Thursday, September 20, 2012

Average Joe and The Dilemma of Justice

Yes, he's average and his name is Joe, but what does he think about justice?

Book 1 of Plato's Republic.  Polemarchus, a character in the dialogue, has defined justice as "treating your friends well and your enemies badly."  This position wouldn't seem all that far from the view of justice accepted by the average "guy on the street" even today.

Most people intuitively feel that they have some obligation to promote the good of those who are close to them (friends, family, neighbors), but that this obligation doesn't extend to anyone outside this circle of interest.  They also feel that enemies deserve retaliation as a matter of justice.

Of course, most Americans, at the same time, would also describe themselves as "Christians."  And we know that the Gospel promotes an ethic of radical altruism and forgiveness.  Jesus exhorts us to sacrifice our own good the sake of the other, to care for strangers as though they were our brothers and sisters, and to forgive our enemies.  This, for a Christian is the true meaning of justice.

So who is right:  Polemarchus (the man on the street) or Jesus?  And why is there such a divorce between what most Christians actually believe justice to be and what the founder of their religion actually taught?


The "objective" part of this post is officially over, and now I feel compelled to muse about the issue at hand in my own clearly partisan style:

I suspect our average Joe gets more of his information about justice from Rush Limbaugh than he does from Scripture.  And his view of justice owes more the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye" than it does to Jesus exhortation to "turn the other cheek."  One need only to read some of the writings of a typical Christian evangelical to see that the position of average Joe on justice is just about as far removed from the spirit that animates the Gospels as it can get.

So, if our average Joe doesn't really buy into the ethos that's at the heart of his most sacred book, then why does he persist in his allegiance to the very faith that is founded upon the ideals in this book?   Habit probably.  He was most likely brought up as a Christian, his family is probably filled with Christians, all of his friends are probably also Christians, and he simply can't conceive of a life apart from the faith of his childhood.  

But to call average Joe a Christian in any true sense of the word is like calling a hyena a lion because they both have tails.  Average Joe may refer to himself as a Christian, but like Polemarchus in Book 1 of the Republic, his moral system is intellectually simplistic, extremely limited in scope, and overtly retributive in nature.  Taking good care of those you like and getting back at those you dislike might be a framework for justice that makes sense in a place like Texas, but it certainly will never promote the common good or create a society of anything more than the most self-interested individuals.  And it certainly has nothing in common with any legitimate version of Christian that I am aware of. 


  1. The majority of society would most likely agree upon Polemarchus. It is rational to treat your friends well. Although I am a Catholic, I do not fully agree with the Gospel's view on Justice. How can one live a life trying to make everyone happy? More importantly, one should know their limits. Everyone is different and unique, and we cannot focus on the well-being of our friends and family. Once a child becomes an adult, the parent is no longer responsible for making their child happy. The best thing one can do is to know thyself before they can decide on helping others. TQ

    1. In other words, one should promote independence.

    2. But you can argue that one can truly understand themselves through the reward they receive from giving to others?

  2. I cannot concretely state which is right and which is wrong, but for the sake of argument I believe that Jesus would be correct. A radical altruism allows for people to be good because it is the right thing to do. It explores why it is the right thing to do. The morality that comes as a result focuses on how to be a good person rather than how to commit a good act. Polemarchus' view, however, is the more practical and realistic view. If you were to walk out into the world today this is the form of justice you would most likely see. This does not create good people or justice. This creates circles in which you care for those close to you while not worrying about the others. I would argue that most Christians today act in Polemarchus' view of justice. The world in which we live in has focused so much on retaliation and do only for those who are close to you, that the teachings of Jesus have been blurred. Those who call themselves Christians are more often than not acting in the watered down version of true radical altruism. They will give to the extent that they can and only to those they care for.

  3. Jesus is right but the problem arises when trying to find out who in fact is in need of help and what in fact will help them. The Arbitrary fact that you were born with other people sharing your linage is irreverent, however were they to do you favors and help you in your times of need you might extend your means to help them should they need it over a man who has never helped you in such a manner.
    To the fact of retaliation against enemies who have wronged you i see no punishment fairer than an eye for an eye assuming all other factors are the same. The factors leading to such an offense must be taken into account before a sentence is carried out. In most cases of losing an ten dollar bill, a punishment of ten dollars is most likely not the appropriate punishment. Were Bill Gates to steal it the punishment might be a thousand dollars, while for a bum, fifty cents.

  4. Everyone wants to help others but even more in the normal everyday life your friends and family. Both are true that it is good to want to give to others but in the giving you need to make sure that you are not allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.The person you are helping should be able to take care of him or herself.The giving you do should also leave you with a sence of being happy that you were able to help and not making helping a burden.valerie

  5. It is difficult to point out who is totally 100% right. Rather, I think there are several factors that affect this issue. Honestly, I feel most Christians today don't even consider what justice is and go on with their lives addressing situations as they arise. Most people have their own unique understanding of justice which affects their daily decisions (but that is another issue). However, out of the two, I personally think Jesus is right. I feel most people would say that Polemarchus' definition of justice is similar to their own personal understanding of justice, but I believe that Jesus has the better definition of justice. If everyone lived according to Jesus' definition, there would be no enemies, for everyone would care for each other as they would care for someone they loved. In essence, every one would be "family". And by living as Jesus says (by living with an sense of altruistic service) Polemarchus' definition of justice would still hold true because there would be no enemies to treat badly. Everyone would be "family" or "friends" and would treat each other well. This would only work of course if everyone truly and genuinely followed the Christian believe of sacrificing ourselves for everyone else. Therefore, I would have to say the Christian definition is the more correct definition.


