When is Violence Justified? What is Justice?

Thrasymachus famously asserted that, “Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”  However ancient, it sounds all too modern and western in at least a tacit manner, if not outright admission.  “Justice” may be only a word that communicates “‘Just’ is what I think or say it is and I have a bigger gun and more resources than you” rather than a word that is a referent to something other than what I emote, have the power to enforce, or happen to will- a word that tries to communicate or capture an abstract, objective, principle, person, or sensibility.  Is it just a stand-in, a code word for what I will or personally desire to be fair?  Or is it a word that points beyond itself, beyond me, to something objective and universal?  If it is just a code word, a gloss, a stand-in, then it is for everyone including ISIS, North Korea, or the west.  If so, then Thrasymachus was right.  If so, then justice = power.
This will be my last post in this series on the use of violence and its justification.  When we use violence, in every other area except self-defense, the key question is: Are we justified in doing so?  We assume it has to be justified in some fashion.  And that question is intrinsically bound up in the idea or concept of “justice”.  Is our violence just?  Whether it is or not depends upon the reasons we provide, and further, what those reasons are based upon.  If we take any reasons and conduct a metaphysical regress, what are our justifications ultimately based upon?  When we can go back no further in our reasoning, what do we finally get to?  My sense is we will finally get to my or our “power” (Thrasymachus) to name, or choose, and thus enforce, what “justice” “is” or we will get to an objective referent of some type.  I don’t see any other possibilities here.
Most people believe “justice” is something based upon some objective referent, even if only an abstract principle of some type.  And most people believe it to be a universal, absolute principle, even if we might not understand it absolutely and agree we can get it “wrong” or have a “false” view of justice.  Most people however believe that if something is “just” it is so regardless of culture, geography, majority agreement, power, law, or historical time-frame.  On the other hand, if “justice” is whatever the powerful say it is, then only the weak’s understanding of justice is “wrong” or “false” (How convenient).  We like to think that justice is something that gives the strong or more powerful, no advantage over the weaker.  Justice, we hope, is something that tells us it is possible for the weaker to prevail over the stronger or more powerful, because of what “justice” is and demands.  We also make the distinction that such is the case, not simply because the weaker are being protected by a more powerful entity than the one directly opposed to them at the moment.  In that case, power is still the operable factor and not “justice”.  In that case, “justice” was simply a cover for us to impose our will and power, even if for what most might find agreeable and even noble reasons.
Justice is often pictured as a blind-folded woman holding scales upon which she weighs a conflict or two parties and their claims.  Is justice really blind?  If justice is as Thrasymachus tells us, justice indeed “sees” but it only sees what the strong desire and will to see.  It is only blind to the weaker; the weak it cannot see.  We talk about justice being metaphorically blind because we are trying to communicate the idea that justice does not see the stronger party, or the weaker.  Justice, we like to think, sees something else, something beyond each party.  Is it only the law that it sees?  No.  Because that would mean we only need read or note the law and we would be dispensing “justice”.  Such would assume that every law was just. 
And when it comes to using violence, what is just?  As to violence in the extreme, how do we ascertain if one death is different than another?  Is it just a question of legality?  Is it just a question of emotion?  Is it just a question of what the most powerful party asserts is different or not different?  Unless we are just reporting facts, unless we are just describing in purely matter-of-fact physical terms, how is one death from violence different than another violent death metaphysically/ontologically?  Or is there no such difference (and there can’t be a difference for those who think the “is” of being to be pure nature)?  Imagine we are shown two pictures, one of a pile of Jewish bodies in a Nazi death camp, and another of a hanged Nazi after being convicted at Nuremberg.  We are asked if these deaths are the same.  Would we reply, “Yes” they are because they are all dead?  Or, “No, there are more dead bodies in this picture and only one in the other.”  I guess we might if we were ten years old, or obtuse, or shallow, or callous, or just dumb.  Or using the same example we’ve been using, a court of law and a criminal gang dispensing lethal violence.  If we were to lay the two dead people side by side, could we note any difference between the two other than both are dead—anything beyond mere facts—anything beyond mere reporting, mere description?  What would it mean to say one death was just and one was unjust, unless we are just reporting our personal opinion?  What are the criteria for that judgment or the judgment that they are, indeed, the same metaphysically/ontologically (We don’t care if one sees it differently personally or just “because” they do)?  We are asking a philosophical question, a metaphysical question, not a private opinion question.  Unless, of course, one is a moral skeptic and believes such is what indeed it is—a private opinion.
