Justice and Happiness

Love is justice, justice is love. | Joseph Fletcher

Though I am optimistic about the difference we could make in the lives of children by focusing on empowering their pursuit of happiness, the path to this difference admittedly leads through quite challenging terrain. Awareness of the link between thoughts and feelings is just the beginning of the journey that leads to the ability to feel as one chooses. Among the realizations along the way to this ability is that feelings are responses to the judgments our thoughts entail. Thoughts reflect the symbolic meanings we bestow on aspects of experience, meanings derived from judgments at some level of consciousness. Mastery of our feelings thus confronts the formidable challenge of mastering our judgments.

The challenge is formidable partly because our judgments seem like automatic responses to perception. We are constantly judging aspects of experience. Usually we are not consciously aware of the beliefs and attitudes from which they arise; they seem visceral. But there are ways to gain some measure of control over the negative judgments that darken our affective experiences. I suggested awareness of feelings, mindfulness, and perspective in Educating Angels. Sizable libraries of self-help books offer other methods to escape the deleterious effects of our routine judgments about spouses, children, colleagues, competitors, and circumstances.

But judgments are often protected from attempts to avoid or detoxify them by the strong tendency to rationalize them in terms of right. When our sense of what is right enters the domain of what we consider morally and ethically obligatory, we venture into the affective if not the conceptual domain of justice. Justice is the concept most commonly invoked to render judgments matters of duty. We use the concept of justice to sanction and thereby fortify and defend judgments.

For example, when we or others for whom we have sympathy are unduly denied a raise or cheated in a business deal, our anger is deemed not only justified but required by what we view as an unwarranted, objective injury. Judgment of abuse, faithlessness, selfish disregard, and all manner of perfidy is thought morally obligatory. We believe judgment of evil acts that visit bodily harm on others is especially imperative. To refrain from judging sins or forgiving them would be tantamount to condoning them in the eyes of many. If there are affective costs to judgment, some will insist they must be borne, for to refrain from condemning the perpetrators of harmful acts would weaken the fences on harmful conduct, would be unfair to victims, and would cast one’s commitment to justice in doubt.

Yet when we place our judgments within the protected perimeter of what we pronounce matters of justice, we limit our willingness to examine, and therefore ameliorate, their considerable ill effects. If we would show the way to the mastery of judgment necessary to mastery of feeling, we must venture onto the hallowed ground of sanctified judgments with clear, assessing eyes focused within as well as without. We must give students the wherewithal to see judgment as a choice rather than an inescapable obligation by making them aware of reasonable alternatives.

Common understandings of morality are largely encompassed in a general understanding of justice. Aristotle observed that, in one sense of the word, justice “is not a part of virtue but the whole of virtue; its opposite, injustice, is not a part of vice but the whole of vice.”1 But he admitted this is not true of other senses of the word.

Mill agreed, distinguishing between moral prescriptions that involve presumption of rights, which he held to be the purview of justice, and those that do not, which he held to be the morality of “generosity or beneficence.” “Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right. …Wherever there is right, the case is one of justice, and not of the virtue of beneficence…”2 The morality of “beneficence” is more generally concerned with wishing and treating others well, of heeding the golden rule not because it is a rule, but because it is a natural inclination of one’s heart. Such beneficence is not usually considered a matter of right: “No one has a right to our generosity or beneficence, because we are not morally bound to practice those virtues towards any given individual.”3

The subjective meanings of all concepts have their roots in the inclinations of the heart. Concepts, even concepts of the ideals to which we aspire, have no motivational power in and of themselves; we employ them to serve the desires of our hearts. Even when concepts are themselves targets of our affections, it is the desire for the feelings we believe the concepts inspire that is our true aim. In accordance with the affective theory of value, the underlying motive in all we pursue is the desire for a preferred feeling, a feeling that entails both our momentary determination and the experience of value. The value of our ideals therefore lies in what we expect them to contribute to our affective experience.

