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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 11. Understanding injustice

Justice occurs when you do some good or bad – through intention or some other mental act, through speech or some other physical act – and you get back what you deserve in relation and in proportion to that deed. Injustice means that some good is not followed by commensurate good or is followed by undeserved bad; or that some bad is not followed by commensurate bad or is followed by undeserved good.

Thus, justice and injustice are concepts depending on our notions of what deeds are good or bad, and of what is deserved or undeserved in relation and in proportion to them. Our ‘perception’ of justice or injustice has an emotional effect of its own on us. Note first that since justice and injustice are essentially rational judgments, the word ‘perception’ here may be misleading. We indeed perceive the situation, but its evaluation as just or unjust of course depends on a conceptual process.

When we rightly or wrongly perceive justice to have occurred, we feel comforted and pleased. Inversely, when we rightly or wrongly perceive injustice to have occurred, we feel threatened and angered. (Note the acknowledgment that such judgments may occasionally be in error; there is no guarantee of correctness.)

Because perceptions of justice or injustice strongly affect us, it is important to understand these concepts. Such understanding has a calming effect on the mind, and even on the soul. Religious doctrines such as that of Divine justice (under the religions based on Abraham’s monotheism) or that of karma (under Hinduism and Buddhism) were certainly designed to pacify us in this regard. But before we consider[1] these doctrines, a number of philosophical reflections are worth making.

Justice and injustice are not concepts relating to a wholly mechanistic world. Under a universal system of determinism and/or spontaneity, nothing is either just or unjust, everything just ‘is’. Moreover, there being no conscious living being to feel effects or evaluate them, these concepts are irrelevant and inapplicable. In a world with only God – i.e. Someone omniscient, omnipotent and perfect through and through – there is automatic universal justice and no injustice at all.

The concepts of justice and injustice logically both come into play only in a world containing any number of living entities endowed with limited consciousness, volition and powers of valuation. That number could be only one, provided that single entity is not God, i.e. is a mere creature with limited powers (this could be assumed under a solipsist philosophy). But actually, our world seems to have many such entities, with some powers of cognition, freewill and valuation (there are apparently at least 6 billion humans who would fit this definition, not to mention other animals).

This insight – that the concepts of justice and injustice depend on there being some non-mechanistic and less than Divine entities in the world – is valid whether considered in the framework of atheism (as in modern materialism or in early Buddhism) or monotheism (as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It is all the more valid under polytheism (as in Hinduism, in some forms of Buddhism, and in other religions), since such religious form by definition involves numerous competing wills.

If for the sake of brevity we refer to the entities under consideration as entities with freewill (since this power presupposes consciousness and implies valuation), what we want to stress here is that some injustice is inevitable in a world with competing wills[2]. In a world without will at all, there is neither injustice nor justice. In a world with only God having will, there is only justice and no injustice. It is only in a world like ours that injustice occurs – and indeed, injustice is bound to occasionally occur in it.

Once this principle is comprehended, it is much easier to emotionally accept the existence of injustice. The existence of injustice in the world is not because the world is badly constructed or mismanaged – but is a logical inevitability given the existence of a multitude of competing entities with limited powers of awareness and will.

Granting God created the world and us in it, He could not have made it otherwise. To give us some powers of will, He has to abstain from exercising His full power of will (omnipotence). To have freewill is to be able to do good or bad – i.e. not to do the good one ought to do, on occasion; and even to do the bad one ought not do, on occasion. Even if some people were to always do only good, there is every likelihood that some people will occasionally do bad or not do good, or simply make mistakes.

This is equally true in a belief system devoid of God (which many people favor nowadays). In a mostly mechanistic world containing some entities with some powers of freewill, such entities are not likely to act always in a fully beneficial manner. Some people will sometimes inevitably, through wrong judgment or bad will, cause harm to themselves or to others, in a way that bears no rational relation and/or proportion to preceding deeds.

This “inevitability”, note well, is a statistical fact, not implying determinism (otherwise, we could not logically refer to such events as acts of will). However, the intent here is not to reduce all events in human life to luck. It is only to deny that there can be automatic universal justice in our world, and to acknowledge that some injustice must occur, by virtue of the complexity of that world. It is not a statement that all is unjust, but only a statement that justice and injustice both occur.