Now, in light of these questions, let us consider our relativist.  As noted many times now, he falls under the general genus of metaphysical moral relativism (MMR) as opposed to descriptive moral relativism (DMM) (see prior posts).  Under that general genus (MMR), the species of relativist I am addressing specifically, and no other, is the moral skeptic (which is also connected to nihilism; anti-realism, etc.).  The MMR type, and the further descriptive terms skeptic, and nihilist are often used interchangeably in the literature, and many times the distinctions are without significant difference—especially when it comes to speaking of what morality is ontologically (being), as noted: “…Moral skeptics conclude that there is no way to rule out moral nihilism [emphasis added].”-Stanford (link below)
Further still, for any who still think moral nihilism to be invented by me or that I paint an unfair picture:
“…opponents of moral skepticism need to say why moral nihilism is irrelevant. It seems relevant, for the simple reason that it is directly contrary to the moral belief that is supposed to be justified. Moreover, real people believe and give reasons to believe in moral nihilism. Some people are led to moral nihilism by the absence of any defensible theory of morality. If consequentialism is absurd or incoherent, as some critics argue, and if deontological restrictions and permissions are mysterious and unfounded, as their opponents argue, then some people might believe moral nihilism for reasons similar to those that led scientists to reject phlogiston. Another basis for moral nihilism cites science. If all of our moral beliefs can be explained by sociobiology and/or other social sciences without assuming that any moral belief is true, then some might accept moral nihilism for reasons similar to those that lead many people to reject witches or elves [see our New York Times essayist]. The point is not that such reasons for moral nihilism are adequate. The point here is only that there is enough prima facie reason to believe moral nihilism that it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant on this basis. If moral nihilism is relevant, and if closure holds for all or at least relevant alternatives, and if moral nihilism cannot be ruled out in any way, then moral skepticism seems to follow.”
Notice too that here again skepticism and nihilism are linked as logical connections.  This is noted and agreed upon in most, if not all, the academic literature.  I’ve invented nothing and I’ve not painted their views unfairly; rather, it would appear that many are simply unfamiliar with their views and speak out of turn.
Still, for our purposes, I will narrow down our species of MMR to the descriptions noted here.  (The previous and all further quotes are from this link—please read the entire essay)
One quick point though as to our moral skeptic.  He is no psychopath.  I actually have a great deal of respect for our skeptic/nihilist.  It takes great courage, great sobriety, and great resolve to hold to such a view.  It is not a common sense view, but one that must be maintained, almost willed constantly.  It is a view that refuses to look away.  It is a view that refuses to “sugar coat” anything.  It is a view that actually takes its beliefs/premises seriously and logically.  It does not chicken-out at the last and grab onto some objective, universal principle, or imagined instinct, force, or god.  It looks into the abyss and refuses to blink.  However, it is certainly not the view of a madman.  As noted:
“…people do take moral nihilism seriously and even argue for it (Mackie 1977, Joyce 2001), moral nihilism cannot be dismissed as readily as Descartes’s deceiving demon…”
And:
“Others see moral skepticism as so absurd that any moral theory can be refuted merely by showing that it leads to moral skepticism. Don’t you know, they ask, that slavery is morally wrong? Or terrorism? Or child abuse? Skeptics who deny that we have reason to believe or obey these moral judgments are seen as misguided and dangerous. The stridency and ease of these charges suggests mutual misunderstanding, so we need to be more charitable and more precise… Opponents often accuse moral skepticism of leading to immorality. However, skeptics about justified moral belief can act well and be nice people. They need not be any less motivated to be moral, nor need they have (or believe in) any less reason to be moral than non-skeptics have (or believe in). Moral skeptics can hold substantive moral beliefs just as strongly as non-skeptics. Their substantive moral beliefs can be common and plausible ones. Moral skeptics can even believe that their moral beliefs are true by virtue of corresponding to an independent moral reality. All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone’s) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone’s substantive moral beliefs or actions.”