The motives that interest us in the concept of justice determine its subjective value and therefore its subjective purpose. We are therefore afforded deeper insight by considering our motives for invoking and pursuing justice and their affective consequences than by parsing the conceptual constructs devised to rationalize and govern our use of the concept. As Solomon sagely observes, “Justice…consists first of all of a constellation of feelings, which alone can provide the psychological soil in which our grand theories can take root.”4

One reason justice is such a compelling ideal is because it serves what Mill called a “powerful sentiment”:

We have seen that the two essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice are, the desire to punish a person who has done harm, and the knowledge or belief that there is some definite individual or individuals to whom harm has been done. Now it appears to me, that the desire to punish a person who has done harm to some individual is a spontaneous outgrowth from two sentiments, both in the highest degree natural, and which either are or resemble instincts; the impulse of self-defence, and the feeling of sympathy. … The sentiment of justice, in that one of its elements which consists of the desire to punish, is thus, I conceive, the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that is, to those hurts, which wound us through, or in common with, society at large.5

The desire for vengeance is undoubtedly a prime motive for invoking what is called retributive justice, which is concerned with the punishment of the perpetrators of crime in regard to law and of harming others without just cause in regard to general moral understandings. The desire can be provoked by any slight, real or imagined, or by frustrations blamed on others, so it is woven into the fabric of daily experience for most of us. Grievance and an attendant desire for vengeance can so pervade our lives, we may not even be consciously aware of being under their sway at times.

These feelings seem to hold a powerful appeal. People commonly invite and nurse grievances and angrily defend them against challenge. Perhaps we savor the prospect of satisfaction when retribution is exacted. After all, we seem to seek such satisfaction when we read books and watch movies with the expectation that the manufactured tension of evil deeds will be relieved when the bad guys get what they deserve in the end. It is a most lucrative motive for much of the entertainment industry. Some may see vengeance as a cause that gives them purpose. Some may have an addiction to anger. An attraction to anger might account for the popularity of commentators who specialize in expressing condemnation and stoking outrage.

As for Mill’s self defense thesis, grievance certainly serves the defense of our egos, whether or not it contributes to our welfare in a larger sense. To my mind, the deep insecurity engendered by the perceived vulnerabilities and insufficiencies of our ego image of self is the most plausible source of grievance and desire for revenge. I question whether these “sentiments” are instincts that developed due to evolutionary advantage as they inspire a great deal of individually and socially inexpedient behavior in terms of order, cooperation, and security. Those prone to them tend to reap the belligerence they sow.

My doubts about the utility of anger and desire for vengeance are not generally shared, though. Many who have given the matter due consideration point to at least some utility, usually in terms of defense. Whatever the case may be in terms of evolutionary or social utility, I am quite sure these feelings are inexpedient in terms of personal happiness. Though we are apparently drawn to grievance and desire for revenge at times, I doubt anyone capable of detached observation of thoughts and feelings would describe them as pleasant. They accompany perceived injury, so they largely consist of fear and anger. Grievance due to perceived injury is likely deeply rooted in fear. The perception of injury or threatened loss strengthens the sense of vulnerability that engenders fear.

Prospective loss may be anything we value, material or psychological. There are many dimensions to psychological loss. They include esteem, the emotional benefits of a relationship, cherished beliefs, and the fate of a cause. Identification with others or sympathy with them makes their loss ours in a psychological sense, and it heightens our sense of vulnerability. Identification with people and groups such as family, a sports team, and nation extends the perimeter of ego as well as sense of self, making threat or insult to members of the group seem a personal affront.

Placing offenders with presumed malign intent in our mental spotlight tends to magnify the perception of threat in our minds. What we dwell on generates associated thoughts and patterns of thought. Focus on threat tends to make it loom large in our minds. The fear engendered by grievance is therefore often deeper and more generalized than what seems objectively justified. This helps explain the many examples of the contagion of unreasonable fear when the headlines scream of a calamity with remote chance of affecting us or people we know except, perhaps, through the overzealous reactions of our government in responding to such fear.

A great deal has been written about the effects of fear. It is widely considered either a or the primary source of anger, so the effects of fear are thought to largely encompass the effects of anger as well. Anger is a means for dealing with fear. Initial fear usually transforms into anger, possibly as a means to mitigate its effects by projecting it. The causal relation between insecurity and anger is well known. And expressions of anger by others are also a source of fear. Fear and anger cause considerable tension in both mind and body. If one can manage to mute these feelings by means of detached observation for a moment, the ensuing relief from tension reveals their relative unpleasantness. Consciously experiencing this contrast is the beginning of the path to controlling it.

