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Justice as spite

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Waldman has an important column this week at the Washington Post. It’s On student loans, conservatives turn ‘fairness’ upside down.”

Waldman writes:

“The justices sounded almost as though they were advocating a strict version of communism, under which no one should receive any government benefit that isn’t given to everyone. You could ask why Social Security is so unfair to people who aren’t elderly, or farm supports are unfair to people who aren’t farmers, or funding schools is unfair to the childless.

“These same justices, and the party they come from, seem to rouse themselves to fret about fairness only when those who don’t ordinarily get a lot of breaks — people struggling with debt or who need help feeding their families — are given a government benefit. When that happens, the fairness police of the right turn on their sirens, usually with the argument that someone else’s gain must be your loss — even if you didn’t actually lose anything.”

In ethics, there is a word for this: spite.

John Rawls discusses spite in A Theory of Justice, in the chapter entitled “The Problem of Envy”:

“A person who is better off may wish those less fortunate than he to stay in their place. He is jealous of his superior position and begrudges them the greater advantages that would put them on a level with himself. And should this propensity extend to denying them benefits that he does not need and cannot use himself, then he is moved by spite.”

As Waldman points out, you would never hear a conservative justice invoke the principle of fairness when the arrangements benefit those who already have the advantage. Waldman quotes Samuel Alito, who interrupted a lawyer to say this: “Why is it fair? Why is it fair? … I’ll try one more time. Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief?”

I realize that I’m a tiny voice in the wilderness, with my belief that the conservative mind isn’t merely different, it’s stunted and defective and dangerous. Conservatives who make it all the way to the Supreme Court may know all about the Ten Commandments, but anything they know about moral philosophy seems to be centuries out of date. And as Alito’s perverted sense of fairness shows, they’re incapable of even elementary moral reasoning.

One Comment

  1. Dan wrote:

    I used to have a terrible stance on the meaning of justice. I think it’s from the sorta right-wing economics program I graduated from, but I never fully bought into the idea of there has to be a loser in the world of social, political, or economic justice. It sounded right at the time. Having a broader understanding of the world and greater empathy has helped to underscore how I think about social justice now, which is more like Rawls’ perspective. In almost every discussion I have with someone who votes Republican or supports Trump and his ilk, there’s at the very least a hint of spite in all of their positions, even if those positions should reflect the morality of the basis for their socially-conservative views, what they call Christianity.

    Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

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