Lest anyone think I’m asserting moral skeptics and nihilists to be bad people or immoral people- please keep the above in mind.  I could care less what moral skeptics/nihilists do or think as to ethics.  I’m sure many of them are good people and I’m sure many of them are assholes.  Welcome to every group on the planet.  Whether they are or not has absolutely nothing to do with my argument.  I make no judgments in that regard.  Putting that aside, here is the view I am addressing, that of the dogmatic moral skeptic:
“…dogmatic moral skeptics make definite claims about the epistemic status of moral beliefs:
Dogmatic skepticism about moral knowledge is the claim that nobody ever knows that any substantive moral belief is true (cf. Butchvarov 1989, 2).
Some moral skeptics add this related claim: Dogmatic skepticism about justified moral belief is the claim that nobody is ever justified in holding any substantive moral belief.   
Skepticism about moral truth is the claim that no substantive moral belief is true.
This claim is usually based on one of three more specific claims:
Skepticism about moral truth-aptness is the claim that no substantive moral belief is the kind of thing that could be either true or false.
Skepticism about moral truth-value is the claim that no substantive moral belief is either true or false (although some moral beliefs are the kind of thing that could be true or false).
Skepticism with moral falsehood is the claim that every substantive moral belief is false.
These last three kinds of moral skepticism are not epistemological, for they are not directly about knowledge or justification. Instead, they are about truth, so they are usually based on views of moral language or metaphysics.”
Skepticism about moral reality is the claim that no moral facts or properties exist.”
So if we put these last three together we get a good picture of how this type of moral skeptic is different from other types, as noted:
“…skeptics about moral truth-aptness disagree about the content of moral assertions, but they still agree that no substantive moral claim or belief is true, so they are both skeptics about moral truth. None of these skeptical theses is implied by either skepticism about moral knowledge or skepticism about justified moral belief. Some moral claims might be true, even if we cannot know or have justified beliefs about which ones are true. However, a converse implication seems to hold: If knowledge implies truth, and if moral claims are never true, then there is no knowledge of what is moral or immoral (assuming that skeptics deny the same kind of truth that knowledge requires). Nonetheless, since the implication holds in only one direction, skepticism about moral truth is still distinct from all kinds of epistemological moral skepticism.”
So we are notconsidering the skeptic who might believe that “Some moral claims might be true, even if we cannot know or have justified beliefs about which ones are true.”  We are considering the one as noted above the one “distinct from all kinds of epistemological moral skepticism.”  If anyone out there finds themselves agreeing with the type relativist I am addressing, I am speaking to you too.  If you don’t, then I am not and there is no need to become defensive or defend a position you don’t even hold (or understand).  Feel free to do so however.  What that might tell us about you, we will leave for any reader to determine.
Now, again, let’s consider our relativist as noted.  He might say that he does see a difference in our two pictures of dead people, but it is only a difference to him and one he cannot justify.  Another person may see any difference differentlyor not see one at all.  Who is right?  No one the relativist tells us.  Each is right from their relative perspective, even the Nazi or criminal gang member is “right” in this sense.  Each is “wrong” from the other person’s perspective.  Thus, metaphysically, we have an even plane; they cancel each other out, because the skeptic believes there is no metaphysical aspect to violent death (because he believes there is nothing platonic/transcendental, no God, no spiritual), there is only what we each subjectively wish to believe about each death.  Objectively, outside of each person viewing the pictures, these deaths are not different.  They are each dead.  It is only inside each person, in their head, if they see a difference or not and no one is right or wrong in any objective sense, we merely have different opinions.  In other words, the relativist tells us, imagine we are looking at these photographs and in an instance every living person, disappears from the earth.  The two pictures fall and just lay upon the earth.  There is no human to view them.  In such a case, these deaths are the same.  There is no human to project “just” or “unjust” onto these pictures.  Unless we do that, unless, we name them just or unjust, there is nothing to say regarding these deaths in the mind of our relativist.  The universe would then be silent as to these deaths, caring not one way or the other.
