Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Justice

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she considers how Justice works in the Aristotelian anarchy.


Alice Turtle

Justice Is a Virtue

When people talk about justice these days, we often do so in terms of rights and results: Does a particular outcome or process respect the rights people have, and does it result in the right disposition of goods or people or privileges or what-have-you?

Aristotle instead wanted us to consider justice as a variety of virtue — a habitual state of character possessed by the just person and expressed by the desires the just person has and the acts those desires induce the just person to take.

What motivates a just person to not try to craftily get more than their fair share? The fact that it’s better to be just and have less than to be unjust and have more. One’s eudaimonia (thriving, flourishing, happiness) is improved more by being just than by getting more stuff or more glory or whatever.

Becoming a just person, in Aristotle’ framework, is primarily about developing the sort of character that desires to be just, and only secondarily about becoming better informed about the nuances of what makes certain acts more just than other ones. Contrast that with most modern ethical philosophy, which can split hairs about trolley problems until the cows come home, without ever addressing how to incorporate a love for justice into one’s character.

“How convenient it is to be a reasonable creature,” Benjamin Franklin noted, “since it enables one to make or find a reason for whatever one has a mind to do.” If you have a sophisticated enough understanding of ethics, but no just character, you will have the tools you need to enable you to justify anything you want to do. If, on the other hand, you want to be just, you will study just enough ethics to help you make a just decision, without getting lost in a swamp of sophistry.

However, since not everybody is going to be self-motivated by virtue in this way, you may find that in your anarchy it is important to call out and praise just actions in others, and to disparage unjust ones. In this way you bestow honor to compensate those who for the sake of justice forego material advantages and feel this to be a sacrifice, and depreciate the gains of the unjust with public shame.

Justice is Socially Constructed

But Aristotle also thought that to be just and to practice justice requires a certain sort of political context. Indeed he felt that one of the primary reasons people form political communities in the first place is to enable them to develop and cultivate this virtue.

To some extent, justice is only possible in a political community that defines some standards against which to weigh competing claims. Also, for a person to (for instance) “own” a piece of property means that other people respect that ownership in certain ways. That means those other people must become aware of and respectful of things like changes of ownership via contracts, transactions, judicial procedures, movement of boundary markers, and so forth, and must have protocols for understanding which such transactions are valid and which are bogus, and this can only happen in a political context.

There is a sort of baseline justice — not preying on people with violence or deceit, and not submitting to the violence or deceit of others — that anyone can and should practice anywhere. But the more advanced and nuanced justice of the political community requires a well-tuned understanding of how people relate and have related to one another, to the shared understandings and values of the community, and to the processes of negotiation, adjudication, and rectification that people respect. This sort of wisdom is specific to a particular community at a particular time.

Ideally these two sorts of justice are in harmony with one another: the sophisticated political justice supplements a more baseline universal justice. But it’s not uncommon for them to conflict. Some traditional and accepted practice of your community, on closer inspection, turns out perhaps to be fundamentally unjust (e.g. slavery), or to have unusual corner cases where its heuristic value fails and it conflicts with baseline justice.

There may be legitimate reasons in any particular such case for either valuing justice absolutely and so challenging and behaving “unlawfully” in the face of the community’s unjust customs — or for permitting certain injustices to remain unredressed in favor of community harmony and the stability of the anarchy. Thoreau was weighing just such cases when he wrote:

If the in­jus­tice is part of the nec­es­sary fric­tion of the ma­chine of gov­ern­ment, let it go, let it go: per­chance it will wear smooth, — cer­tainly the ma­chine will wear out. If the in­jus­tice has a spring, or a pul­ley, or a rope, or a crank, ex­clu­sively for it­self, then per­haps you may con­sider whether the rem­edy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a na­ture that it re­quires you to be the agent of in­jus­tice to an­other, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter fric­tion to stop the ma­chine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend my­self to the wrong which I con­demn.