But relatively unpleasant tension is but one of the more observable aspects of a constellation of pernicious effects of fear and anger. They endanger physical and mental health according to a mountain of evidence. Whether or not they cause a contraction of spirit, as Thomas Aquinas argued, fear and anger bring a contraction of conscious focus and therefore awareness. Unfortunately, the narrowed focus accentuates the negative, creating feedback loops of thoughts of threat, vulnerability, grievance, and vengeance. For many, such thought patterns are compulsive; they are difficult to interrupt or contain. They become temporary imprisonments of the mind. For the obsessed and deeply depressed, they can prove lengthy prison terms in a dark dungeon of painful thoughts and perceptions.

Perceived grievance not only darkens one’s thoughts, it also greatly distorts them. While in its grip, it is difficult to see anything but the relatively repellent aspects of the target or targets of our grievance. So grows the enmity that can turn love into hatred and tear marriages, families, and friendships apart. Grievance tends to blind us to attractive traits and understandings that would normally win our sympathy. Our image of the antagonist is darker and more unidimensional than a neutral observer would think justified. We project malicious intent that justifies our own ill will and gives credence only to evidence that supports our case against the perpetrators of perceived injustice. The image of the feared and resented other easily becomes a caricature.

Psychologists consistently deal with this phenomenon in relationship counseling. The social consequences of the psychology of this enemy making are particularly pernicious. As Sam Keen illustrated in his book and subsequent documentary, Faces of the Enemy, when we turn others into evil caricatures in our minds, we dehumanize them to make them fitting targets for prejudice, hatred, persecution, and sometimes elimination.6 As a spectator to the many wars my country has fought in the past half century, I recall the willing participation of the media in hyping the evil nature of the enemy in the lead up to the wars in every case.

It is easy to conjure demons and monsters by sowing fear and anger. Actually it is easy to sow the seeds of enmity by engineering simple rivalry. In order to demonstrate the emotional roots of nationalism, I sometimes divide an international relations class into three groups named Blue, Green, and Orange. I then have each group write a list of ten reasons their group is the greatest, saying it is a competition. After a spokesperson of each group shares their list, usually accompanied by hoots and derision from members of competing groups, I have each group make up a list of ten reasons the other two groups are inferior. It is not uncommon to see flares of resentment during the sharing of such lists. I remind them at the end of the exercise that both feelings of enmity and solidarity are the result of pure imagination without objective cause. They were manufactured with the same basic techniques employed by some politicians. This is but a small example of how easy it is to conjure animosity, which all too easily becomes malice.

Politicians may justify unidimensional, dehumanizing portrayals of potential enemies as serving the greater good, but we should not downplay the consequences. One consequence is that the manufactured fear and anger are not readily controlled; they can all too easily become sustained filters to perception that can paint a sizable portion of humanity with the hues of enmity and diminished worth. This is evident in racial and ethnic prejudice, ideological and religious rivalries, and the callous views of criminals and other “undesirable elements” as unworthy of humane treatment. Less obvious is how seeing the world in hues of good and bad affects interpersonal relationships.

Fear and anger are not easily bracketed, and distrust of some can lead to suspicion of all. Grievance and enmity are easily transferred to new targets. You have probably noticed how you or others transfer anger to those around you, sometimes becoming snappish with anyone who offers the slightest provocation, or who just happens to be within earshot of venting. Some are completely seized by paranoia; most of us are possessed of at least a mild case of paranoia while under the sway of fear and anger. In a fundamental sense, thinking ill of others subjectively devalues them to some extent at least, whether or not it reaches the level of impugning their inherent worth as human beings, which is the meaning of dehumanizing. This devaluing has pervasive consequences, both social and personal.

The cognitive walls that separate self from others grow higher. Though shared fear and anger can beget common cause, these feelings tend to banish awareness of affection so long we are possessed by them. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of how easily conversations with colleagues can turn into virtual competitions of venting and recrimination. Complaints usually center on administrators, colleagues, campus politics, politics in general, and students. Too often venom directed at particular people surfaces.

I have noticed what might be called the camaraderie of shared grievance does not leave me with feelings of affection for my partners in complaint. Indeed, it would be unusual to feel anger and genuine affection at the same time; they tend to be mutually exclusive in my experience. And the venting itself seems to amplify rather than relieve the sense of grievance. The sharing tends to make me more sensitive to the prevalence of injustice by bringing fresh injuries to my awareness, compounded by the social pressure to embrace them as my own. Sometimes I walk away with the sense that malice and perfidy abound, though I have learned to dispel the gloom by recalling that my thoughts rather than an objective assessment of reality are the cause.