The above, obviously, is not the view of the objectivist.  He believes someone is either right or wrong here and he believes the deaths would still be different, even if no human on earth were present to view the photographs (because he believes something exists that is transcendental—something present regardless of whether we are or not).  He believes there is a metaphysical aspect to the violent death of anyone.  He believes when we comment regarding whether or not it was just, we are not merely expressing our opinion(s), but referring to some objective bar outside our own emotions, will, and desires.  Thus, there is an obvious and significant difference between the two.  What do we make of this difference?  Again, we don’t care who is right or wrong here.  We are not taking a side here.  We are simply addressing this difference.
So, if we take the view of the relativist, I believe we find a reduction to power that has, as least, two aspects.
First, it is a power to name what is “just” or “unjust”, moral or immoral; a power not open or available to the objectivist for obvious reasons.  If asked his reasons for naming one death just and another not, the relativist, once we peel back every surface reason, like appeals to law, culture, family, personality, nature, his personal views on justice, etc., once we establish he believes morality doesn’t exist by objective referent (he is a skeptic/nihilist), our regress will get to a pure desire and will to name something thus, to name it “this” and not “that”.  Since there is nothing outside his will and desire he need appeal to (and how could he as in his mind, no such thing exists), since he has an unhindered metaphysical freedom, since he is only bound by the freedom and will of others, this is a reduction.  Since he believes we cannot justify our assertions regarding morality, or justice, then by fiat, by sheer will, he announces it so.  This is a pure reduction to power.

This aspect is noted here from another angle:

“Whatever you call it, skepticism about moral truth-aptness runs into several problems. If moral assertions have no truth-value, then it is hard to see how they can fit into truth-functional contexts, such as negation, disjunction, and conditionals. Such contexts are also unassertive, so they do not express the same emotions or prescriptions as when moral claims are asserted.”
Here very clearly we see the difference between what a relativist means when he says something is unjust and an objectivist, or, frankly, most people in general.  When he says something is “unjust” or immoral, he doesn’t mean it in a truth-functional way or in a way that negates the exact opposite.  He only means it is unjust in his mind, in his opinion, and he is not suggesting that the exact opposite view is wrong or false.  He is not prescribing, or asserting an “ought” nor is he suggesting we ought to “feel” a certain way about his view or the opposite view.  He is naming something “just” or “unjust”, because until he does so it being just or unjust doesn’t exist.  Like a god, he makes it so by naming it so.  This is pure power.  The objectivist, and most people in general, rather, think when they say something is just or unjust, that they are agreeing, not naming, that which was already named by objective referent.  There is a clear and absolute difference in how each looks at what they are doing when asserting something is just or unjust, moral or immoral.
Second, it is a reduction to power in the sense, as noted by Thrasymachus, that justice is “only” the advantage of the stronger.  Here “stronger” we can take as power in its more literal and common usage.  Power here is strength, whether physical, intelligence, economic, material resources, political, military, majoritarian rule, etc.   If justice is the advantage of the stronger, then violence is being used, not truly for justice, which doesn’t exist anyway (no truth-value), but rather to enforce my will, my desire, my power to name.  The word “just” is then just a covering for my will and desire.  We can see this simply by listing what the relativist believes—the rest follows logically:
Our dogmatic moral skeptic believes one or more of the following:
Skepticism about moral truth is the claim that no substantive moral belief is true.
Skepticism with moral falsehood is the claim that every substantive moral belief is false.
