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Gradient of justice

December 9, 2007

Given that there is significant injustice in our society, and granted that we are a long ways from a society that establishes what Rawls called the circumstances of justice — can we at least have the confidence that we are moving in the right direction?

Some people would argue that our society is doing just that. They sometimes point to the fact of rising nutritional and health status in the poorest 40 percent of our population during a 50-year period, and they might say that the situation of institutionalized racism — and with it the circumstances of middle-class African-Americans — has also improved measurably in 50 years.

Unfortunately, these impressions are misleading. In fact, it is more likely the case that inequalities of income, wealth, and well-being have worsened in the past twenty years. Lower-middle income and poor people have the smallest share of the nation’s affluence that they have ever had. And many of the programs designed to provide a social safety net have been gutted or have disappeared altogether.

And on the racial justice side — if general social racism has diminished, the depth of racial inequality and lack of opportunity in large cities has almost certainly increased in thirty years. The lack of opportunity and hope that exists in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, or Oakland is truly staggering — and it is worsening. This wall of deprivation is drawn largely along racial lines. And all too often this impacted lack of opportunity leads to crime and violence.

So we don’t seem to be on a trajectory of general improvement when it comes to social justice. The myth of the “trickle-down society has turned out to be more trick than truth. The benefits of economic growth have not lifted the lower middle class. This growth has not dissolved the knot of urban poverty. The public is turning its back on public schools — surely one of the surest mechanisms of greater social justice over time. And we don’t seem to have a public commitment to the basic value of allowing all members of society to fully develop their talents. Even more disturbingly, we seem to be entering a period of time that will involve even greater economic anxiety. And anxious times seem to bring out the worst in people when it comes to competition for scarce resources and opportunities.

What we seem to need is a greater sense of community, a greater recognition of our inter-connectedness and inter-dependence, and a greater common commitment to making sure that our society and its policies work to improve the lot of all its citizens. But most regrettably — this sense of the strands of community is exactly what is most imperiled by the facts of current inequalities. It is difficult to maintain the strands of civic commitment to each other when fundamental inequalities separate us further and further.

So perhaps we ought to consider the unhappy possibility that our society may be inching towards the deepening chasm of inequality that characterizes South Africa, Mexico, or Brazil today. And if this is true, then the future is ominous.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Shaanxi graduate student permalink
    January 20, 2008 7:58 am

    (1) First step: Justice is dynamic balance, which is achieved by all kinds of social forces but judged by social values of consensus. In this step, western and eastern viewpoints are similar.

    (2) Second step: But about how to achieve justice, western and eastern viewpoints diverge. The western way seems relying more on quantitative method, but the eastern way relies more on qualitative method. Generally the western way uses the number of votes to reflect justice while the eastern way uses the quality of decision makers to reflect justice. In eastern culture, the people care about the quality of decision makers first. Then if the decision makers cannot reach agreement, voting will come to use.

    (3) Third step: About how to realize the way to reflect justice, generally the western way is to judge whether a person has right to vote and then vote, while the eastern way is to select quality persons from common people through systematic and comprehensive examinations. Therefore, those selected quality people not only represent the areas that they come from but also represent good social values.

    Maybe you feel that the eastern way is the elite theory. But maybe the difference is that in this practice of past two thousand years in China, the governors kept coming from common people through systematic and comprehensive examinations. This is a way to guarantee that governors will care about people at lower levels, from which they come from.

    The basic spirit to make Chinese people agree with this mechanism is the central spirit of eastern culture: learning, which was always emphasized by Confucius. Examinations are just tools to reflect how much and what you have learned, not only knowledge of facts or rules, but also knowledge of good social values, and even how you have behaved according to the good social values in the past.

    (4) Conclusion: Examination VS. Economic Resources.

    Maybe you would say that the governors of US at different levels are also quality people. But you cannot deny that without enough economic resources, you cannot get enough votes. Economic resources, which are basically in forms of money, set a constraint on the justice system of US and guide those governors to deviate from good social values easily because they must take care of those people who provide economic support in voting. But in the system of examination, the economic constraint has been downplayed to the lowest level and after in power you do not have to pay any benefits as required by the current political system of US.

    Therefore, if American politicians cannot find an effective way to downplay the role of economic resources to the lowest level in voting, the American dynamic balance of social values will keep getting close to absolute unbalance unfavorably.

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