What is Natural Justice?
A hard look at the (dys)functions of modern society through the lens of the OG western society, the Greeks.
Happy Solstice, dear reader 🌞 Today I read a piece that I know is going to change my default thinking on many things. It’s a true “Subject to Change” moment. Some ideas were immediate software updates to my brain. Others were like riddles of wisdom that, with time, I’m confident will become more clear to me.
It arrived in my inbox, and you can read it too if you'd like:
Most things that have to do with Henry George are not light reading. But here’s why anyone should bother reading it: It is a piece that questions some of the most foundational assumptions we have about the purpose of society, and puts everything on its head by going far enough back in time where things seemed to have proper directions towards the truth of things.
Truth nowadays is almost a dirty word. It’s because in our current reality, everything can be re-interpreted, mis-interpreted, recast as opposite of the original intent. I see this most prevalent in any context where the law is involved. Law tv-dramas love to highlight clever cross-examination techniques that get a witness in a twist which cause them to say something in a damning way. I often take notice that they didn’t actually say something damning, but rather it was the way they said it that was important to the plot.
Not just in TV law, but also in planning law do I see this all the time: the use of unfortunate planning policy wording to defend an anti-social status quo. Examples include:
the laws that provide reasonable protection of important architecture being misused and applied too broadly to stop development from happening;
modest intensification like building four stories in the place of one (which is gentle density we should want more of everywhere) is instead forbidden by law in many places, or fiercely fought by local neighbourhoodly opposition, or both;
the creation of a residential-only zone which forbids anyone from setting up a small corner-stores, daycares, cafes, libraries etc, even if the community as a whole would benefit from their local presence
It is enraging to observe the irrational (read: inhuman) outcomes that some of our man-made systems create. It is also enraging to see repeatedly how powerful people in our societies take such brazen advantage of those with less power, voice, and clout. They do this by twisting the truth, but I’ve never understood the mechanisms of truth-twisting until reading the essay.
Anyways. For my own benefit (and mayyybe yours), this is my attempt at sensemaking and commenting on the essay. It is kind of how I would try to clarify the ideas and the concepts of the essay in my notes system. Warning: It is long, but writing this helped me a lot, and I hope you receive some takeaways from this too.
The title was tantalizing me and I didn’t understand it until I had read most of the essay. “Natural” pertains to the essence of things, synonymous with “truth”, as in “my true hair color is brown” i.e. natural. “Justice” speaks to defining and protecting the rights to know and to live by this truth.
This essay goes back in time and looks at the origin of these words and more to shed light on where we went wrong and why things are the way they are today.
The essence of being human is to want to understand the whole; the truth.
I love an essay that digs into first principles. According to the author,
The concern to understand the truth of things shows itself to be the distinguishing feature of the human species.
Since earliest times this capacity to reflect on the nature of things has been bound up with the question of justice. The Greek word ‘kosmos’ contains justice as part of its meaning, and the notion of cosmic order meant the justice of the universe. This sense of cosmic justice grounds the quest for the just society. For the ancient philosophers, the question of the nature of society is bound up with the question of the place of human society in the natural order of things.
This is a very interesting take to me. It positions us first of all as a thinking species. We are Homo Sapiens, after all. Our multi-generational passings downs of our collective understanding of truth, or wisdom as some might call it, is what sets us apart. We’re curious and we wonder about what makes things the way they are. We’re constantly theorizing about root causes and downstream effects of things we see around us, within a theory of the whole. This rationalizing and truth-finding behaviour is an immutable part of who we are.
Justice is the enquiry into the truth of things.
For the Greek philosophers human society was part of nature, a natural phenomenon, just as the flourishing of every other species.
Justice is a commitment to live in alignment with the truth, or the nature of things. For humans, justice looks inherently social in nature. We are especially interested in the enquiry of our own nature since there are plenty of examples where we have the capacity to go against our own nature, if we put our minds to it. For example, anti-social behaviour goes against our own nature. We have the faculties to be deceitful and manipulative for personal benefit. We are fully able to tear each other down due to envy. We have the capacity to hoard resources despite others having greater need than us. These are conscious choices that hurt the social contract between the individual and the community.
The human person is here understood as an essentially communal being, a participant in the whole community. The capacity to participate and share in the responsibilities of society is the measure of the stature of the individual.