Skepticism about moral reality is the claim that no moral facts or properties exist. (Stanford Link)
If no substantive moral belief is true, or if every substantive moral belief is false, or if no moral facts or properties exist, then using the terms “moral” “immoral” “ethical” “unethical” “good” “evil” only refer to mental and subjective announcements of one’s personal and emotional desires or will, whether one is a Nazi or a girl scout.
Therefore, inherent in this process is a pure and absolute power to name what is “moral” which is not limited in any metaphysical fashion; consequently, the only limitation is that of other people who also are completely free to name what is “moral” and thus the only way to overcome the one limitation is through power, as we cannot justify why our view is “moral” and do not recognize the justifications of others for their own views.  Thus, to enforce our version of “moral” amounts to the exercise of power and not reason, so a pure reduction to power exists from the naming to the enforcing.
In other words, ifthere is no moral reality, facts, or properties (objective referents) and if every substantive moral belief is false, then all we are really saying when we talk about such things, is “This is what I want, will, or desire or what I don’t want, will, or desire”.  At the same time, we believe our objectivist friends to be mistaken, wrong, about these objective referents and thus, in fact, they are “really” saying (here is the “you too” response) the same thing when they talk about morality.  Thus, violence is about getting what I (we) want; it is not really about these stand-ins, covering terms which are a gloss at best.  We are in the habit of using them because they historically have meant such things actually existed.  But this is a habit of custom, and frankly just politeness at this point, the relativist might tell us.  One could actually envision a day when leaders, the powerful, will simply assert: Because I say so and I’m stronger than you (Trump anyone?).
Now, if someone believes the opposite, these differences (what I am calling a reduction) do not happen—they do not logically follow.  Just like it would not logically follow to assert that both atheists and Christians, given their beliefs about the after-life, look at funerals the very same way in that both simply believe people are dead now.  Well, we know that is not true and does not respect the view of either.  One cannot assert that believing the opposite of the relativist as to morality, justice, and the use of violence leads us to see the difference as a reduction too—it is a logical impossibility.
So there we have it.  I claim these two reductions are the logical implications of the moral skeptic’s prior metaphysical beliefs about the nature of existence (physical nature is all that exists—which creates the difference in outlook from the objectivist).  For whatever other objections or faults we can find regarding the objectivist position, I don’t think we can logically claim the identical or similar sorts of reductions to power, metaphysically.  Of course we know descriptively that violence and power are used by both the objectivist and relativist, but we also know such is entirely irrelevant to the discussion unless we are simply taking the relativist position, which would be question begging (We would then have to say there is no difference between the pictures of dead bodies).  Now, the difference between our relativist and the objectivist exists.  I have chosen to describe that difference as a reduction to power.  That is my opinion.  You may disagree with me.  You may assert there is another way to look at this difference.  I absolutely agree.  But what is it?  No one has yet told us anything about this difference, except to wonder if it even exists (Ummm, it does—that is undisputed in the literature).  The only topic of discussion here is this difference and how we describe or talk about it—that is all I’m interested in—nothing else.
Finally, I believe if we take the moral skeptic’s view that morality, like witches, do not exist and that we cannot justify what we decide to call “moral” or “just”—that it is a pure assertion by fiat (only moral or justifiable in that sense and only to ourselves personally), then the use of violence can never be justified although one is free to use violence.  Violence just “is”.  All violence then, no matter who is committing it, no matter the reason (they are false reasons to our skeptic), no matter whether it is ISIS or the West, criminal gang, law enforcement, white supremacist, girl scout, it is all neither just nor unjust—it just “is” it just happens.  The powerful, whomever walks away unscathed or is still living, then gets to “name” or proclaim that by their very victory, by their having the last word, their side was “just” and their use of violence “justified”.
