The Absurdity of Justice and Judgment

Anyone who wishes to lay claim to the title of “philosopher” must do, and always continue to do, two things: examine cause and effect, and question the gods of society, that is the various popular beliefs and prejudices people hold. These two duties often overlap.

One issue regarding which I can indeed fulfill both of them at the same time, is the area of justice and judgment. To understand ourselves better, we would often do well to examine not only our own thoughts, but also their genealogy, how our beliefs came to be what they are. We must look at their causes, which in turn might help us question them. Questioning does not always have to lead to rejection, but in accepting we must always be ready to reject.

Immanuel Kant: philosophical father of the brainless bourgeoisie

Most people today believe in free will, and justice and retributive judgment are considered impossible without it. But most people do not know that free will is essentially a Christian concept. Even those who despise Christianity cherish their free will very much, not realizing, ignorant as they are, that free will was developed mainly as a defense of Christian theology. (That is not the entire truth; I have written in greater detail about this in my third book, Die Notwendigkeit der Notwendigkeit, which was also my doctoral dissertation, especially on pp. 103-109, but there is no question that Christian theology, particularly at the hands of Augustine, played the most crucial part in crystallizing the notion of free will.) Kant, a liberal but ultimately quite religiously minded thinker, also contributed a great deal to the anchoring of free will in the popular consciousness. Kant is for many reasons a very dangerous thinker, and he has caused a lot of damage, one reason being that in rejecting a great deal of Christian dogma he nonetheless insisted on preserving a lot of its metaphysical absolutism, so that such irrational absolutism became acceptable even to the non-religious. A more salutary result would have been for people who rejected religion to also reject any pretension to a higher metaphysical dogma. But as things are, most people today who pride themselves on rationally rejecting religion, unwittingly preserve in their thought and mentality much of what is at its core religious metaphysics. They do not know how to face the world without it. Kant, who values morality over art, is thus a precursor of the sort of bourgeois liberal one sees everywhere.

Kant himself acknowledges that he cannot prove free will scientifically or rationally – and at least I give him credit for that, because indeed no such proof is possible. But in several passages his insistence on free will comes forth strongly, such as in the third antinomy of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, where he posits a sort of Aristotelian principle or beginning (Greek arche) of action in human beings themselves, as opposed to in their exterior world; in the analytic of the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft; also, passim, in the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten.

(The perspicacious reader will interject: But if the arche is already Aristotelian, then surely free will antedates Christianity. This is an important point and the reason why I said above that the Christianity of free will is not the entire truth. Essentially, whereas free will itself is Christian, the seeds of free will – as of so much else – were planted by the pagan Greeks. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and even Plato in the Republic laid the philosophical groundwork for what later became free will, but what is to them rather the link between responsibility and action does in Christianity become the absolute necessity of metaphysical freedom, for if human beings are not free, God must be held responsible for their crimes.)

          Aristotle: a lot smarter than Kant

So once we have rejected free will along with religion, since there is no part of us that is pure will, independent of all the physical impressions and facets that make us what we are (in my own case, such facets as “21st century A.D.”, “thirties”, “man”, and “Brazilian-Scandinavian former professor”, along with a million other things), we must inquire about the nature of justice and judgment, which are normally assumed to rest on the freedom of the doer.

We must seek to establish moral judgment, which is necessary and unavoidable, through external criteria. We must do this in order for society to function properly. Since, however, we punish the criminal who was ultimately not free not to commit the crime, there is an underlying absurdity to our corrective action. Absurdity is a fundamental component of much of what we do, and it is fair to say that the functioning of our society rests on an absurd principle, namely the establishment of moral norms that people have no choice to follow or not to follow. Then again, calling it absurd to some extent presupposes a proto-Christian metaphysic, because by calling it absurd we assume that the cosmos should be just, i.e. that there really must be some higher connection between punishment and willful bad action. But why should we assume this?

It is difficult, although necessary, to find criteria for judgment, and these will necessarily be arbitrary, since we reject metaphysics. So even though we like to think that in exacting punishment we are somehow executing a form of higher justice, we are in fact only acting arbitrarily. Ultimately, our action is directed by the pleasure principle – all of our action is aimed at pleasure in some way (if I am faithless to my spouse, I derive pleasure from the sexual encounter; if I remain faithful, I have the pleasure of knowing that I acted the right way, etc.) – which means that all action is selfish to some degree. Only common people believe that there is such a thing as a purely selfless action. And yet we must distinguish between different degrees of selfishness in establishing moral criteria. A good starting point in the search for such criteria might be the benefit or pleasure that other people may derive from a particular action. If, for example, I ignore my friends because I am in the pursuit of money (assuming for the sake of argument that I do not have any philanthropic purposes and that my wealth does not create jobs for other people and so on), this may be more selfish than if I ignore my friends because I am busy creating a work of art that will be a gift to all mankind. More generally, an action in which I give myself the pleasure of having caused pleasure for someone else may be better than an action in which I give pleasure directly to myself without anyone else being involved. This distinction is naturally arbitrary, but human arbitration is the best thing we have in moral matters, because although the truth of the syllogism, for example, is an absolute truth, it does not help us morally. (To look back at Aristotle again: if one looks at the sort of activities that he identifies with eudaimonia – happiness – and those he identifies with hedone – a lower pleasure – I think this arbitrary criterion fits quite well.)

We are thus forced to accept the arbitrariness, and hence in a certain sense the arrogance, of our own judgments and values. But since we are all guilty of doing this, for there is no other choice, we might as well say that we are all innocent, because there is no non-guilty standard in existence against which we can measure ourselves. Such a standard would require the dogmatically absolute metaphysics of a free will.

The use of the word “arrogance” itself is also treacherous, however, because when we say that it is arrogant to pass judgment on others based on arbitrary criteria, we thereby assume a link, yet again, between responsibility and freedom, and by that assumption we establish a higher metaphysical norm. But what is the ground for such an assumption? But for God, there is none.

Finally, the arbitrariness and in some sense absurdity of justice does not mean, to return to the subject of my last post, that all values or judgments are equal. Yes, they are all equally arbitrary, as I have explained, because there is no metaphysical standard against which we can measure them, but in searching for our own moral criteria, which is necessarily a procedure of trial and error, we must then proceed to measure our values against those criteria. Essentially, we arbitrate that one arbitrary value is better than another, and we thereby establish the worth of a particular value vis-à-vis another, though we are sometimes forced to revise the moral criterion instead.