And indeed, that is how we see the world in common sense, as a mixture of both. It is precisely for this reason that we have notions of both justice and injustice. Given this as an empirical fact, two questions arise.

The first question is: even if injustice appears to occur in the short run – might not justice be restored later on in life or in an afterlife? Such an assumption is a premise of many religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is belief in a natural system of “karma” – through which every good or bad deed is automatically eventually (in this life or some later one(s)) compensated. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a similar faith in future reward or punishment, except that it is made dependent on the will of God, who may choose to mercifully withhold retribution.

In the latter case, God’s behavior towards us is conceived as dependent on our later behavior (regret, repentance, etc.), and on our prayers. There is also, to a lesser extent, in all these religions, a doctrine that one person may sometimes take on the suffering of others and so lighten their load somewhat. In this context, it is considered useful in some religions to direct prayers to saints[3].

On a more secular plane, the awareness that justice is not automatic and some injustice is inevitable gives rise to private and public efforts at redress. Individuals sometimes reward a good deed or avenge a wrong by someone else. Societies usually establish elaborate justice systems, to ensure some of the injustices that do occur are compensated in some way.

Note well: if we believed that natural justice and/or Divine justice ensures appropriate retribution for all good and bad deeds, there would be no point in human acts of justice or a societal system of justice. On the contrary, such interference on our part could create confusion. It is precisely because we understand that justice is, at least in part, a human moral responsibility that we elect parliamentarians to enact laws, and appoint judges and a police force to implement these laws.

This leads us to the second question: what to do about injustice? From a spiritual development point of view, it is of course essential to demand a maximum of justice from oneself (towards self and others). One should also help others obtain justice, whenever and to the extent possible. But to expect constant and full justice, or worse still to demand it, from others (towards self) is not very wise; it is to condemn oneself to unnecessary conflict and suffering.

One should as much as possible disregard the misdeeds of others towards oneself, and move on. To get entangled in concerns like revenge is a waste of valuable time, a distraction from more important spiritual pursuits. One should realize the “samsaric” nature of this world we are in: it is so made that one cannot hope for 100% justice within it. So, it is best to accept things as they are, and take things in stride, as far as possible. One can train oneself to be “above it all” – and become relatively immune.

Of course, in some cases it would be wrong and even suicidal to accept injustice. For instance, it would not be wise (for others’ sakes, if not one’s own) to allow a murderous dictatorship to pursue its course. On the other hand, often our vexations are due to envy or excessive desire. For instance, one may get upset at not getting as much salary as one’s colleagues at work. Follow the golden mean.

A word about the concept of “social justice” is appropriate here. This concept is based on the naturalist idea that all humans are born “equal”, and the context they are born into (genes, family, social milieu, wealth, etc.) is a matter of good or bad luck. This could be construed as a relatively materialist notion, which is less emphasized by people who believe in karma or in Divine management. But that does not belie it.

Often, it is true, people who demand social justice (meaning mainly economic equality) are simply envious and wish to obtain unearned benefits. On the other hand, it is true that “we are all in it (this world) together” and we can by judicious effort make it a world with maximum opportunity and minimum suffering for all. This is the real premise for social justice: it is ultimately good for everyone. Helping others does not impoverish the haves, but enriches them by improving the world surrounding them and inside themselves.

[1] Or reconsider them – for I have commented on this topic in many of my past works. Here, I seek to bring additional clarifications.

[2] The word freewill involves a redundancy. An action that is not free would not be referred to as ‘will’ – but as a mechanistic ‘event’. Will is called free only to stress this obvious fact. Thus, will and freewill are synonyms.

[3] No one in Judaism prays to living or dead people (e.g. Moses or some Rebbe). Likewise (to my knowledge) in Islam (they do not pray to Mohammed). But prayers to saintly people and to people presumed to be gods incarnate are common in other religions: Christians pray to Jesus or Mary, Buddhists pray to Buddhas or bodhisattvas, and Hindus even pray to their flesh and blood gurus.

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