Justice and Order


Chapter 3 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is “Justice and Order”. We can now fully clothe our naked animal nature with a beautifully flowing robe of moral order and justice. Paine grounds his idea of justice in a simple principle that governments should be chosen by the people and respect their equal rights and interests.  He believed justice could be discerned through reason.  Burke has a much more sophisticated and nuanced notion of justice.  True, ultimate justice (from God or pursued via natural law philosophy) cannot be uncovered by reason alone.  What matters is not the violent, barbaric beginnings of society or someone’s current opinion of what justice is – what matters is the journey humanity has taken towards achieving never quite achievable or even finally knowable justice.


We are the result of a long chain of tradition and moral practices; a sacred chain that is to be guarded, not because its origins were perfect. It’s the chain itself that’s important because we are all linked through time across generations [see my 7/29/15 post].  And this brings us to equality.  Paine argues that society should focus on equality.  Burke understood that society is sustained by inheritance, which necessarily perpetuates inequality.  And this inequality, which grows out of the nature of time, custom, succession, accumulation and improvement of property, is nearer to true equality than the artificial equality of levelers and social planners. It’s what Burke calls moral equality.  “All men have equal rights, but not to equal things


The idea of forcing everything to an artificial equality is a utopian ideal that is misguided and impractical. Peace, prosperity and stability are more important for everyone, and are not well served by the endless pursuit of equality, because social equality is an unachievable goal.  In a society sustained by inheritance, wealth tends to stay in certain families and beyond the reach of others; not that social mobility is impossible, or that some are unworthy, but equality should not be the primary goal of politics.


Burke doesn’t just defend the status quo – those born of privilege and those born of toil need not remain there. However, the suitability for having power has a lot to do with property and leisure, which tend to be inherited.  [Leisure for education – time to study and reflect upon philosophy, economics and law – not idleness]  Burke believes in equality of opportunity, equality of human dignity, but in the real world, human capabilities vary wildly and it’s dishonest and immoral to pretend otherwise.  Burke writes:

The savage hath within him the seeds of the logician, of the man of taste and breeding, the orator, the statesman, the man of virtue, and the saint, which seeds, though planted in his mind by nature, yet, through want of culture, and exercise, must lie forever buried, and be hardly perceivable by himself or others.


A select few form a kind of natural aristocracy, sustaining certain social and political inequalities, for society’s own good because it produces a stable, peaceful social order. A hereditary aristocracy creates strong barriers against abuses by establishing powerful habits and obligations of restraint in rulers and the ruled alike, all grounded in social relationships and class distinctions.  To remove these traditional restraints would mean empowering only the State to restrain individuals, which always results in tyranny.


Social order and justice leads us to the question of what we are free to do contrasted against what we must do.  Next week, our War Chest journey through the wardrobe of a moral imagination moves on to the matter of choice and obligation.



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