Tuesday, December 06, 2016

On Justice, Truth and Beauty

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the first virtue of systems of thought." (John Rawls)

In this age, obsessed with justice, it is worth asking whether it is the only virtue. Let's simplify Rawls's statement a little and say that, as justice is the virtue of our institutions, truth is the virtue of our intuitions, and beauty, of imagination. We have politics to improve (i.e., make more virtuous) our institutions; we have science to improve our intuitions; and we have art to improve imagination.

It is no doubt possible to pursue any one of these aims to the detriment of others. There are politicians who have no respect for scientists, and scientists who do not respect politicians. There are those who would subordinate truth to justice, and others who would sacrifice justice for the truth. The mind reels, the heart breaks, to imagine what all this clamor is doing to the arts.

Somewhere in the back of this is the highest virtue of all: happiness. And somewhere in that vicinity is the perhaps basest drive: the drive for pleasure. I can easily imagine social progress that makes advances towards "justice" (in the Rawlsian sense of "fairness") while undermining our conditions for pleasure, and therefore minimizes happiness. After all, one way to make the world a fairer place is to make exceptionally happy people as miserable as everyone else. Likewise, it is possible to imagine social change that improves our capacity for pleasure wherever possible, without worrying too much whether it is equally distributed. Such change might make everyone a little happier.

I am against the fixation on justice. I am also against the fixation on truth. I think we need to find a balance between science and politics. Instead of making a wasteland of the imagination between them, we must negotiate a peace that allows the arts to flourish. We must cultivate the ground of beauty. We must find again the pleasure of experience. We must learn, first, to experience pleasure.

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