Whenever I raise the question “What is justice?” in philosophy or peace studies classes, my students groan and insist that “we could never agree upon a definition of justice!” I push them to try anyway, and, before the class session is over, everyone is rather surprised to realize that that wasn’t really so hard after all.
Now that I’ve gotten over my own surprise about this (after several years of consistent results), I find myself asking new questions. Why do people think it will be hard? Or, maybe more interestingly, why are we taught to believe that it is impossible — why are we discouraged from even trying? And, finally, if our struggles and conflicts are not grounded in disagreement over what true justice is, what are they all about, then?
I am coming to think that the answer to all of these questions is the same: those who find themselves on the advantageous side of injustice tend to be highly reluctant to give up their privilege; plus, the privilege that they have gives them the power not to have to give it up very easily. But because no one wants to believe that their privilege is supported by injustice, it is strongly tempting to deny that they really know what justice is and it is furthermore strongly tempting to discourage everyone else from clarifying its definition.
The real issue, then, is not that we don’t know what justice is. The real issue is that those who benefit from injustice often become ambivalent about seeking true justice because of the advantages they will lose.
But, there is still hope. Sometimes people who benefit from injustice are willing to use their advantages to try to bring about the restoration of true justice, even realizing that, if they succeed, their privileges and advantages will be lost.
Why are there such people? What can bring people to a willingness to give up privilege and advantage? It is usually two realizations. The first is that they come to realize that they are not happy with privileges that come at the expense of the suffering of others. And the second is that they realize that happiness can be found in a simpler and humbler life, because making the best of a humble life demands that you clarify what’s really important to you. Once you strip away the excess and focus your life on what really matters, you feel a sense of unencumbered freedom that brings a clearer, steadier joy than the thrills and drama of an extravagant life.