Though it cannot be decisively proven, it is plausible that at least some of our feelings toward others are projected feelings about ourselves as psychologists have claimed since Freud. That ill will toward others brings ill effects to our own hearts is certain. The first victim of wishing another ill is the one who wishes it. Adam Smith observed in his treatise on moral sentiments that,

Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind. There is, in the very feeling of those passions, something harsh, jarring, and convulsive, something that tears and distracts the breast, and is altogether destructive of that composure and tranquility of mind which is so necessary to happiness, and which is best promoted by the contrary passions of gratitude and love.7

Certainly hatred and anger preclude peace and expansive joy. If feelings of aversion are unavoidable consequences of judgments obliged by a sense or notion of justice, the pursuit of one may at least temporarily preclude the experience of the other.

Of course, the concept of justice, including retributive justice, is not employed solely at the urging of fear and anger in response to perceived injury. The concept is deemed both individually and socially useful in terms of related values. Retributive justice is thought a deterrent to crime and injury, for example. The prospect of retaliation is thought to inhibit personal affront.

All notions of justice have appeal to utility, as Bentham and Mill famously argued, and they held that the ultimate measure of utility is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If happiness is the motive for justice, Mill’s vengeful “sentiment of justice” must give way to Smith’s “social and benevolent affections.” In his defense of utilitarianism from the accusation of cold and superficial calculation, Mill highlighted the benevolence at the core of the doctrine:

In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes; so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being’s sentient existence.8

Mill implies that utilitarianism is both inspired and fulfilled by a motive of perfect benevolence toward each and all. According to Michael Sandel, “Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.”9

I agree the ideal Mill invokes is independent of the calculus of social utility in the mind of those who express it, but believe there is considerable personal utility in benevolence in terms of affective experience. As I argued previously, it is most difficult to separate the affective fruits of benevolence from the attitude. Whether or not it is as compelling as the desire for vengeance, the desire for the wellbeing of others inspires most notions of justice to some degree. It is at the heart of the notion of restorative justice, for example, which aims at repairing damage to victims and rehabilitating offenders. This notion aims justice at mutual benefit and abjures punishment as revenge.

Some measure of benevolence born of compassion is also the implied motive for theories of distributive justice, which involves the just distribution of social values. John Rawls’ theory of justice, for example, is ostensibly motivated by the desire for fairness in the distribution of social goods. He abjures utilitarian calculus in postulating that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override” and that “the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”10 Yet presumably the practical point of his theory is to advance the welfare of at least those most disadvantaged by prevailing circumstances.

Without reference to divine will, the security of rights is also ultimately a matter of utility. The aim of greater individual and social benefit can also be presumed for most of those who advocate the primacy and inviolability of rights, whether it is freedom alone or a more extended range of human rights they hold on high. As Mill observed, the concept of justice presumes rights, but few of those who proclaim the inviolability of freedom or property rights—the basis for distinctly liberal notions of justice—insist that these rights preclude consideration of consequences. Rather they believe insisting on the inviolability of rights serves the general welfare better than admitting to exceptions.

Yet, the originating benevolent intent usually falls victim to perceptions of fairness denied, rights violated, and obligations unmet, yielding grievance and a presumed moral obligation to resist such injustice and struggle to right its wrongs. In other words, the desire to do good unto others seems to set us up for frustration, anger, and conflict. It is often argued that condemnation for the sake of others is essential to morality. Solomon insists “A sense of justice requires engagement, not detachment. It requires a keen sense of what it is to be offended, not just an abstract sense of fairness.”11

So speak the adherents of every cause that flies the banner of justice. But if we are obliged to pronounce condemning judgment by the myriad causes that invoke justice, there is no moral avenue of escape from the unpleasant affective consequences of such judgment. Fortunately, the morality of benevolence does not inherently entail this dilemma.

Before looking deeper into the attributes of benevolent intent, we should acknowledge a range of normative satisfactions that arise more from fidelity to cherished sanctions than benevolence per se. Obedience to God’s commandments or those of acknowledged religious and secular authorities, to the law, and to social expectations has affective benefits for those who believe in their rightness. There is satisfaction in obedience, in performing traditional rituals, and in living in harmony with the expectations of a community. The expectation and rules of fairness result from the keen sense of the rightness of being fair that seems to run deep in our nature. Being fair as one understands it therefore yields both normative satisfaction and social approval.

The satisfaction of living in accordance with prevailing norms accords with the assumption that happiness is the product of virtue. Plato ascribed greater normative satisfaction to living within the limits prescribed by our individual nature than aspiring beyond these limits. For our own good as well as the good of our community, he argued, we should be content with a role in society commensurate with the talents nature bestowed on us.

