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:
- 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.
- 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” 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 The exact nature of these encroachments is incoherent in the extreme but very passionate.