In pursuit of justice, the truth here is that none of those behaviours contribute to mutually beneficial harmony in human society. None of them are deemed constructive in a communal setting. Philosophers have articulated the concept of the common good, which defines the notion of that which benefits society as a whole. What benefits society naturally benefits the individual. However, that which benefits the individual doesn’t necessarily benefit society. Using the definition of the common good, one could rationally categorize those anti-social behaviours as unjust.
Ultimately all philosophy is concerned with how the human race can live justly and in accord with nature.
Humans have a strong desire to live according to truth. The truth can only be discovered through enquiry. Therefore, the process of enquiry is of great importance and is why the Ancient Greeks employed political discourse.
“Politics is essentially continual deliberation on justice.”
Politics in Ancient Greece is where the most heated debates about the nature of society and the individual were expected to take place. Debate, and the use of language, was the tool that the Greeks believed they could use to get closer to finding the truth.
For Plato and Aristotle the full flowering of human nature is possible only through political discourse. Anthropos is the being of language. Aristotle says “speech is for making clear what is beneficial and harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust” (Politics 1253a8-18).
A political society […] is essentially ethical, concerned with the common good, with the best way of life for the human community. This is the proper end of speech, to discern justice and avoid injustice.
The role of political discourse, in this sense, is to be used as a method to apply justice in new and emerging situations.
Law is the ability for society to protect what it thinks is just, and to condemn that which is unjust.
From this arises the ability to make laws, because the discernment of justice opens the possibility of foresight into the consequences of good or harmful action.
We started with an active inquiry into the essence of human nature, supplemented by a deliberate pursuit to define and discern between good and harmful behaviours through philosophy and politics. Together these activities give shape to an evolving definition of justice, which allows us the opportunity to record and standardize them in law.
Therefore, the role of laws is to define what we commonly know and agree upon as the spectrum of truth regarding human ongoings.
The law is not a doctrine or a set of decrees, it is the natural motion of nature towards completeness and goodness.
Again, a reminder that the law exists to serve and guide society towards that which ideally makes us more whole and good. It’s not something that should feel forced or coerced. It should sound like we’re writing laws like we can describe the direction of the natural flow of water: with certainty and rationality that is anchored in truth.
Law introduces the concept of the ‘good’ of each thing and the whole. Law is not a force imposed on things from outside, but is an expression of their nature. For something to be ‘unlawful’ means it departs from its proper end. Everything in its nature moves itself towards its proper end out of its own nature, not from outside itself. At the same time as it seeks its own proper end or perfection, it also moves and works in harmony with the whole cosmos – with the justice of the universe.
And finally, how to go from good to goldstar human in Greek society:
To discern the law was to be human, and to be just was to be fully human.
Rational = Ethical
In the time of Ancient Greece, it is easy to trace the lineage of thought where what was Rational was also Ethical.
From classical times until the end of the Middle Ages ‘nature’ meant the arising of all things and their growth towards perfection. It is essentially an activity. So the ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of anything was the perfect actualisation towards which it strove.
Rationality came from our human nature to seek and understand the truth about nature. Rationality is part of human nature.
Ethics came from our capacity as a social species to talk about truths in the grey zone until we could agree on a common understanding of it together i.e. pass judgment on the nature of things.
Importantly, both were always in service of the common good.
The essay did a phenomenal job in building up my understanding on the original meaning of things like Justice, Politics and Law. However, a larger part of the essay is dedicated to how things have broken down since. I will keep this section short because it is sad and depressing, yet all too familiar.
In the 1600s and 1700s, there were several philosophical divergences that redefined the way we saw our place in nature:
“Nature is just a machine which human ingenuity can master and control”
This mechanistic/material view of the world, which counts beans and looks primarily at efficiencies and optimization, became more favourable. We started to look at things in isolation. We started specializing heavily, which created silos of knowledge. Great leaps and innovations were created in very localized areas, at the cost of understanding the whole picture. Every thing became redefined by its usefulness, which overrode its essence.
The worship of the individual
This ethic of guarded self-interest is not an ethic at all, but a sophistic justification of the primacy of the individual over the common good.
Related to isolation, another divergence in thinking happened where the role of the individual evolved from being a part of society, to being a pawn in the game of me vs the rest. Society went from cooperative, to adversarial.
This new conception of natural law is no longer the natural justice which brings all things into mutually beneficial harmony, it is the law of mutual opposition, of competing selves each seeking the maximum gain for itself.
Basically, there will always be losers from now on.