Many find satisfaction in living in harmony with the requirements of nature in general. Those of a scholarly bent tend to find gratification in abiding by the dictates of reason. Philosophers cherish satisfaction derived from discovering symmetry and harmony in the rules of reason; scientists find pleasure in the traditions of science. Such satisfactions may not be all that different from those derived from performing religious rituals.

Whatever the strictures, they are endowed with normative qualities that inspire satisfaction in heeding them. The quality of rightness brings moral admonitions within the conceptual purview of justice. Such strictures often become entwined with the concept or even define it in the minds of many people. For them, justice includes fidelity to cherished commandments and moral guidelines, injustice is the violation of these strictures. Justice is invoked to highlight the goodness of the obedient and the perfidy of the disobedient. Heeding normative strictures may well serve the interests of others, but normative satisfactions often arise more from the heeding than the serving, thus this motive for invoking justice falls short of benevolence.

The satisfaction of abiding by cherished sanctions is diminished by the concurrent condemnation of those who do not abide. Condemning others for their disregard of strictures by no means avoids a sense of grievance and the fear and anger that attend it. Indeed, invoking justice to enhance the normative credentials of strictures positively invites judgment and its affective consequences. The satisfaction of obeying what one believes is God’s will, obeying the law as a normative imperative, practicing virtues as matters of personal integrity, or heeding tradition due to social sanction all too easily gives way to anger and resentment when God’s will, laws, virtues, traditions, or the rules of reason are flouted.

Such judgment is not reserved for others. Though normative satisfaction is experientially preferable to the fear and anger that give rise to the desire for vengeance, it comes with a price if it is a satisfaction of a need born of ego. The insufficiency of ego is insatiable; feeding it guarantees the return of the pangs of ego hunger. As previously observed, the satisfaction of heeding norms often lies in the comparative avoidance of guilt. Yet guilt lurks to punish the laxity of those who seek satisfaction in obedience to stricture, probably more cruelly than those who place less store in such fidelity. It may be that the greater the satisfaction, the greater the guilt from succumbing to temptation. Such is the treachery of the ego. Guilt is not the unavoidable price of goodness, though.

If we were all angels, it is said, we would have no need of laws and moral commandments; benevolent behavior would flow naturally from our angelic hearts. We need not presume we are angels to suspect that if a means exists to resolve the affective dilemma posed by the concept of justice, it lies in the depths of our hearts.
Mill’s distinction between the morality of justice, which requires the assertion and judgment of right, and the morality of beneficence is reasonable, but the solution to the affective dilemma requires extending the gravitas of justice into this farther realm of morality. We might thereby hope to discover a perspective on justice that does not necessitate the ills of condemnation.

Schopenhauer saw compassion as the prime moral sentiment and it is generally agreed that compassion is at least among the main motives for caring, beneficent behavior. The distress of not only our fellows but of other sentient beings often elicits sympathy at variance with calculated selfish interest. Perhaps it arises from an instinct developed through evolutionary advantage, or from the psychological identification of self with others, or from the subconscious recognition of the metaphysical unity of will and being that Schopenhauer posited.12

Whatever its source, compassion speaks to our propensity to “derive sorrow from the sorrow of others” as Adam Smith puts it, to feel emotional discomfort at the perception of the pain of others.13 As such, compassion is a motive of affective discomfort which, if acted upon, moves us to seek to alleviate the distress of others at least partly as a means to relieve the distress of our sympathy. Feeling the pain of others is painful.

Compassion thus moves us to serve the perceived wellbeing of those who suffer, but it by no means precludes condemnation when we believe they are the victims of callous or malicious perpetrators. When convinced of injustice, our compassion renders us the victims of such perpetrators in a sense, which incites our indignation and calls forth attending desire for vengeance. When we see or hear of people who are poor, hungry, disadvantaged, or abused, we may find some relief from our pangs of compassion by diverting them into righteous anger aimed at those we hold responsible for such suffering. Though its original aim is benevolent, the motive of compassion understood as shared suffering does not save us from the ills of condemning judgment.

Compassion so understood is probably an aspect of our natural empathy with others by which we tend to share their mirth and joy as well as their suffering, their “weal” as well as their “woe” in the translated words of Schopenhauer. We are easily affected by the expressed feelings of others. We are moved not only by their sorrow, but by the contagion of their laughter and smiles as well. But such natural sharing of feelings does not in itself provide a motive aside from the qualities of the feelings we share. We are moved to escape uncomfortable feelings and wish to retain those we find pleasant. Shared pain moves us to seek release while we would like to sustain shared joy.

