hold life in contempt. The world did not meet his expectations and was therefore bad. His misery is therefore morally good because it refers to a “just world” that does not and never will exist.
  2. I have another friend who is super into the rights of asexual people. She burns with passion imagining a day when they are treated “justly”[1] and we can abolish gender roles entirely. She also supports diversity and anti-imperialism. Diverse cultures all seem to have gender roles and, if we want to achieve her dream, we’ll probably need to imperially impose gender neutrality on them. She gets around this by criticizing obfuscating details, demanding we “count in whole numbers” and focus on the important part – punishing a truly staggering number of villains because they don’t play make believe in the exact same way she does. In short, justice is her excuse to hate others with a good conscience.
  3. I interviewed a couple of middle-class women representing racial justice organizations during the course of the Floyd Protests. They were strong and unequivocal in their descriptions of “how black people are.” They were experts on what it’s like to be a man and how poverty feels. And yet when I did a little digging and asked a few questions I discovered that the first woman didn’t know where the black, Hispanic or white trash ghettoes were located in her own hometown.[2] I found that she had no idea about or interest in the history of racism and that she had joined the justice organization because she felt personally guilty for rejecting a black family member. The other justice woman was strong in her respect for all non-white people but, the last time we interacted face to face, she was frustrated with and unable to adapt to the “wrong” thinking of people native to East Asia. In other words, they clung to the contradiction of “diversity and universal values” because it offered them a chance to cover their own intolerances in a veil of virtue.
  4. I know a man who is passionate in his opposition to government oppression. He goes on ad nauseum about how taxation is theft and laments the endless encroachment of big government on our liberties.[3] He then explains that young people ought to be pressed into the military as conscripts in order to “teach them to stop whining.” This is transparently nonsense. It’s not until you dig a little deeper and discover his desire for punishment – to punish the “parasites” he imagines exist for their uselessness, to punish virtue signalers for their hypocrisy, to punish the weak for their failures that the paradoxes resolve. Taxation is theft because it might become welfare and end the punishment of a parasite. Encroachment is evil because it might lessen the suffering of a whiner. Young people ought to become government property in order that they might be punished for their weakness. In short, we ought to hate the world as it is because we can imagine a world more filled with the sweet, sulfurous tang of revenge.

But maybe I’m being nihilistic. Maybe we need to be miserable, idealistic and hateful if we want change. Maybe we cannot motivate ourselves enough to fight the Soviet egalitarians or the sexist diversity in Yemen unless we create some make-believe world of justice and get indignant at those playing different games of make-believe.

And I cannot honestly reject this argument in its entirety. I can imagine some people using justice to motivate themselves but I don’t think it’s necessary or even preferable. I say this because we can redeem each of the unhappy, justice-filled people I mentioned above if only we get rid of the belief in “ought,” if we banish the appeals to “a better world,” if we kill the justice and replace it with the honest, amoral and innocent belief in “I will it.”

My friend who is virtuously outraged could be happy and do a better job convincing people to follow strict Puritan values if he admitted that “should” does not exist, that his desired outcome is mere preference and that it’s much easier to attract new Puritans if you seem to be ennobling rather than embittering yourself. “I want the world to be more Puritanical because that is what I will.” The asexual rights person could be a million times happier if she told herself the truth – she is going to get “oppression” when she deviates from the norm, diversity must be sacrificed for moral values and that she will need to become powerful so that she can impose her values on others. “I want asexual people to be sacred for no reason other than I will it.” The justice organization women could do almost the exact same thing and admit that they are scared of their own personalities, that equality is neither natural nor real and that they would personally feel better if they could eradicate different opinions. “I want to replace diverse viewpoints with moral conformity because I will universality.” The tax patriot person would certainly be happier if he banished the word “should” from his vocabulary, remembered that paradises of revenge do not and have never existed and either learned to play by the rules or moved somewhere with different rules. “I want to punish because I like punishing.” These folks, minus the justice and appeals to universal standards that do not exist, certainly seem like they would be nicer for everyone.