Survival of the fittest applied out of context
Darwin’s recent revelatory works on The Origin of Species described the overriding force that dictated biological evolution, which was this idea of “survival of the fittest”. Some dude thought it would be fitting to use this as a new way to think about social evolution:
The conception of society as competing interests gained strong support on the nineteenth century from the theory of biological evolution. Herbert Spencer propounded a theory of social evolution in which only the strongest individuals are meant to survive. In this view, political attempts to mitigate poverty resist natural selection, and are therefore misguided.
We basically made it unlawful to try to intervene in poverty, and we’re still suffering from this mentality today.
The unhinging of the meaning of progress
The idea of social evolution, as continuous adaptation defers the fully ‘evolved’ society into an indefinite future, justifying all present ills.
This sentence is deep. It’s basically saying that our current poor state of affairs become the excuse to continue to keep things the way they are. It’s messed up.
The classical understanding that a society flourishes through deliberation on the immediate common good, and that citizenship manifests through mutual concern for justice, now becomes an impossibility, a utopian dream.
Why utopian? Because everything that the common good stands for has become vilified.
Where does that leave us?
These philosophical divergences gave way to this new hierarchical, power-hungry, resource-intensive human activity aka proto-capitalism. We find ourselves in civic purgatory, where we are progressing in terms of material churn, but we have regressed in terms of social progress.
And this shift in thinking caused everything that we just learned about Justice, Politics and Law to get turned on its head.
Human nature was diminished to mere labour, land to mere resource, and capital to a mere tool for making a monetary return.
Justice is no longer about the active enquiry into the nature of things. The nature of things became set as decreed by influential humans. Justice would from now on be in service of artificial truths, unhinged from human nature.
Politics is no longer deliberation on what is just and unjust, but becomes the endless negotiation of competing self-interests.
Sadly, this is a much more familiar description of what I know politics to be.
Positive law can no longer aim at what is best, but can seek to only mitigate what is worst.
Instead of being aspirational, our laws are painfully defensive. Its presence is designed as a deterrent of bad behaviour, rather than a promoter of best behaviours. Because Law is no longer anchored in Justice, which has ceased to be a working definition of the truth of things, the Law has become inhuman and harsh. I will point to Corporate Law as an example of this, and how “incorporated” companies (an artificially-created concept of an entity) stand on equal footing and have the same rights as actual flesh-and-bone humans. The absurdity is complete.
Next step, forever: foster a culture of enquiry
This new order of things is frustrating at the best of times, absolutely maddening at the worst of times. But at least now I can make sense of the truth-twisting that is out there. And the anti-dote to this is relentless enquiry.
Insofar as a society accepts falsehoods and injustice it abdicates from its essential human purpose.
We must not abdicate. We must not back down. Giving up is not an option. Take breaks and rests, but we must stay true to our nature, and ask questions; drill down to the truth:
The work called for is that of understanding. It is a creative work, natural to the human intelligence, worthy of dedication, and fosters peaceful discourse.
Justice is hard labour. We may never reach the end of that which can be understood. Yet, it is a noble task worth taking:
The true and the good are two sides of one reality. The quest to understand the truth of things springs from the essence of human nature. It orients humanity towards the world. Yet it ever remains an aspiration, an open-ended quest.
I highly recommend reading the original. Most of the stuff on Georgism I omitted in my writeup here because of my poor understanding of the content still. I trust that with time, its wisdom will come to me.
I spent a whole night writing this because I felt so strongly about delivering this piece to you. It probably has many mistakes which are all mine and I take full responsibility for it.
But despite all that, I hope something stood out to you.
And now, it’s time for me to sign off. Until next week xo
PS I’m still offering to meet people in the Subject to Change community for 20 minute PKM meet-and-greets! Not sure how much longer I’ll continue to do this so if you were on the fence this far, perhaps this is the sign you needed to just go for it 🌈
Fei, This is a great post! I love the format of commenting on another essay - almost like we are reading along with you.
Cool to see you’re a fan of the P&P newsletter as well. I was also recently introduced and I think some of George’s ideas are how we ultimately can turn capitalism into a more sustainable system.
Also, I’ve always loved the Stoic mantra of “Live according to nature” and this article is probably the best description of what exactly that means that I’ve read
This is Phenomenal! Since political discourse of the kind described is an extremely rare opportunity, meditation is my path to return to what is naturally right in myself and the world.