Michael Young and I are hanging out at an undisclosed location in New Jersey, riding out the coronavirus by trading barbed moral intuitions with (or at?) each other. We need help. I mean, we need your help adjudicating a clash of intuitions about injustice. I doubt that anything of great significance turns on which set of intuitions is right. But I called bullshit on some of the crap Michael was slinging at me, telling him that I would appeal for a verdict to the Final Authority of All Philosophical Authorities, vox populi. Or at least the voice of a handful of self-selected readers of Policy of Truth, the moral and epistemic paragons of the Internet.
I won’t tell you which of us holds which view until I get some responses. This is my idea of an incentive to get you to respond. Like you care.
Suppose that Smith makes an unjustifiable and unkind moral judgment on Jones’s character. Fill in the blank as to what this judgment might be. All that matters is that it be adverse (the more so, the better); that it be a moral judgment (however you understand “moral”); and that it be made in a way that flouts the requirements of conscientiousness, epistemic and/or moral. Suppose, further, that Smith’s judgments of Jones come not from interaction or expected interaction with Jones, but distant observation that precludes causal interaction with Jones beyond the sheer fact of observation. In other words, it’s as though Smith has watched a YouTube video of Jones, and no more than that. Jones doesn’t know of Smith’s existence, much less his adverse judgment. Smith and Jones do not expect ever to interact in the future, and in fact, never do.*
Consider three questions about this, all hair-splitting variations on the same theme.
Question 1: Has Smith done Jones an injustice?
Question 2: Is Smith’s judgment an injustice to Jones?
Question 3: Is Smith’s judgment unjust?
Michael and I split down the line on this. I guess the only thing we agree on is that the difference between us somehow matters (which may itself be completely delusional).**
One of us thinks that the “intuitively plausible” answer to all three questions is “no.” Justice and injustice presupposes bilateral interaction. There is no bilateral interaction here. In fact, it’s tempting to say that even the unilateral interaction involved is extremely minimal. Smith’s judgment is wrong, but it’s mostly a violation of a moral-epistemic duty to self. It doesn’t do Jones an injustice, is not an injustice to Jones, and is not unjust–because an action of this kind can’t be a matter of justice or injustice in the first place. To apply the concepts of justice or injustice here is a category mistake. Yes, we sometimes talk as though the answer to (3) was “yes,” but that’s a misleading facon de parler, not a literal truth. Injustice requires a victim, and since there is no causal interaction between Smith and Jones, Jones is not a victim; since there is no victim in the example, there is no injustice in it, either.
The other of us thinks that the “intuitively plausible” answer to all three questions is “yes.” Justice and injustice don’t presuppose bilateral interaction. They simply presuppose social interaction of any kind, unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral. And there is unilateral action here in a social context. For that matter, we should leave open the possibility that a person can do herself an injustice, in which case injustices-to-self are a clear counter-example to the “bilateralist condition” described in the preceding paragraph. Intuitively, the answer to (3) is obviously “yes.” If injustices to self are possible, then so are injustices to others that don’t affect them. But even if injustices to self aren’t possible, unjustified judgments of others’ moral character are injustices to them, whether or not those others are ever affected by the judgment.
Put it this way: if you saw someone walk down the street, noticed their race, and wished them ill because of their race, you would be wronging them (not wronging, or not just wronging yourself) in that act, whether or not they were causally affected by it. Likewise with gender: you see a woman being assaulted on the street (by a man), and take misogynistic pleasure in the fact that a man is assaulting a woman. The misogyny expressed there is an injustice to that woman and to women, not just a private moral failing or violation of a duty to self. And so on, for cases of envy, schadenfreude, etc. Once we see that in the case of (3), there is less pressure to give a “no” answer to (1) or (2). Contrary to the previously-expressed view, either causal interaction is not required for victimization, or victimization is not required for the expression of injustice (inclusive “or”).
Your turn, readers. Hard to think of a better way of spending one’s self-imposed coronavirus isolation than to hash through deep questions of this essentially impractical sort. Right?
*Nor does Smith pass the judgment on to any third party who interacts with Jones. Thanks to Loquitur Veritatem in the comments for suggesting this additional condition.
**We also agree, of course, that the act of making such a judgment is immoral. The disagreement is that one of us thinks that the immorality involves injustice, while the other doesn’t. Thanks to Ray Raad for inducing this clarification.