A perspective on justice | Inquirer Opinion

A perspective on justice

Justice is at once familiar, and strange. We have an inkling of what it is, yet do not have a cookie-cutter definition at our disposal, except that of “giving everyone their due,” a formula that takes us back to Plato, Aristotle, and St Augustine. A problem with this definition, scholars like Hans Kelsen posit, is how do we determine what is due to another person? How shall we measure that which we owe another, and further down, what is that which everyone is entitled to, and hence may be said to be due to all of us?

On one level, it is easy to determine an obligation: When one works for another, say mow a neighbor’s lawn, the worker is entitled to a just fee — in an amount fixed by law or contract, or the worker may mow gratis as a volunteer. Legal and contractual obligations are usually neatly determined; exceptional violations or ambiguous stipulations are settled in courts.


Some rights, however, have origins beyond law or contract, and are demandable on the basis of the fact — and only on the fact—that one is human, possessing (or potentially possessing) rationality and autonomy. Some call this human rights. An example of a right possessed just by being human is the right to human dignity. This includes being free from bodily or psychological harm, and to be at liberty to choose where one wants to be, what one wants to do, or who one wants to be with, within the bounds of law. The right subsumes sub-rights of being respected, not to be harassed, battered, bullied, talked down, or shamed for what one is, what one looks like (skin color, body shape, etc.), or what one believes in.

A simple definition of justice is that it is the opposite of selfishness. By “selfishness,” I adopt French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s definition—when the “self is unjust in itself.” This happens when, as Pascal says, the “self makes itself the center of everything,” that is, it is entitled to everything from everyone. By this definition, a train or bus passenger who mindlessly talks loudly or blares mobile music unmindful of the irritation among those sitting nearby is “unjust,” albeit in a minor way, for not considering the needs of other passengers. The same is true for karaoke owners who play out their amplifiers beyond the confines of their homes regardless of the time of night.


Businessmen or landowners who feed their workers substandard food they themselves won’t eat, or talk down to their laborers in a tone they themselves will not use when speaking with their peers, is exhibiting “unjust” behavior for making their self-interests the center of their universe, with those in the lower ranks becoming mere footnotes to their narratives. These are the proverbial people whose long table elbows side-sweep everything outside the trajectory of their interests.

When the self “makes itself the center of everything,” Pascal says, it makes itself “inconvenient to others,” for either it will dominate or, worse, “enslave” the other, or make the other selves its “enemy,” thereby making his own self the “tyrant of all others.” A selfish person necessarily becomes tyrannical as it listens to no one’s needs except one’s own.

Selfishness, with its concomitant injustice, is not always committed alone. Erich Fromm talks of egoism à deux, a type of collective selfishness where the ego subsumes another person in a private and ostensibly loving relationship, but to the detriment of other people around them. An example is nepotism, which is patronage or favoritism bestowed on the basis of blood relationship or friendship, a practice common in politics as in business. The only “good” thing about nepotism, if seen from the viewpoint of the one benefiting, is it gives a free pass to persons (who may or may not be competent) whose only qualification is personal connection. Others with more remit are summarily if unfairly and unjustly excluded.

The same goes for vote-buying, which swings a supposedly democratic process to favor the rich; or bribery, that age-long practice of secretly peddling amounts or favors to persons in authority in order to influence the outcome of decision-making and judgments. Fair play is not only sacrificed on the altar of these back-dealing, dark-cloaked arrangements, but faith in the very institutions themselves, ostensibly representing justice on earth, is desecrated.

Countries can be unjust, too, if it unduly prioritizes its or its majority’s needs over, and to the detriment, starvation, or oppression of, its minorities or other countries around it. True justice is not only for one, or a few, but for all members of the human species, and beyond that, if we follow insights engendered from deep ecologists, for all creation, including non-human animal species. Humans, who are given capacity to best understand justice at its most encompassing, are bestowed the responsibility to utilize that understanding to promote equitable fairness, rather than lopsidedly wallowing and remaining servile to one’s pet interests.

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Dr. Gil Tabucanon ([email protected]) is an adjunct senior lecturer of law at The University of Notre Dame in Sydney.

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TAGS: Commentary, Gil Marvel P. Tabucanon, justice
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