Kindness and JusticeMarch 21, 2009
“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.”
It always fascinates me that those who express disapproval of punishment take such a self-righteous tone. To me a belief in desert, and with it a belief in rewards and punishment, is an integral part of believing in right and wrong. If good deeds did not deserve to be rewarded, and bad deeds did not deserve to be punished, then it would be very doubtful whether “good” or “bad” would have any meaning at all. So why would somebody who denies desert, see themselves as occupying the moral high-ground, rather than denying the existence of any moral highground?
My theory is that it comes down to different virtues, in particular: being kind and being just. On the surface there is a similarity. Both kindness and justice require a concern for the worst off, and a belief in either might lead one to help others, particularly those who are suffering. However, there is a major difference. If you help others out of kindness you are helping because you feel like it. Ultimately it is about you. If you help others in the interests of justice, you help them because they deserve to be helped. It is about them. Kindness, while still a virtue, is limited by the extent of your compassion. Justice can only reach a limit by being satisfied. Acts of kindness serve our desire to do good, acts of justice serve goodness itself. Kindness seeks to order our actions; justice seeks to order the universe.
In practice the two are very different. Kindness suggests that we harm nobody, while justice requires the guilty are punished. Kindness might endorse feeding the starving; justice asks why they are starving in the first place and demands we do something about it. Kindness asks what we can afford to give; justice asks if there is anything we deserve to keep. Kindness can be given to anybody, even to cats and dogs; justice can only be given to the wronged. When you are praised for an act of kindness it is natural to say “that was the least I could do”. That is the most accurate description of kindness. We all, to some degree, live our lives in a kind way. None of us, to any degree, live our lives in a just way. It would take a deliberate effort never to make a kind action. It takes a deliberate effort ever to make a just action. If we listened to justice we might give away all we own to those who deserve it more. If we listened to justice we might have to give up control of our lives for the benefit of others. If we listened to justice we might have to get ourselves killed, by challenging those with the power. A little bit of kindness here or there is far, far easier.
Now, I don’t mean to dismiss kindness. In our day-to-day lives kindness improves the lives of those around us, particularly when it is born of love. In fact, very little else, does more to improve the lives of our friends, families, pets or acquaintances. It is good to be kind, and it is good that it is within our reach. But it is a personal quality. We can live kind lives; we can’t build kind institutions. We may have a kind mother, a kind friend or even a kind boss. We don’t shop in kind supermarkets, get educated in kind schools or live under kind laws. Even those institutions, such as charities, churches and families that might consider the practice of kindness to be part of their purpose would soon fall apart if that kindness was unconstrained. A charity which attempted to serve all good causes would soon cease to function. A church which embraced sin as much as sanctity would cease to be a church. A family into which everybody was adopted would cease to be a family. Justice, however, is something we can strive for in institutions. In fact this is about the only place we get to serve justice. Where we have power and authority over others, when we are making decisions between the conflicting interests of others, we are able to make decisions that aren’t about ourselves. A judge can be just. A politician can be just. A teacher can be just.
It is at this point we can turn to education. An education system can serve justice. It can seek to ensure that all receive what they are entitled to. It can give opportunities to those who lack them. It can provide education to the poor. It can judge the merits of different parts of the curriculum, and pass on a valuable heritage. It can make sure that nobody profits from harming the chances of others, and can see that children are governed in a fair manner and protected from each other. Unfortunately, these are not the aspirations of our education system. Kindness has taken over. No longer are children to be given greater opportunities or a chance to improve themselves. They are encouraged to feel good about themselves as they are now and their situation as it is now. No longer is hard work to be inflicted on the lazy; that would be cruel. The difficult choices involved in being just are to be replaced with the conviction that every problem could be solved if only everybody could be a little kinder. Punishment is rejected in favour of lavishing kindness on the guilty, even at the expense of their victims. Nobody is to be given what they deserve, when they can be given what seems nice. Even the word “education” is being sidelined, and replaced with words that suggest that schools are there simply to look after children not to improve them. An education system that was just in its actions would do far more for more children than one which simply allows the chattering classes to foist their kindness on the young. However, this is not on the horizon. Worse, if you dare cry out for justice, then you will be branded as uncaring. We live in a topsy-turvy world where it doesn’t matter how much harm you do as long as you appear to care about the people you are harming.
Chesterton, G.K., Heretics, 1905