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Justice and Compassion

by David McCarthy

The purpose of this particular column is to get you thinking about some very basic questions—questions such as these: What is economic justice? What role can compassion play in economics? And what is the relationship between justice and compassion? It is far more important that you think about these things yourself and see where that takes you than to just read whatever I have to say about it. It has been said that wisdom has more of the character of a question than that of an answer. Therefore, if we want wisdom we need to engage ourselves with questions that matter.

Now obviously, when we talk of justice and compassion in economics, we are firmly in the camp of so-called “normative” theory. To those who may think that economics is all about objective observation and rational analysis, I would suggest that yes, it’s about these things, but what we are observing and analyzing is human behavior. We are humans observing humans (along with the world we live in), and if you honestly pursue that line of thought you will see that human values are inevitably involved. There is a profound level of existential cowardice at play when people avoid putting human values front and center in economics—or perhaps what is worse, dumbing down human values to the level of “more is better; it’s all about growth.” If we don’t avoid the normative question—if we take on the messier but more profound work of thinking in terms of human values—then at some point we start thinking about justice.
There is an interesting phrase in our Pledge of Allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.” That’s pretty juicy, isn’t it, when it comes to economics? Does individual liberty constitute justice? Certainly the principles of human freedom are a cornerstone of any kind of justice, not just the economic sort. But have we achieved it “for all?” And what would a complete picture of economic justice look like? Typically this discussion is framed in terms of the individual versus society as a whole. The individual likes freedom (and here we are leaving aside the question of whether we are talking about a healthy, sane individual or the sort of mere egomania that often passes for individualism). Society, on the other hand, needs and expects some limitations on individual behavior. If you leave it at that level, notice that the discussion is still centered on the individual. The tougher nut to crack is how to achieve justice for all individuals. And does “all” pertain to economic justice for those in the future who are yet to be born?
Now here’s another question: Why would anyone even wantjustice for all? If you think this one through, somewhere along the way the idea of compassion will come up. The idea of justice for all is linked to compassion for all. Why? Because to want justice for all means you have some sort of positive feeling for everyone, you believe in some kind of inherent equality, and furthermore you aspire for their wellbeing. That is compassion, and it also reminds us of the interesting point that for compassion to be real it has to be extended impartially. In this way, justice has something to teach us about compassion. Justice is not real if it is not universal. If it is not extended to everyone, there is injustice. In the same way, it has been taught that biased compassion is really not complete, because it contains the element of attachment to those we like and indifference (or worse) toward those we don’t.
These ideas of universal justice and universal compassion are amazing, because they show us something about the capacity of the human mind or spirit. We all have the capability of thinking this way. It is part of our inherent wisdom.
Now, as history has shown, the road from thought to action is not always easy. At the same time, we really have no choice but to keep trying. If we start with these principles, and go deeper into the details, we come to more questions. What are the ways we can enact compassion in economic life—as individuals, and at the macro scale of society? In a similar way, what are the details of justice? For example, are clean air, clean water, and a stable natural environment things that could be called rights? If so, what are we going to do to make good on those rights?
My work in economics is about exploring these questions. As always, I invite you to join in the conversation.