X. Justice & Judgment

The Human Condition by René Magritte



In justice is all virtue found in sum. A just war is better than an unjust peace.[1] But what is justice? Man is the measure of all things.[2] There’s one law for the rich, and another for the poor. Much law, but little justice, and extreme justice is extreme injustice. Circumstances alter cases and comparisons are odious. There are two sides to every question.[3] The question should then not be, ‘what is justice,’ but rather ‘what is your idea of justice.’


The word is my idea” began Schopenhauer, “this is the truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though only man can bring it into reflected, abstract consciousness. If he really does this, philosophical discretion has evolved in him. It then becomes clear to him, and certain, that he knows, not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees the sun, a hand that feels the earth; that the world which surrounds him exists only as idea – that is, only in relation to something else.”

No truth is more certain claimed Schopenhauer, more independent that all others and less in need of proof than this: “that all that is there for knowing – that is, this whole world – is only object in relation to the subject, perception of the perceiver – in a word, idea.” The world exist to us only as an idea, a representation, subject to our perception that varies according to our desires and vantage point in which we observe out external surroundings.

Sigmund Freud was right when he noted that nothing escapes humankind’s criticism or resentment. Our immediate external environment varies from one human being to another. Our ideas of the world are different because our perspectives are subjective, piecemeal and incomplete. Hence, humankind is doomed to forever have different perspectives of the same thing. And our different perspectives of things are the ultimate source of conflict and strive.

Nowhere is this more evident than the presence of numerous different and distinct cultures we see in the world today. Each culture grew from different geographical regions. They bring with them the solution to the unique challenges that they face. Our clothing is dependent on the seasons and weather. Our traditions are based on the challenges of the natural world around us. Our economic activity is dependent on the climate that we are currently in. Our external environment shapes the very idea that we have of our world.

Supposed it is a warm spring day in Athens. A traveler from Sweden would comment of the heat and warmth in contrast to his native country. On the other hand, a traveler from Egypt would comment on the coldness of the Athenian spring, as his country is a desert. But all in all, are not both men speaking the truth?! The truth, for matters such as these, depends on perspective and it therefore relative. Man is indeed the measure of all things.

Consider human ethics. Pagan tribal people in Africa used to be accustomed to public nakedness, polygamy, working on the Sabbath and infanticide. Eskimos allow their elderly to die of starvation. The Spartans of ancient Greece believed that stealing was morally right. A certain tribe in East Africa was known to throw deformed infants to the hippopotamus while other tribes have a duty to kill their aging parents by strangling. Who is to judge what is right and wrong?

However, if morality lies in the eyes of the beholder, is Hitler really as innocent as Gandhi? Can genocide really be morally justified? But let us not confuse ourselves with what ought to be and what is. Let us not blur the lines between our ideals and reality. All around us we see people of different cultures, religions, races and philosophy. People are not born with the concept of morality. It is society that ingrains what the morality of a particular age into the individual. Moral principles in reality are valid relative to culture and individual choice.

The philosophers of old that are aware of the subjectivity of morality have in many advocated for self-control and moderation. Meden agan’ or nothing in excess, was the motto of the ancient Greeks. Quotes like ‘moderation in all things,’ ‘measure is treasure,’ and ‘it is good to neither be too high or low,’ commonly referred to the Golden Mean. According to Aristotle, ‘in between cowardice and rashness is courage; between stinginess and extravagance is liberality; between sloth and greed is ambition; between humility and pride is modesty; between secrecy and loquacity is honesty; between moroseness and buffoonery is good humor; between quarrelsomeness and flattery is friendship; and in between indecisiveness and impulsiveness is self-control.’

Although the Golden Mean advocates moderation and self-control, it does not give the lost any ethical direction. To be moderate means to do nothing in extreme or excess eventhough one’s actions may do good and justice. Some would say that this is hypocrisy. An excuse for people to do as they like when the situation demands it. For there is no mathematical calculation to the Golden Mean. One can never know in all accuracy the Golden Mean when it comes to ethics and morality. What is needed in human ethics is more of phronēsis or practical wisdom: the intelligence and soundness of judgment in a practical context.

One of the famous Socratic paradoxes is best described as the dictum, ‘no one ere does wrong voluntarily.’ In its more plausible Greek original, ‘no one misses the mark voluntarily.’ This means that all wrongdoing is due to the lack of knowledge and therefore virtue is knowledge. Perhaps this is the same with ethics. Only with the knowledge of good and evil can one conduct oneself in an ethical manner. Until such true enlightenment, all we can hope for is to tread lightly on the uneven ground of ethics. Sometimes, it is not what you look at that matters; it is what you see.[4]Do not be too confident in your own judgment and dismiss not too lightly the judgment of others.

[1] A quoatation from Annals of Tacitus (early 2nd century AD).

[2] A quotation attributed to Protagoras.

[3] Sometimes attributed to the Greek philosopher Protagoras (5th century BC).

[4] Quotation attributed to Henry David Thoreau.

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