About Justice

On Sat Oct 8, during the first session (in Arkadia) of the revived group for Biosophy, Tomi Kokkonen of the Philosophy Department of Helsinki University was giving a highly interesting presentation about the relation between philosophy and biology (from where the term ”biosophy”).

In the course of his presentation he also was showing a video recording of an experiment: there was a cage which was divided into two halves by a pane of glass, and in each half one monkey (of the officially most intelligent South American species); in front of the cage there was a human technician who was feeding the monkeys through the cage’s grid; at first he was feeding pieces of cucumber to both monkeys, which the monkeys were also accepting and eating; then he switched to feeding to the one monkey grapes (visible to the other monkey) while continuing to give pieces of cucumber to the other monkey; the situation changed in that way that the pieces of cucumber were not accepted any longer (in fact the monkey threw twice pieces of cucumber back out of the cage in visible agitation). Similar experiments have been made on chimpanzees with very similar results.

How should one call such behaviour? Should one consider it as ”envy” (as my mother, oldest daughter of a well-to-do entrepreneur, would have done, adding that envy is a sign of bad character), or should one rather say that our furry relatives have some sense of proportion, or justice? And admittedly also I have some such feelings which might be very similar to those of those monkeys. E.g. it is known that there are people on the globe who are so rich that a number of the richest of them who would fit into a bus of Helsinki public traffic would together in fact own as much as the poorer half of mankind. And now a few questions about that: do I dislike this state of affairs (the answer is yes); do I want to be as rich as those rich people (the answer is no, and I think that this is a reason why one cannot call my feeling ”envy”); and why do I then dislike the state of affairs? I should say that it simply insults my sense of proportion: I do accept that there are certain differences in income (some jobs are more demanding in terms of qualification and/or effort and/or responsibility than others), but I can simply not imagine any acceptable reason for the truly astronomical differences in income and wealth which we observe in also the Western society since Reagan and Thatcher. The mechanisms how it comes to this have already been described by Marx: the conditions in capitalism result in the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few; the legal profession supports and protects the mechanisms (in contradiction to anything which any primate would accept as ”justice” – but perhaps it is simply more convenient for lawyers and judges if they can decide what’s ”just” by means of a pocket calculator, and they may also be more easily rewarded with good salaries); and if there is any choice to be made between democratic principles on the one hand and the defense of the present distribution of wealth on the other, we know how the Western system will decide: The purpose of the system is to guarantee that wealth remains in the hands of those who own it now, and also to guarantee that it can grow further, and if democracy should demand something different (and be it just to keep the democratic processes functioning at all), then to hell with democracy!

The just-described system is of course also preached by the ”experts” of neoliberalism (and praise to Ha-Joon Chang for so convincingly making clear that they are simply wrong), but luckily there are even political parties who voice some disagreement with this ”mainstream”. Which leads to the next question how an alternative to the present system should/could look like, especially if one wants to avoid insulting public feelings which ALSO concern justice. For example: one can think about raising the income tax , but if the Beatles make a song about a taxman who takes 95 per cent of their income then they may express a feeling of injustice which may be shared by many; and if, say, a football star earns a huge income for a few years (but soon not any more) then some may think it just if he is given the possibility to distribute (in his declaration) this income over all those years up to a normal retirement age. But I do see a group of people whom one (perhaps) can tax really heavily without insulting too many people’s feeling of justice, namely those who INHERIT those huge properties. People will still think it just humanely understandable/acceptable if somebody wants to leave to her/his children as much as is necessary to keep them comfortable and safe, nor will it seem wise to seize and break up property which exists in a very productive form (say, a well-working enterprise, or a foundation which does very good work), but all that money which nowadays is circulating around the globe in electronic form for no better purpose than speculation could certainly be taxed or seized and used for better purposes than the de-stabilization of economies and financial systems.

Of course there is, if this were realized in just one country, always the danger that the really rich people will simply emigrate to some more ”friendly” country. Would it then be worth a thought to give the right to tax/seize that type of ”internationally active” money to the UN?

And finally (if somebody should be interested): the next session of the biosophy group will be on Sat Oct 22 at 2 PM in Arkadia International Bookshop.

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