  6. The problem with this statement is the fact that not everyone believes in Jesus. One does not need a religious background in order to have a moral and ethical conscience. We cannot always make sacrifices for others. If one lived like a disciple of Jesus, they would taking in a lot of B.S. Or, one might act like a disciple thinking that it feels good to help others. But is it because of a poor ego?

  7. The question of who is right is a flawed question to begin with for there is no such thing as definitive right or wrong. One thing can be said about both views though, this being that they lack a synthesis of the particular and the whole. Treating your friends well and your enemies badly is a general standard, as is radical altruism and forgiveness. It speaks nothing of the particular person who experiences something unique and is then forced to respond to it. If he responds to it by either means described above, he is not making his own choice but rather following the standard of others who believe they know best. No one knows what is best for another. The choice of what is just must be dealt with in a case by case manner. This is the particular. But, one must also synthesize his individual reaction to experience with the whole. He must ask himself how functional his choice would be if everyone were to make it in the same situation. A unique balance must be found.

    As for the question of why there is such a divorce between what Jesus tought and what most Christians believe is that they have not come to their faith in religion by their own force. It was presented to them by the majority or their parents and they accepted it without first critically analyzing the teachings and themself.
    -Daniel Woods

    1. The point about being presented with religion is amazing. How many children are there that chose what they believe in? None. This is a great point.

  8. My own view is similar to that of Kierkeggard who once said that he never met a true Christian (though he met many people who called themselves by that name). The ethic of self-sacrificing love that is at the heart of the gospels is definitely the most demanding moral system to follow. It also is probably an impractical basis for a system of justice.

    On the other hand, the view of the man on the street is far too limited. Of course we have moral obligations to others outside our sphere of interest. But what exactly is our duty to the destitute stranger, for example? I probably wouldn't give away all of my wealth, as the Gospel commands, to care for my vulnerable members of my society. But I do believe that I have some moral obligation to them. And this is a matter of justice--it's what's owed to them as fellow citizens--not just a matter of charity.


  9. Polemarchus' view of justice is much more practical for the average man. While helping people may come with good intention, it may not be the best idea for the average man if he is not content first. Charity can make a man feel better about himself, but too much charity would probably cause more harm than anything else in the bigger picture. Constantly giving to and helping others, while a nice thought, may prevent man from focusing on bettering himself. For the average man who works to support a family, giving away hard earned money and not leaving any for the family just does not make sense in this society. If man depletes his own wealth and possessions, there is a very good chance he will not be happy at the end of the day when he sees that his family is just barely getting by. In order to genuinely help others, it would be nearly impossible for man to do so without first being comfortable with his position, both financially and emotionally. Forgiveness is a different matter altogether. Forgiveness aids in the process of moving forward from the event that caused the need for forgiveness to take place. Even if the parties involoved never speak forgiveness to each other, personally knowing forgiveness is imperative to moving forward. Holding a grudge will most likely only cause psychological and emotional damage to oneself, which is not something that most would want in their life if it can be avoided.


  10. (Two divergent views):

    The dilemma of justice is a bitter and contentious issue. The hoi-polloi or the masses of contemporary American society uphold the view that benevolent behavior is exhibited in the presence of those who profit the interests of the individual. This consideration is extended to include those who share common interests and are united by overlapping beliefs. Those who exhibit negative behavior or are known for their fierceness and savagery in the presence of their enemies do not differ from the tyrants of antiquity. The tyrants Periandros of Corinth, Perdiccas of the Kingdom of Macedon, and Xerxes of the Achaemenid Persian Empire were known for their truculent behavior. The most execrable tyrants of history were known for the lavish generosity which they provided to their political allies and companions. Their maleficence was extended to the denizens of the state (Hellenic polis). A conflicting and discordant belief concerning the dilemma of justice is devoted to the notion of radical altruism. My response is not in adherence to these two discordant views.

    I have generally espoused a view that seeks to remove itself from the two conflicting and inharmonious views. I reject the possibility of altruistic behavior. One should not discard the notion of the vulgarity and savagery of the human species. The uncouth savages of contemporary society are a general indication of humanity's proclivity to enmity. Dissentious individuals are condemned to perpetual execration and condemnation by the dominant forces/trends in contemporary society. These individuals are relegated to an inferior social position. I tend to view human behavior in social relationships as existing between the two extremities of beneficence and maleficence. One should adhere to an enlightened form of self-interest that is devoid of the two extremities. Public beneficence yields to prodigality or an unrestrained, unsparing generosity. The exhibition of maleficent behavior in the presence of one's enemies closely mirrors the truculence of wicked and immoderate despots. Coercion and the imposition of one's will upon the denizens of the state (Hellenic polis or contemporary society) should only occur as responses to temporary exigencies. Injurious or harmful acts (maleficence) should not emerge as a general tendency of the individual. A predisposition for maleficent behavior is positioned against the core of my proposed view. Temporary exigencies such as the unrestrained dissensions that result in internal turmoil and fratricidal strife (Civil war) require the use of coercive and aggressive behavior as a means of terminating internecine conflict and imposing equilibrium.