August 31, 2019

What is justice?

What is justice?

Well, that is a simple question to ask, and a long way forward to address.

In the fall of 2013, I was in the third year of my PhD program. I was in a class titled “Advanced Earth Systems Engineering”, CEE581. Judging from the course title, you can tell that topic is large and the ambition for the topic is to save human kind.

For example, how to solve climate change or to be more technical, how to stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so that the Earth will not be heated to a destructive level. One idea is to having a big soda fountain that capture CO2 in the air and convert it the aqueous forms in a higher concentration. Next, the carbonate solution can be heated up to release pure CO2 to grow algae or  be pressurized to the liquid form and injected to a geographic formation, a word for old salt mine.

Or how about to shoot up a large amount of SO2 gas in the upper atmosphere, to make a thin layer of reflection like a mirror, and that reduces the solar radiance to the Earth’s ground. If you think it is a crazy idea so were I in the class that time.

Among other topics, we talked about the justice, how one thing is considered just and the other is not. A mix group of students which the dominance is White Americans, one or two in color, two are Asian. One question raised was if Christianity contributed more to civilization than other religions. It is preposterous or in a simple English, an outstanding outrageous preposition. I raised my eyebrows a bit. The question means to be provocative, to put students to the extreme, and out of the comfortable zone, and to see what the alternative look likes?

It is hard to reason without knowing the boundary of the concept such as just or moral, right or wrong?  I ended asking other students to define what they mean with just or unjust. After a few times, one responded, “we cannot redefine everything!”.

Then I am fond of “splitting hair” discussion with nuances of difference can be interesting to know. One of the most famous online class of all time is “Justice” by a Harvard professor named Michael Sandel. Here is the cliché of the class discussion. Given there is 5 railroad workers and one train is coming. Then there is also a level to switch the track, and there is one worker working on that track. What you would do, to switch the level and skill one or the let train kill five? There is no effort or skill to move the level.

Those who works on principle of utilitarian, which means that the choice should given to the one produced a total better outcome. Saving five is better than one. Most of students chose the save 5, but did not spell out that they would pull the level to switch the the track.

Now, let say there is one big fat man leaning over the level, and if you make a light push on that fat man, he then fell over and the track was switched. The fat man is dead, but the five will saved. What did you choose? This is definitely tougher because now you are actively, and directly killing one man. That seems to be a decisive point. This is no longer is realm of calculating a final output, but on the morality of doing the right thing, NOT doing the wrong thing. NOT doing stupid things are the mantra of a recent US. president. The morality runs high here. Most students chose or not decide to do anything, and let the train ran its course, kills five.

For the second scenarios, you are a surgeon. There is five patients needed surgery, unbeknownst, has been hurt during a train accident. There is something else. There is one patient that is badly hurt. If you have a choice to spend your time and save fives or spend the whole section to save one. The five came later, and not scheduled, to add more twist. Given the number life you can save, spending time on the five would seem logical. I should underline the logical reasoning or this is based on utilitarian’s principle.

Now, let say there is another patient is on anesthesia, and five patients came in. They need a transplant, each patient need a different organ.  The one on anesthesia has the healthy organs that suffices these five needed. Are you to “steal” the organs from one patient to save five or are you let the other five dies on your watch? These dilemma means to trigger your most radical and extreme response.

To be open for discussion and radical is quite unique to college-aged students and the environment around them. The discussion tend to fade away when we get older, and not putting yourself in a vulnerable position to discuss, ridicule or criticize.

So what is the justice? I do not have the answer, and even if I have one, it is likely not going to the one you agree totally. By the way, justice is 2018 word of the year by Merriam Webster.

  • Having a good law is enough to get justice present?
  • Just in outcome or just in process?
  • How the upbringing affect your perception of what is just and what is unjust?
  • What is your benefits you are aware of that may have affect to the perception, decision, reasoning on just or what the justice constitutes?

Here are some thoughts from famous legal scholar. I have to listen to the podcast twice to make sure it the idea right (Episode 100: What is Justice? Stay Tuned with Preet).

Treating others equally with dignity
Do unto others as you would have done them do unto you
A balance of someone is treated
Doing something to recover from the laws
Acknowledging of every single human being, respecting the dignity of that is justice
is the sense that the rules give everybody an equal shot
A smart law is like a good recipe but it is not a guarantee for a good meal. A law is a mere instrument,  and without involvement of human hands, it is a lifeless and uninspiring as a violin kept in its case.

(Did you know the justice goodness is blind-folded?)

American has the most complicated legal system, using both Common law practice with precedents or cases. You heard TV or movies that in argument, a consul, a term for practice layer appointed to give legal advice, cited the case such as a basis for their argument. The Supreme Court also runs on the precedents, which one case could be overturned the assumption of the other cases or creates a new legal precedence that other cases followed should be applied.

American also have Federal Code which indicated what activity is illegal or in violation of the law. This practice applied for those activity that is clearly and unarguably wrong. This also called a civil code system. The legal system of Vietnam is run on the civil code.

Lawyers are well-paid in America and the professionals is working like an economy of itself. It is an evidence, even with a complex and well-thought legal system, having only the law is not the assurance to get justice done. The system requires people, a lot skilled, well-trained people instead, to make the legal system functional. And here is my thought for friends living Vietnam. There will be never a flawless legal system, and if even we hypothetically, we have one, how people run the system is  detrimental to the outcome of the system.

Justice in outcome is the idea that eventually, people should be paid fairly and possibly equally. Fairly is different than equally, and there is going to another discussion about the difference. Jumping to the fair concept, it will overlap with just. There is no way in my eye sight, we can get both clear up without reply on each other to explain the another one. The Communist ideology is very much in line with social justice in outcome.

Should we apply the income tax so that everyone will get the fair share of the final, collective contribution of a nation? Welcome to the 2020 American president debate or other presidential debates when income taxes is always a big issues. Tax the healthy, top 1%, or reduce the tax for those?

For just in process, given that the capital was acquired legally and fair, each person should be entitled to the capital gain. This mean a flat rate for every capital gain no matter how much money one individual or a company benefited to the end of each year. Most of the countries in the world, Vietnam and the United States, has an increments (scales) of taxing based on the total incomes. They just working on the percentage.

Now, I was admitted to a good American university, although my speaking English will never be as good as the natives, but somehow I got in and some of them were not. Many White Americans hated the diversity  agenda which sets a limit or a quota for ethics groups to be admitted. So if one is female, and in color, and underprivileged, she has a higher chance to be admitted to most universities in America. Was that fair  up to the point of admission or should we dial back a bit further? White parents are more advantageous to get a good job,  likely to live a zip code that has good schools, likely to benefited from the friends and networks and a bit more wealthy than the other family that is struggling for an end meet.  To live in a neighborhood that needs a lot more attention to school, utility, crime,  employment that make a living a tiny bit more difficult.

Of course, we can not dial back from the beginning when a group of monkey decided, or had to get to ground, walked by rear legs, stood tall then ran well, and then freed two legs (now called hands) to grasp foods, and then came opposite thumbs to hold tools, then knowing how to use fire for even better tools. Justice from a concept can be relative, very much an dependent to the boundary drawn, to the nuances that seems make sense to you but brings a bit of eyebrows to others.

Things changed incrementally. So even with justice, an increment change is counted and can tilt the balance. Your small change counted, too. Just saying.