Motives for benevolence are not exhausted, however, by the desire to do right unto others for the sake of doing right or the wish to relieve the shared pain of compassion. It may be the natural expression of something akin to the appreciate love I describe in the book that is uncontaminated by emotions associated with ego.

This is the pure love of the agape variety. First, it requires acceptance of what a person or other aspect of experience is. It is contradictory to claim love so understood for whom and what you do not accept. To say you accept some aspects of a person but not others by no means resolves the contradiction; the love so claimed is for preferred aspects of a person rather than love of the person as such. But love is obviously more than mere acceptance; it entails appreciation. An affective consequence of acceptance is the relative lack of tension, of peace. The experience of appreciation is the experience of valuing. It is the subjective bestowal of worth. The affective experience of valuing unmitigated by emotions associated with ego is joy. Such love is not only independent of judgment of the accusing variety, it precludes it. We must shed negative judgment to reap its rewards.

Such pure, nonjudgmental love may seem beyond the reach of the average mortal, including the followers of Christ who are expressly admonished to strive for it, but we all can experience the commensurate rewards of less perfect acceptance and appreciation. Moments of quiet enjoyment when our thoughts are relatively accepting and appreciative of the people and environment of current experience, or of recalled experiences, are moments of comparative lack of tension, broadened and brightened focus of awareness, absence of compulsive thoughts, and relief from perceived obligation to condemn and contend. Just as grievance incites negative thought patterns, acceptance and appreciation engage positive patterns of thought. Though simplistic, we might reasonably discern the general rule that negative thoughts about others entail negative affective consequences while positive thoughts entail the opposite.

There is justice of the reaping-what-one-sows variety, a sort of instant karma if you will, in reaping undesirable feelings for wishing ill and pleasant feelings for wishing well. This might be thought the retributive justice of the heart. Such justice automatically rewards benevolence and punishes vengeance. There is what I call a strategic golden rule widely understood as the prime motive for benevolence: Do good unto others because it is the best way to get them to do good unto you. Here we revise this rule: Not only do, but wish unto others what you would experience, for what you wish and do unto them determine the quality of what you feel.

This implies an immediate balancing in the accounting of the heart, however much the ego may despise an accounting that punishes what it pronounces the obligatory judgment of others’ sins. Yet there is an elegant perfection of balance in the justice of the heart as well as a potent motive for benevolence.

The higher aspirations for affective wellbeing—the higher aspirations for happiness—entail the acceptance and appreciation of others. If, as many contend on the basis of personal experience, the wish for the wellbeing of others is entailed in appreciating them, that it is a natural expression of appreciation, then we have found a source for benevolence beyond the insufficiency implied in the word motive. Nonetheless, the benefits of this state of mind provide a compelling motive to seek it. One reaps rewards in appreciating the worth of another and wishing them well whether they are victim or perpetrator, while one is denied these rewards and subjected to affective ills in condemning them. Wishing well, even when someone has violated the asserted rules of justice, serves the heart that wishes it.

The appreciation of love implies no obligation to judge and provides no cause for judgment. It does not posit a good that entails its opposite in contrast to prevailing notions of justice, where justice necessarily defines injustice; they are two sides of the same coin. Love so understood does not set qualifying conditions that determine whether appreciation should be given or withheld. Love so understood must be unconditional to be experienced.

The accounting of the heart affords an alternative perspective on distributive justice. In keeping with the affective theory of value, ultimate value exists in feelings. The true value of all goods to be distributed therefore lies in their contribution to the experience of preferred feelings. They have no value aside from this. Feelings have a peculiar attribute the goods of the world do not possess. The “giver” does not lose in the “giving” of feelings for others. The more we wish another ill, the greater the affective ill our malice inflicts on us. The more we appreciate, the greater our joy.

The gain of the “receiver” of appreciation may seem intangible, but in truth the affective gain of the receiver of worldly goods is intangible as well. The perceived joy of the receiver enhances rather than diminishes our own joy; the “supply” grows with the giving. There is no sacrifice involved in terms of affective value, no balancing of gain with loss. And there are no inherent limits to how much one can give or to the number of beneficiaries. In the rule that one must receive as one gives, there is a fairness and equality in the accounting of the goods of the heart that is impossible to realize in the accounting of the goods of the world.

