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Arts & Letters Daily

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SO YOU THINK YOU CAN THINK

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

“Does justice include desert?” asked Mae.
“Possibly, though not necessarily,” replied Bill. “In the case where John helped an elderly person cross the street safely, she did not deserve to be helped by John. Nor did John deserve a reward. However, when a bully on the playground injures another person, he deserves to be punished.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

Again Mae asked the reverse question, “Are all unjust acts wrong?”
“It would be a contradiction to claim that an act is unjust but nevertheless right,” insisted Bill. “When an act to be unjust, it is wrong.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

Mae continued, “Are all wrong acts unjust?”
“Not necessarily,” replied Bill. “Suppose Betty does not take her medication as prescribed by her doctor. The act would be wrong but not unjust. She was not duty bound to follow the doctor’s orders.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

“Interesting,” observed Mae and then reversed the question, “Are all just acts right?”
To which Bill replied, “Of course, just acts are right because they need to be right to be just. If John had assisted an older person to cross the street because he wanted to make sure she would cross the street safely, his action would have been just because he would have met the two conditions for an act to be just.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

“It’s still confusing to me. Can you give me an example?” asked Mae.
“OK, here’s one,” replied Bill. “Suppose John assisted an older person to cross the street safely, hoping that he would receive a tip. John did the right thing but not for a morally good motive in that he was hoping for a reward. John acted selfishly and not from a morally good motive.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

‘Wow,’ says Mae. “So justice includes the concept of motive and duty. Let’s explore these relationships some more. Are all right acts just?” she asked.
“No,” replied Bill. “For an act to be just, it must meet two conditions. The act must be right and it must be done with a morally good motive.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

Expanding on it, Bill maintained, “In fact, for a person to be considered a morally good person, it is not sufficient that he make right decisions. Should a person do so out of fear or self-interest, he or she would not be regarded as a morally good person. A person must do so from a morally good motive.”
Bill continued by explaining the second usage of justice, “All other references to justice make reference to the objective sense – whether an act is right. It is used in a way that right refers to duties. Hence, justice frequently is treated as being interchangeable with the term right.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

Bill interjected, “Justice as applied to a person is about a person’s motive. This subjective sense of the term, justice, applies only to people.”
Mae got it; so she added, “When justice is used in this way, it is used in a way similar to the way good or virtuous are used. They refer to the motive of a person.”

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Mae and Bill’s conversation about justice

Mae was determined to get clarification on the concept of just desert. Pinker’s view that somehow justice is a form of revenge continued to trouble her. So she wanted to dig deeper into the concept of justice.
She started the conversation by rambling about how people judge many things to be just or unjust. She recalled expressions like, that was the only just thing to do, he received his just desert, and just society. “How could the notion of justice include revenge?” she wondered.

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