Saturday, May 16, 2009

Celebrating Justice

In the spirit of celebrating the right to life, in the midst of life-hating torture mongers like Pelosi and Cheney, here's an essay that an associate wrote for the Ayn Rand essay contest a while back. It's a discussion of justice as presented in Atlas Shrugged. Enjoy:

“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (979).

This quote at the end of John Galt's address to the world encapsulates the concept of justice developed throughout Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It is an oath by an individual, a thinking human being. The standard against which this oath is made is the highest possible, that of one's own life. That standard is reinforced by Galt's insistence that he loves his life—a caveat necessary for establishing the value of swearing by that life. What follows is the core: the idea that each and every person bears full responsibility for their own life and that it is both morally wrong to try to shift that responsibility to another and to shoulder the responsibilities of others thereby sheltering them from the consequences of their actions.

Rand's concept of justice is centered around the individual. Individuals have certain rights. These rights are guarantees of freedom based on the necessities of life as a human being. A just government is one which honors those rights. An unjust government violates them. A government is formed with the purpose of protecting the rights of individuals and what that essentially means is protecting people from assaults on their life. “But a government that initiates the employment of force against men who had forced no a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality” (973). Furthermore, because a system of government is simply a group of individuals created and maintained by the consent and active participation of its citizens, a government cannot exist without the sanction of those citizens. An unjust government cannot maintain itself without creating the illusion of legitimacy. But the illusion cannot be maintained without the sanction of the participants. Rearden understands this and thus refuses to participate in his “trial” in any way. Consequently, the judges find themselves powerless and must let him go. They cannot force his consent. They can only move his body or take his assets. But either of those actions would risk surrendering the illusion of legitimacy that is vital to maintaining their power.

“I will not help you pretend that I have a chance. I will not help you preserve an appearance of righteousness where rights are not recognized. I will not help you preserve an appearance of rationality by entering a debate in which a gun is the final argument. I will not help you pretend that you are administering justice.” (443)

Rearden acts in full accordance with Rand's concept of justice. He both refuses to contribute to his own immolation and shrugs off the burden of maintaining the illusions of others. He holds his own life as the highest value and the measure against which other values are judged. It is because of this supremacy of an individual's judgement, consent, and action that justice is not a value which is bestowed by government, but instead a value with which a just government must act in accordance.

Justice can also be seen to apply to individuals in their private interactions. The personal relationships of the main characters consistently echo these same themes. The principles are the same. Contradictions are impossible. If something seems not to fit, then there is something wrong with your assumptions. Power over another's actions cannot be forced, it can only be given or conceded. Lillian controls Rearden only through his own concession of guilt and he is miserable for it. In the absence of force, all interactions are voluntary. Rearden's emotional prison was one of his own making, built by his concessions to an ethical system inconsistent with the demands of reality. Justice entails obtaining what one deserves. In her treatment of Rearden's and Dagny Taggart's relationships, Rand shows how determining what one deserves is a process of rational evaluation that is intimately connected with one's estimation of their own self-worth. The key here being the word “rational”. Initially, Rearden views himself as shameful and lowly, hence he thinks he “deserves” Lillian. He thinks that justice is being served. But his reasoning is flawed. He deserves better. When he finally corrects his thinking, he realizes that there is nothing just about his situation with Lillian and ends it.

Dagny's relationships, too, are a series of character judgements. She is with Francisco, Rearden, and Galt in turn because they represent progressively purer models of her own rational values. She ends with Galt because he is the embodient of perfection in man as she sees him and she is the embodiment of perfection in woman as he sees her. However what makes this just is not only their mutual assessment but that that assessment is grounded in reality. Rearden's initial assessment of Lillian as someone who was worthy to be his wife (i.e. the best reflection of his own values) was flawed and not based on anything evidenced in her personality by fact of action but simply the desire to see that in her. This is supported by the parallel descriptions of their rationales for getting married.

The idea that justice implies a balance between values—that what you get out should equal what you put in—is not new. Neither is the idea of reality and reason being the fundamental determiners of what is just. Many cultures have viewed these as desirable. However, there is not a single example of a culture that does not create a contradiction at some point and thus undermine one or another. For example, Buddhism promotes an awareness of reality and one's place within it as fundamental to determining morality. However it then proceeds to say that wisdom is understanding reality as it “is” and not as it “appears” to be. What reality “is” is not defined, neither is what is meant by “illusion”. This vacuum is not rare in religious works. In the same way that fortune-telling may seem accurate, the definitions are left vague so that people can fill in their own assumptions. If someone believes that reality, really is, then they can interpret the religion as mirroring their own beliefs by interpreting illusion as being the lies people tell to cover their evasions. Conversely, if one is actively seeking to evade reality, they are free to loathe the “illusion” that is this world and claim that those involved in worldly affairs are somehow inferior or misguided. Judeism, Christianity, and Islam tend to cut out the whole issue of reason and claim that what is claimed to be just is so because God so ordained. Even thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas had to make compromises to accommodate their religion. In modern thought, too, there are few advocates of truly rational justice. The most prominent were the philosophers of the Enlightenment—Locke, Paine, Mill, and Jefferson among others. However, none of them ever made the explicit claim that it is equally as immoral to shelter people from the consequences of their actions as it is to expect others to shelter you. It is in this sense that the concept of justice in Atlas Shrugged stands apart.

No comments: