The myth of society: justice and the repudiation of self-interest
Author’s note: This post is the second in a series which explores the political mythos which encompasses modern conceptions of society. The first part, which examines the foundation of society in the body politic, can be read here.
Eight hundred years ago, when political capitulations were wrung from England’s King John in 1215 by a group of over-taxed and much abused barons, the idea that justice was best achieved at a local level by communal peers familiar with the particulars of a case was revolutionary, quite literally. In the pre-Magna Carta world of law, plaintiffs followed the king’s court and their ability to have their case heard and resolved depended entirely upon the king’s pleasure.
Magna Carta guaranteed that common pleas would be held in fixed places and established that certain types of legal inquests would be held in county courts at regular periods in the presence of knights or free-holding landowners, thus establishing the Western democratic precedence for local civil justice.
Some five-hundred years later, when another group of over-taxed and much abused politicians rose up against the English king, their grievances involved not only the inventing of political crimes to silence opponents but the subsequent transport of the accused overseas, where they were denied the ability to have the case heard by their peers.
And a decade later the same arguments were again being vociferously voiced by Anti-Federalists who believed the proposed Constitution’s failure to guarantee a local jury trial in civil cases would completely erode the type of egalitarian justice that had come to be synonymous with natural rights.
The significance of these arguments should not be placed, as it often is, upon the right to a jury of ones peers, but on localism. Today, the ability of an accused criminal to receive justice in the vicinage of a crime is considered a Sisyphean task as self-interest and emotion make impartiality impossible.
Yet, the sentiment which underlies local justice in Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution is precisely self-interest. Those who live in the locality where a crime occurred are constrained to seek out the truth and administer justice by their needs and desires. Since they depend on the business and aid of their neighbors to survive, they must be governed by fairness. Otherwise, they risk alienating those on whom they may later depend.
The upending of this tradition, upon which Western civilization and democracy is built, is a result of new thinking which positions self-interest as a mean, petty thing at odds with the altruistic goals of societal “greater good.” Without fail, the “greater good” is divorced from the self. Service towards society is positioned as a moral positive, antithetical to the pursuit of one’s own interests.
But society is not something that can be served without serving the self, hence the significance of enshrining an ideal of justice in judgment by one’s peers. In seeing justice done to one’s neighbor, one is really furthering one’s self-interest, both in an esoteric sense of pursuing personal liberty and in a more corporeal sense of dealing forthrightly with a friend in the same manner one would want to be treated. Society is nothing more than a group of individuals living within the same jurisdiction. It is the sum total of volitional, mutually-beneficial interactions. It is not an end to itself. To suggest that greater societal good is apart from the self is to wrest the body from the soul. It implies that spiritual gain can come at the expense of bodily sacrifice. But this is mathematically impossible. One cannot supplement the whole by division or subtraction. Yet, this is exactly what the modern reverence for societal good over and above the self does.
The end result of this argument is to trample, not aid, the interests of those in society. Take the case of Donald Trump and U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Trump asserts Curiel, who is hearing the fraud case levied against Trump University by former students, cannot be impartial because his Mexican heritage is at odds with Trump’s desire to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This, of course, is absurd. It assumes every Mexican must be biased against Trump while every non-Mexican must support his policy, which is easily disproven.
The alarming reality- that a major party nominee for president could advance such a paltry, sophistic rationale and expect it to hold up as a serious legal defense- is a direct result of the positioning of self-interest as against justice. If this is the truth, then there is no aspect of a person’s character which could not be construed as a bias which hinders impartiality. Effectively, there is no such thing as impartiality; it is only a matter of perspectives. And once such relativity is given credence as a logical rationale, the only law which governs men is force. Justice becomes a tool for the man who can most effectively enforce his worldview.
This is a return to the system which Magna Carta and America’s Founders attempted to reform. It is the inevitable end of enervating society with life and twisting the nature of individualism into something base and devolved.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.