Rethinking justice and discourse at Eastern University

Conversation, debate and dialogue—these are phenomena that involve multiple people and positions. But when “Occupy Eastern” convened a panel of nine on Tuesday, November 8th, there was near consensus. There was little question of whether Occupy Wall Street was good and just, but rather a partial explanation from those involved and a call to action.

While I am concerned about Occupy Wall Street, I will not waste much time on it here. I would argue that Occupy’s lack of leaders, want of cohesive objectives, insufficient means to accomplish any objective that may come about and several other shortcomings are good reasons to think that the “movement” is not the most reasonable undertaking. Furthermore, the uprising has already proven to be potentially dangerous to its own constituents, costly to city governments, taxing on the occupied parks and neighborhoods and parasitic upon the democracy that it hopes to improve. A truly rigorous conversation about the Occupy insurrection would need to deal directly with these issues and the supposed goals of the movement, and to make judgments about them. Anything less is little more than blind action that, whether well-intended or not, can lead to little good.

But Occupy Wall Street is not my main concern here. Eastern is. And “Occupy Eastern” was merely one more instance for my unease. I worry that our university community falls short of understanding what the “justice” component of “faith, reason, justice” really means.

My further fear is that, as I witnessed at Occupy Eastern, we are not having reasonable conversations and dialogues about this “justice” we stand for. The stories told, experiences shared and speculations expressed at Occupy Eastern made great appeal to sentiment and conscience, but provided no substantively reasonable arguments in support of the Occupy movement itself. There were no reasoned arguments for why Occupy is good and just.

That which is just, and that which is good, is also reasonable. Justice, traditionally understood, has several slightly varying definitions: In Plato’s Republic, it is the “having and doing of one’s own.” In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, it is “complete virtue to the highest degree because it is the complete exercise of complete virtue.” In Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, it is “the constant and perpetual will to render others what is due them.” In the Bible, it is translated as “righteousness.”

But even beyond these various definitions, justice is something done in community and in proper relation to others. It is the reasonable actualization and restoration of good order.

This was not the topic of conversation at Occupy Eastern, and I worry that it is not the understanding that we at Eastern most often manifest. So to the greater Eastern community I pose the questions: What is justice? When we put “justice” on our mailings, bumper stickers, t-shirts, signs and syllabi, do we know what we mean? And do our “social justice movements” reasonably intend to be truly just? Are we respecting the dignity of those to whom we claim to be restoring justice? And are we willing to have difficult and reasoned arguments, debates, conversations and dialogues about how to act justly?

Friendship, according to Aristotle, is desiring the good of the other. In friendship, as in conversation, I respectfully contend that our conception or justice is flawed and insufficient. Justice is not a simple virtue, but rather one of arduous thought, hard work and reasoned action. We at Eastern must continue to strive to act justly, but we do ourselves an injustice by misunderstanding what justice is, for such misunderstanding precludes our possibility of being truly just to one another as we ought.


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