This notion of justice as nonjudgmental appreciation has deep roots. It is the explicit heart of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is admonished in the Quran. It is advised in the ancient Upanishads of the Hindus. It is held to be both a requirement and an expression of enlightenment by Buddhists. It is reflected in both Eastern and Western systems of ethics. It can be found in core teachings of all modern religions and reasoned humanistic philosophies.

Joseph Fletcher expounded a Christian-based “situation ethics” based on an understanding of love similar to the one presented here. He explained that

Christian situation ethics has only one norm or principle or law (call it what you will) that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of the circumstances. That is “love”—the agape of the summary commandment to love God and the neighbor. Everything else without exception, all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love in any situation. … Love is for people, not for principles; i.e., it is personal—and therefore when the impersonal universal conflicts with the personal particular, the latter prevails in situation ethics.14

In regard to the relation between love and justice, Fletcher asks

How are we to love justice, how are we to be just about love, how are love and justice related? If to love is to seek the neighbor’s welfare, and justice is being fair as between neighbors, then how do we put these two things together in our acts, in the situation? The answer is that in the Christian ethic the twain become one.15

Though I do believe love understood as unconditional appreciation has a plausible claim to being the foundation of morality, I shall leave it undefended at present. Rather I offer what I shall henceforth call the angel notion of justice for two reasons. First, I offer it as an alternative to notions of justice that imply an obligation to condemn in order to undergird a student’s decision to minimize such judgment should they so choose in light of their enhanced awareness of the affective consequences. Unless they see a reasonable defense against social pressures to condemn, they may not be able to consider it a reasonable choice.

Second, I wish to propose a way we might try to connect the higher aspirations of the heart with a fundamental moral premise of religions and humanistic philosophies and what I believe is an essential premise of liberal democracy: inherent human worth. To respect such worth is the core virtue of democratic citizenship, the virtue on which all others are founded. I believe it is incumbent on institutions of liberal education to seek to ground this virtue in the hearts of students as a requisite of both the farther reaches of happiness and of the future health of liberal social order. To the degree we might succeed in this, the better we would serve the higher affective aspirations of each child and the better we would serve the more benevolent purposes for which we commonly invoke the concept of justice.

The angel notion of justice offers a conceptual blueprint of the connection between heart and respect for human worth by pointing to the rewards of going beyond conceptual respect to the actual experience of appreciating the worth of others, of bestowing worth through our appreciation. The notion favors the effort to strengthen the motives for respect and thereby inspire greater commitment to seeing it honored.

Yet in order for the angel notion to qualify as a plausible alternative to other notions of justice, we must meet the objection that it would prove insufficient to the causes of social justice and security. How would it move us to avert what harm we may, to serve the needy it is in our power to serve, and to lend our aid to efforts to improve the lot of at least some portion of humanity? How would it address the practical concerns for which we employ the concept of justice and harness the passions of judgment? Appreciation may involve the wish to share the joy it entails, but joy does not focus on pain, therefore it is unlikely to fuel the desire to alleviate shared pain. And how can we hope to deter those who would harm us and others without relying on fear? Do we not depend on fear to inspire our wariness and fuel our resistance, and on inspiring fear in the potential perpetrator to deter them?

Let us approach these questions with a narrow example that reflects a common experience. Consider the just treatment of someone you deeply love. For the sake of example, let it be a daughter. Though you may believe it necessary to punish her transgressions for her own good or the protection of yourself and others, love uncontaminated by the emotions of ego would never move you to inflict pain for the sake of vengeance, for the sake of balancing the scales of justice. The wish for her greater good, her happiness, would guide even your punishments, which would not exceed what you deem necessary to the aim of preventing future transgressions. Her “mistakes” would not diminish her worth in your eyes or curb your desire for her happiness. Love would not allow you to magnify her imperfections at the expense of your deeper sense of her worth.

You need not take on the burdens of her cares and suffering to be nonetheless sensitive to them and gladly seek to relieve them. What you feel you could prudently give her for the sake of her happiness, you would enjoy giving. The aim of justice in regard to your daughter would have the same aim as love: her happiness. And in the accounting of the heart, you thereby serve your own happiness as well.