Even on a purely strategic level, aren’t you more likely to get your desired change if you reject justice? Without an abstract standard of how the world ought to be, aren’t you less likely to reject “better” while you hold out for “perfect?” Aren’t you more open to happy accidents? Can’t you more easily learn from your experience of the world as it is and not waste your time endlessly elaborating on how it “ought” to be?

If you do want to fight an enemy, you are much more likely to succeed when you regard them as morally normal, intelligent human beings than when you regard them as unknowable monsters. You’re much more likely to get over your guilt when you’re honest about your own motives and recognize that those motives do not, and cannot, match your ideals. Hell, you’re even more likely to get away with your plots for revenge if you understand why your victims have rational reasons to behave as they do.

And yet people I respect keep reminding me that I ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They insist that for all the cancer, hatred and hypocrisy tied up in justice, there is a valuable good side. They tell me that I ought not give up on a “better world.” They suggest that there is some endpoint, “some arc of history bending towards justice” where everyone is happy/equal/free/whatever. I really struggle to see what this good side could possibly be.

So that’s my question for you. Before I finalize the book, tell me what I’m missing. Help me see why justice is more than horror, hatred and resentment. Tell me why you think it’s worthwhile.


[1] It’s not very clear how asexual people are being abused. The primary form of oppression seems to be other folks asking if she plans on having children.

[2] Those ghettoes, put together, take up almost half of the land in this woman’s hometown. In order for her to literally not know about them requires she live in a bubble made of tank armor.

[3] The exact nature of these encroachments is incoherent in the extreme but very passionate.

10 comments

  1. Bill Garrido · · Reply

    A portion of the population who want to live as they please with a minimum of interference from “power structures” is not investigated in your essay. I suggest that many if not most people would fall into this catagory.

    1. I don’t think that’s possible. Power is everywhere since it is literally the ability to do stuff. Considering how puny humans are when they’re alone, that means we need power structures.

      At the very least, I would say people who don’t want to participate in power structures are going to be easy victims for the people who do.

  2. I’m not a moral realist, so to me appeals to justice, as though justice were some platonic objective thing, are not meaningful. What people seem intuitively see as justice usually coincides with their inclusive self interest.

    On the other hand, every society has its consensus rules, coded or not, about how people should live with each other and what the penalties should be if they flaunt those rules. So those appeals could be seen as arguments for altering the rules, part of the conversation that maintains and evolves them.

    Should people just ignore society and focus on what they can personally do? Maybe, in some cases. But I think it depends on what their obstacles are. If society as a whole is throwing up those obstacles, their options might be limited.

    1. I completely agree about the usefulness of law and/or community standards. I just think those things are “will/desire of the sovereign” in practice. That sovereign can be super divorced from the body of the people (see Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar for an extreme example of this) or it can be closely connected to and derived from the body of the people (like Theseus’ democracy) or somewhere in between (enlightened despotisms and republics), but at the end of the day we are compelled to follow rules and norms because someone or some thing has sovereignty and the power to enforce its will.

    2. Btw, the sovereignty argument I’ve lifted from Hobbes. I certainly disagree with him in many aspects, but Leviathan is unquestionably a work of genius. I recommend the audiobook.

  3. You’ll certainly get no counter argument from me Ben. That’s how I believe things happen to be. My question however is, if true, is it also productive to tell people about this? What if reality mandates that reality isn’t what people want to hear? Surely your friends don’t want you to tell them how they’re wrong and you’re right for example. I guess the audience for your book will need to be people who already have reason to doubt “justice”.

    1. Hey Eric, thanks for dropping by. To answer your questions … In some sense yes and in some sense no.

      One of the things I think Nietzsche got right is the idea morality isn’t universal. I have been thinking about my own question “where’s the baby in all this bathwater” and I think it might be exactly what you imply – a comfortable sense of simplicity for people who can’t tolerate ambiguity. In other words, as long as a person remains powerless, mild and retiring, perhaps these false senses of universal values/freedom/whatever will do well enough. In that case, I’m talking to people who have power, have passion and move in the world. Those folks, I believe, cannot remain married to “universal values” without destroying themselves and others. Hypocrisy is the alternative many seek, and it’s better than idealism. However, I think we can do even better when we replace the “universal values” with a consequential morality.