Sometimes also, human laws and customs come into conflict with each other. Some act which is mandatory under one law is simultaneously forbidden under another. This happens all the time with intricate law codes designed by carefully precise lawyers, and so we should not be surprised to see this also in the fuzzier heuristics of the anarchist community. I can imagine Antigone playing out much the same way, and being just as tragic, without a King Creon.

Aristotle taught that there was another virtue, equity, that supplements justice and permits those who possess it to make decisions that improve on the strict commandments of law and tradition. When laws conflict, or when the application of a law would lead to a poor result, the person with a sense of equity will know how to break the letter of the law in favor of the spirit of the law. This is more of an art than a science, and it requires careful discretion since the parties in a conflict will naturally have self-interested motives to plead the cause of equity to bend the law in their own favor.

Aristotle described equity this way, which seems to be pretty good advice:

It is equity to pardon human failings, and to look to the [intentions of the] lawgiver and not to the law; to the spirit and not to the letter; to the intention and not to the action; to the whole and not to the part; to the character of the actor in the long run and not in the present moment; to remember the good rather than evil, and good that one has received, rather than good that one has done; to bear being injured; to wish to settle a matter by words rather than by deeds; lastly, to prefer arbitration to judgment, for the arbitrator sees what is equitable, but the judge only the law, and for this an arbitrator was first appointed, in order that equity might flourish.

Political Equality

Aristotle taught that justice between people requires that those people have some minimum level of political status as well. One does not treat one’s slaves or one’s children with “justice” or “injustice” except perhaps metaphorically.

So in a tyranny, where the only real law is “what the tyrant says, goes,” there is little hope of establishing justice. In an oligarchy, there is one set of rules for the oligarchs, and another for the rest of us, so there may be political justice of a sort within or without, but at the boundary between the oligarchs and the rest of the population something else takes place. The systems most of us live under today are notorious for setting up some people above the law, and oppressing others by using the law as an arbitrary billy club.

This is certainly one of the selling points of anarchy: that it does not give some class of people special legal privileges, but treats everybody as a “citizen” — that is, as having equal political rights. An equal, inclusive form of justice — something so attractive that most other systems at least pay lip service to it — is actually achievable under anarchy.

Aristotle had to start pulling out the equations and ratios and geometry when he discussed distributive justice because, in his view, people have discrete social statuses in society, and so transactions between people in order to be just must respect those different social statuses and not disrupt them. In anarchy, this is greatly simplified. Privileges and common goods and just rights don’t need to be divvied up proportionally depending on people’s ranks, but can just be distributed equally.

This isn’t to say this happens automatically and without attention. Iniquitous discrimination can poison the constitution of an anarchy as it can any other. However anarchy denies a common avenue for small-minded people to leverage their bigotry via state coercion, and so limits the damage it can do.

Economic inequality can disrupt political equality. Can an anarchy survive the division of the polis into haves and have-nots? It may be that in the interest of preserving a healthy anarchist constitution, steps will need to be taken to discourage destabilizing economic inequality.

Laws and Customs

In constitutions with a formal legal code, and a ruling class of legislators, prosecutors, judges, executives, and so forth, there is usually something of a sharp distinction between what is legal/illegal on the one hand, and what is customary/frowned-upon on the other. Law covers some things, custom others. In the constitution of an anarchy, this distinction is likely to be much fuzzier.

Custom in some parts of life has the force of law, and woe to whoever violates it. In other parts it is more like the rules of manners, and violators at worst risk being seen as disrespectful clods (though reputation and character are much more valuable under the constitution of an anarchy, so this means more than it does under other constitutions). In other parts, custom is more like good advice, and violators are seen only as foolish and harming themselves.

Ideally the “laws” of the anarchist polis, in addition to defining conventional things like property and explaining best-practice processes, enjoin people to the virtues, that is, they tell everyone to be (and how to be) the best sort of flourishing people. In such a heavenly polis obedience to law coincides exactly with virtue: to be law-abiding is to be virtuous which is to be operating in your own best interest as well as the interest of the healthy constitution.

Another advantage to an anarchist constitution without a ruling class is that it is easier for people to submit gently to law/custom than to rulers/officers, because this is less likely to trigger feelings of being dominated or losing face.

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics