What is justice?

If you think you know what justice is, you're probably going to start killing people next.
  • Transcript


Question: What is justice?

Stephen Carter: I'm a very long way from understanding what justice is.  I’ve always been of the Isaiah Berlin view.  Isaiah Berlin is one of my favorite philosophers, and his view in a nutshell – it’s a little oversimplified, I guess – was that if you know for sure what justice is, you’re probably gonna start killing people next.  That is, his view is that most of the mystery . . .  I’m sorry.  His view is that most of the misery in our history and the world’s history has come because someone has thought they know the single truth, or the truth in the face of which all other truths must fall.  It could be a single religious truth, a single _________ or cultural truth.  It could be a single ideological truth.  When you know the one thing that’s the most important thing, the one crystal truth, his fear was that’s when you start letting all the ordinary barriers that keep us from doing terrible things fall because you want to do that terrible thing.  So I am a long way from claiming that I know what justice is.  A part of me simply wants us to follow the golden rule: Love the neighbor.  And I guess most people would endorse that.  But it’s awfully hard sometimes to figure out what love is.  And it’s awfully hard sometimes to figure out what the neighbor is.  And because of those difficulties, I’m a great believer in being modest in our claims of what we should force other people to do.  In fact, one of the things that confuses me and scares me about politics today in the United States and much of the world is that so much of the political debate is about what we should force people to do, what we should prohibit them from doing.  __________ left and the right __________.  _________different things I want to force and prohibit.  And I don’t have a sufficiently powerful sense of my own righteousness to be able to think first and foremost about what I should force people to do.  I have to think first and foremost about how I’m supposed to live myself, my own life, and what I’m supposed to do to encourage others or to inspire them rather than to forbid them or to force them.

Recorded on: July 25 2007