      I think this because I take the Confucians and the ancient Greco-Romans seriously. For the Confucians, there was an idea of us living under “the will of heaven.” This was considered a real thing and it allowed people to make moral and behavioral standards. However, it came with the caveat that we can never perfectly know heaven’s will and that when things go wrong, our imperfectly known “heaven’s will” might not just be wrong, it might be a dynamic, moving target. They were, in other words, humble in matters of what should and should not be. The Greco-Romans did much the same thing by believing in gods that were powerful but also imperfect, capricious and occasionally liars. I think we can learn from both groups and move beyond Christian idealism and its descendants.

      1. So the the Confucians and the ancient Greco-Romans teach you that? Okay. Let me fill in some of the blanks regarding my comment however. It was far too vague to convey all that much.

        I consider it effective to reduce “justice”, “morality”, “rightness”, and other such terms, to a social tool which influences people by means of flattering to unflattering judgements. In order to become the incredibly social creature that we are, we seem to have evolved a sensitivity to perceptions of what others think about us. Essentially perceiving disrespect from others tends to feel bad, while respect tends to feel good.

        Given this situation people with strong moral convictions should essentially be doing what evolution encourages us to, or attempting to disrespect those who happen to be in opposition, while not being disrespected by them. And as you’ve noted, sometime people get really worked up about their associated convictions and so do themselves a disservice. I endorse your suggestion that many could help themselves out by taking off their “moral glasses” to instead consider things amorally. Here they might even figure out more effective ways to achieve associated goals. But given standard struggles to maintain personal respect while disrespecting others, I doubt that many would be open to taking this step.

        Furthermore I believe that our mental and behavioral sciences remain as soft as they do, largely because the social tool of morality dissuades them from formally acknowledging that feeling good rather than bad constitutes the value of existing for anything sentient. How might we understand ourselves if we can’t even formally acknowledge what’s valuable to us? The softness of our mental and behavioral sciences suggest “poorly”. To harden up I believe that scientists will need to formally acknowledge that qualia constitutes how good/bad existence is for anything, though doing so would mean challenging the social tool of morality.

      2. Hmm. Do you feel good when you get to disrespect others? I don’t get the sense you would.

        I also partially wrote this article because I’ve found people like me better the less often I hold them to “universal” standards.

        In other words, I don’t think you can explain dogmatism or idealism with a simple desire for respect.

      3. Ben,
        I wasn’t trying to explain why some would be dogmatists or idealists given their desire for respect. Apparently I haven’t conveyed what I meant to. Let’s try it this way.

        My central thesis is that feeling good rather than bad constitutes the value of existing and so motivates our function in a conscious capacity. But that feature in itself shouldn’t mean that we’d feel good when others have respect for us or bad when others disrespect us. Surely lots of conscious creatures have no sensitivity whatsoever about being thought of in flattering or unflattering ways.

        The human probably evolved this sensitivity to help it form more cohesive societies. Here people who follow socially accepted norms will tend to be rewarded socially, while people who break them will tend to be punished by means of our sensitivity to what others think of us (if not more explicit than that as well, such as legal obstacles).

        In your post you brought up some situations where people were angry about various situations. This should inherently put them in conflict with other groups. Given these conflicts there should thus be reason for these people to display disrespect for opponents, as well as to protect themselves from their opponents’ attacks. From here I agreed with your post in that the people you brought up would probably be better off trying to set aside their moral perspective of how things “ought” to be, and so consider matters in an amoral capacity. Ultimately I believe that “is is all there is”, even given the social tool of morality that’s so imbedded in the highly social human. This is to say that there should be no rightness or justice ultimately, but rather various people with naturally diverging interests who thus try to advance their perceived interests.

        Furthermore, so difficult does it seem to rise above our various moral notions that I think even our mental and behavioral sciences suffer because scientists get sucked into this as well. If it’s true that feeling good rather than bad constitutes the value of existing for anything sentient, though the social tool of morality tends to punish scientists for holding this position, then that could help explain why it’s been so difficult for the human to effectively study the human.

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