As I’ve pointed out many times, neither view can be proven in any sort of empirical or scientific sense.  Both views are assumed by faith, whether the moral skeptic or objectivist.  We know the moral skeptic believes “science” supports only their view but we also know such is scientism and not science.  Both views tell a story about morality, violence, justice, and how those terms/ideas should be understood.  As in the movie “Life of Pi” I would ask” Which story would you rather believe?  Do you want to believe that violence just “is”—that there is no metaphysical ontological difference between the deaths of those in the Nazi death camps and those who were hung for their actions at Nuremberg?  Do you want to believe that “justice” is whatever the powerful say it is?  Or, would you rather believe the story that tells us “justice” is something neither the powerful nor the weak get to “name” but is something already named and something both the powerful and weak need to observe as a matter of fairness, a matter of “justice.”?   
A critical point here is one can only make the “you too” argument if he agrees with our relativist and thinks the relativist’s beliefs, as noted, are true.  If we are not trying to prove anything or are worried about who is right or wrong, we can at least see these significant differences between the two views.  If we take neither side and simply analyze, one cannot make the “you too” response as it would be asserting the objectivist is wrong and the relativist right.  Remember, the “you too” response isthe relativist response to any objectivist.  However, it is the very thing disputed; it is question-begging. 
Also, if we say both views lead to the reductions just noted, we clearly don’t understand the difference then.  We cannot say this difference exists (and all know it does, including the relativist and objectivist), but both lead to these reductions.  Such an assertion is to show a complete lack of respect for either view.  These options are simply not open to us, in any logical manner at least.  If anyone out there doesn’t see this difference or doesn’t believe it exists, then please do not comment.  A conversation is only possible if we see and recognize the difference.
We may not see or want to call this difference a reduction to power on one side (relativist) and a limitation of power on the other (objectivist), as I have chosen to label it such, but we should be able to speak to these differences and where they may lead in other realms of discourse, regardless of how I have labeled them.  If anyone would like to address this difference, these questions, and the post in general (in context with the other posts and comments) and can do so without simply saying one side is correct and the other false, or that both lead to the same reductions metaphysically (I’m not going to waste time speaking to the logically impossible), please do.
Another quick thing to note.  In the Stanford link regarding moral skepticism, nowhere does he single out fundamentalists or even address that sensibility, whether religious or otherwise.  Why?  Because it is totally irrelevant to anything being discussed.  Nor does positing what the moral skeptic believes amount to a tautology as if the only thing the Stanford writer was pointing out was that the moral skeptic doesn’t believe in objective referents (Thank you Captain Obvious!).  That would be a silly, let alone completely obtuse, conclusion to draw from everything he writes regarding moral skepticism and it would be for what I write as well—there is nothing in this post or this series that is trying to “prove” a premise or assumption.  We are simply accepting the premises and assumptions of the moral skeptic for sake of argument to see where it might lead.  When the Stanford writer notes the problems with moral skepticism (he is drawing conclusions) he is not simply pointing back to the premises of the skeptic but noting the very problems that flow from those premises.  Conversely, just because anyone doesn’t like where I think moral skepticism leads, doesn’t make what I write a tautology (Do I even need to point this out?).  I will not address any such further absolutely ridiculous and completely off the mark types of objections.  They are a total waste of time and a poor reflection upon any who would bring them up.  To voice such an objection is either intellectual laziness/ignorance or a ruse to avoid addressing the substance of these posts, the use of violence and the nature of justice.
Finally, if any comment or objection is already addressed in the post I will simply respond: “See post”.  I’m not going to repeat in the comment section, the same thing I just wrote in the post or those prior.  Please read carefully.  I will also not address any comment not accompanied by a quote of what they are specifically responding to in the post.  It is unfortunate that I have to do this, but otherwise people seem to get the idea that it is their blog, their agenda, and their forum.  It is not.  I’m not interested in some other conversation, some other relativist, or some other point (although there may be many!).  I am interested in what I have written- this conversation, this relativist, and these points.  If you are too, then feel free to engage; otherwise, one is always welcome to post on their blog or create one for that purpose.  Cheers. 
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101 Responses to When is Violence Justified? What is Justice?

  1. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    See previous comments. Nothing new here. Asked and answered. Yawn.

    Cheers.

    Like

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