re: justice and freedom

W Ramsay (
Fri, 24 May 1996 10:16:11 +0100

Devi Jankowicz wrote, on May 22, in reply to my comments:

>>From the point of view of, say, terrorism, is it easier to adopt a stance
>>that one does what one does in the pursuit of (our own absolute idea) of
>>"justice" or to answer in an acceptable way the question "Was the killing of
>>these particular Saturday afternoon shoppers (peasant farmers etc.) a just

He wrote:

>Indeed. Even if I feel ultimately downtrodden and oppressed, I'm capable of
>examining my action against my oppressor in terms of its justifiability;
>and that is likely to be more morally productive than defending my action
>in terms of my search for "justice".

Agreed. I would add, however, that 'justifiability' is in a sense redundant
here. If an act is construed as just then it is already justified. At
another level, a need for justification arises if A construes his own act as
just, but B does not. B may then try to get A to 'justify' his construing
of the act by pyramiding down to those constructs that A uses to arrive at
the 'just' evaluation. Indeed that's what we do for ourselves, surely, but
in reverse, when we decide on a course of action?

>Thank you, Bill: you remind me that hurting the innocent, the "killing of
>these particular Saturday afternoon shoppers", is surely unjustifiable,

Actually I left out the word 'innocent' quite deliberately. Construing the
bystanders as 'innocent' or 'guilty' (or whatever) may be one step in the
determination of the justice of the act, with innocent-guilty as a
subordinate construct. An extreme case is fictional, but represents a not
unknown dilemma. The film 'One Minute to Zero', about the Korean war, you
may remember, contains a scene in which Robert Mitchum has failed to halt a
column of refugees, known to be infiltrated by North Korean troops and being
pressed forward under duress by them. I can still remember my teenage
horror at the point when he contacts the artillery battery and orders "Down
two hundred. Fire for effect!". A just or an unjust act? Were the
refugees innocent or .. ? And so forth. Perhaps the problem about reifying
"justice" is that the individual who sees it in these terms has no choice to
make and no guilt in consequence. The individual who pursues a philosophy
of constructive alternativisim may know he's made the right choice but feel
forever guilty about it.

>On reflection, there's just a bit more to it, though. In removing the
>appeal to "justice", you do leave the (legitimate) struggler against
>oppression with a problem: what objective is s/he to adopt now that the
>utility of "justice" (and "freedom") as objectives has been eschewed in
>support of the "justifiability" of actions towards some goal? There does
>remain the human feeling that ultimate, existential "fairnesses" exist for
>which one may, at times, be compelled to fight. And there's still the
>problem that no fight is entirely clinical, with exactly the right people

Justice exists wherever acts are commonly just, oppression where they are
commonly oppressive. A society may be construed as 'just' or 'oppressive'
to the extent that either of these statements is true about it. One could
then say that justice obtains in that society, but this is simply a
convenient ellipsis. My own view is that 'justice' is a replication without
a counterpart in objective reality, which I see as a contradiction in
Kelly's terms. It is therefore essentail that we be able to construct an
alternative model of justice that fits PCP without such contradictions.

>And _here's_ subtlety. Apart from anything else, there is still, (even when
>one gets it right and manages to avoid hurting the innocent) the problem of
>"friendly fire": that one may have to accept hurts to one's own values in
>order to achieve some ultimate objective (= superordinate value). Can this
>be "justifiable" in your terms, I wonder?
>Listen. I'm not just playing with concepts. My mother spent 2 years in a
>Siberian work-camp during the second world war, deported by the Russians
>who had invaded Poland shortly after Hitler had come in from the west. And
>do you know what she construed as her greatest moral problem during those
>two years?

Me neither, Devi. There are times you have to push the detail to get the
picture. Carry on! (I have a whole line of argument about friendly fire,
but I'll defer that.)

>As a forced labourer, she was required to plant vegetables, onions and the
>like, to help feed the Red Army people guarding her, as well as herself and
>the other deportees. The only form of protest open to her was to plant the
>onion sets upside down, hoping that this would in some miniscule way "slow
>up" the Russian war effort!
>And she found that she couldn't do it: in the midst of so much
>"unnaturalness", she felt it went against her own values to work against
>nature in this way in order to achieve her tiny, tiny (but superordinate!)
>objective. She wasn't prepared to accept even that degree of "friendly

I'm not sure that I'd construe such an action as 'friendly fire', although
your mother might have been doing so depending on how she construed
Russians. I think my argument still stands. I have no problem with your
example, in fact I think it helps by reason of its sheer real-world
simplicity. The act of planting onion setts upside down is, or was,
construed as 'unjust' or 'unnatural'. Pyramid down. I don't know your
mother's history, but my father would have found such a thing hard to do,
being only second generation away from farming and still with vital
connections to it. How such an individual would construe a deliberate
attempt to slow growth of a crop, perhaps to help others towards
malnutritution, after a lifetime of 'cropping' values being instilled could
well explain the outcome. It's less to do with 'justice' as a concept and
more to do with anticipating outcomes and construing them. ( I realise that
puts the FA back to front, but if you can anticipate it you can construe it!).

>It's still rather difficult!

Agreed. I rest my case, and my brain, for now and welcome your comments.

Best wishes,


Bill Ramsay,
Dept. of Educational Studies,
University of Strathclyde,
Jordanhill Campus,
G13 1PP,

'phone: +44 (0)141 950 3364
'fax: +44 (0)141 950 3367