Such is the justice we deem meet for those for whom we hold special affection. Note that Mill’s vengeful “sentiment of justice” need play no role in it. The appreciation of love affords no opening for fear and anger. It is not love so understood we experience when we are under the influence of these feelings. It does not depart from benevolent intent in seeing the requirements of justice in anything but the good of the beloved “perpetrator” as well as the victims of her acts. It does not accord rules a value beyond their contribution to this good; it does not render them an end in themselves.

The justice of love does not impugn the worth of loved ones by pronouncing them deserving of pain. It does not imply that their worth lies in what they do rather than what and who they are, or that their worth is conditional. It does not condemn them to be henceforth indelibly branded with the mark of sin. In other words, this justice neither obliges nor gives grounds for condemning judgment and its attendant ills.

I know this seems a rather high standard to apply to those beyond our circle of special affection. It implies a Christ-like ability to love those most would consider enemies as well as those most would see as annoying neighbors. But there are more earthly examples in Gandhi and Martin Luther King who emphasized love and abjured condemnation and hatred to advance causes that inspired—and changed—the hearts of many millions. There are thousands of less famous examples of those who served causes without condemning those who opposed them even in the face of vitriol and abuse. The lack of judgment arguably strengthened rather than weakened their causes. Lack of judgment can lower psychological defenses, open the door to sincere communication, and move people to examine their motives. It speaks to a higher image of self than the condemning visage we see in the mirror of honest self reflection.

Movements that avoid impugning the moral worth of opponents and remain passive in their resistance can seem woefully weak in the face of the anger and aggression at first. But they have inspired the one change capable of sustaining the gains of social progress: a change of heart. Martin Luther King, for example, left a legacy of progressive change far beyond anything militancy did or could achieve. Militancy provokes fear and justifies enmity that undermines the sustainability of every step forward. King’s message bade us look within for our better selves, which he seemed confident we would find. And his confidence, I believe, proved largely justified.

Our acceptance and appreciation of those around us has more profound effect than putting our shoulders to the wheels of causes. I have experienced and often heard how the accepting and appreciating attitude of one person can change a small social environment, a change that can ripple far beyond its source. Accepting and appreciating a person can be a greater gift than any other we might bestow. Much of what we do in life is motivated by the desire to gain this from others in the belief it is necessary to our happiness. It is no small matter to find it freely given.

Whether due to the natural contagion of feelings or the awakening or unblocking of the love that ever bides within us, we tend to respond in kind. The response may not be as quick and sure as fear and anger due to our wariness and emotional defenses, but love understood as acceptance and appreciation feeds the deepest yearning of our hearts while feelings of aversion betray it. People tend to gladly respond to such love when they come to believe it is sincere.

There may be no practical alternative to relying on fear of punishment to deter criminal behavior, but the utility of punishing for revenge is worthy of great doubt. It hardens and distresses the hearts of both criminals and those who would visit revenge on them. Future security is better served by softening their hearts with our acceptance and appreciation of their inherent worth. I suspect that in all dimensions of social utility, heeding the angel notion of justice would eventually prove superior in its practical results.

But it is not my purpose here to mount a defense this speculation. My present purpose is to suggest that presenting the notion to students as an alternative and providing them the experience of its benefits might show them a more propitious path to happiness and foster the virtue of respect for inherent human worth. I believe each student personally stands to benefit, and this is reason enough to suggest the notion. Still, I harbor some hope that an understanding of justice more aligned with the aspirations of the heart would benefit future generations as a whole.

I dream of a far friendlier social climate and more constrained use of power than presently prevails. The realization of this dream will require more than a less judgmental understanding of justice, of course. Along the path to this vision, future generations must learn to consider all their cherished ideals and values in the light cast by their hearts.


1. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics” in Aristotle: On Man in the Universe (Roslyn, N.Y.: Walter J. Black, 1943) p. 157.
2. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Classics-Unbound, Kindle edition, 2008, acquired May 27, 2008 from Amazon.com, Location 810.
3. Ibid. Location 812.
4. Robert C. Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) p. 30.
5. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Location 820.
6. Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991).
7. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Evergreen Review, Kindle edition, 2008, acquired September 1, 2008 from Amazon.com. Location 683.
8. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Location 270.
9. Michael J. Sandel, Justice, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Kindle edition, 2009, acquired November 26, 2009 from Amazon.com. Location 1029.
10. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) pp. 3-4.
11. Robert C. Solomon, A Passion for Justice, pp. 42-3.
12. See Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1998).
13. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Location 25.
14. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966) pp. 30-31.
15. Ibid, p. 88.

About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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