What makes people care about injustice?

Many people experience what we might call “positive moral emotions”. People often react with emotion to cruelty and suffering — they disapprove of instances where other people impose gratuitous pain and suffering on others, they react with sympathy and a desire to help when they encounter other people suffering from illness or poverty, they feel an inclination to share their own time or money when they see another human being in serious distress. So it is clear that sympathy and benevolence are real human emotions. These emotions seem to vary in strength in relation to a number of factors — children perhaps elicit more sympathy than suffering adults, people close by get more attention than more afflicted people at a distance, and, perhaps, the ethnic or racial identities of the individuals may make a difference as well. But benevolence, sympathy, and altruism seem to be real human motivations. (I’m sure this has been studied by social psychologists; who can help with some citations?)

This doesn’t quite answer the question above, however, because injustice isn’t the same as simple cruelty and human suffering. Injustice is a relational characteristic, and it often seems to involve impersonal social forces. Injustice has to do with treatment of individuals by other individuals, and it has to do with the assignment of life resources and opportunities by the social systems in which we live.

For example —

If a supervisor favors one worker over another — offers better work schedules or higher merit evaluations — out of personal preference or animosity, we have a basic reaction of unfairness. It’s not fair that Alice has to work the late shift simply because the supervisor doesn’t like her. Our reasoning is based on something like this: it’s fine to favor your friends in your personal life, but not in the impersonal realm of business and politics. It is unjust that Alice gets a less favorable work environment because the supervisor prefers Patricia as a friend.

If Baby David and Baby Diana have fundamentally different opportunities and resources to facilitate their growth and development — perhaps because girl babies generally receive less attention from health providers or less access to middle school education — we think that’s unfair as well. It is a difference in opportunities that flows from something that is irrelevant to moral status as an equal human being — the child’s gender. So gender discrimination is unfair; the differential treatment of Baby David and Baby Diana is unjust.

If black teenagers and white teenagers turn up to be treated differently when they commit similar offenses — vandalism in the park, let’s say — because police are more likely to release the white teen to his parents and more likely to charge the black teen — that’s unfair. Our intuitions about the law require that people should be treated on the basis of their behavior, not their race. So differential patterns of treatment by the criminal justice system are unjust.

So what? —

All these instances illustrate at least two important points: that we do in fact have fairly clear intuitions about justice in ordinary life, and the situations that evoke the clearest judgments all involve relationships and systems.

But the original question remains unanswered: why do some people have strong moral emotions when it comes to perceptions of injustice? It is clear that this emotion isn’t as universal as the emotions surrounding cruelty and suffering, since some people seem to be quite untroubled by the kinds of cases mentioned here. That said, it is clear that a certain number of people, from carpenters to poets to city planners, have a strong and potent emotional reaction to perceived injustice. And it isn’t just the suffering that provokes the reaction; it is a sense of unfairness and the idea that some people don’t get a fair shot at a decent life for reasons entirely beyond their control. Where does that cognitive and judgment-laden emotion come from? And what can we do to make it more common?

I suppose we could make a speculative guess or two. Maybe people are sensitized to injustice through personal experience. Maybe reading great literature helps — The Fire Next Time or Grapes of Wrath. Maybe others are desensitized by self-interest or an impulse to avoid entanglement or simply satisfaction with their own desert. But whatever you think about the psychological origins of a moral sense of injustice, we seem to be living in a time where we urgently need more of it.

(Barrington Moore’s late book Injustice gives an historical perspective on this question.)