Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Re-framing a Justice for Right Relationships

Lisa Marie's picture

      At our first 360 meeting in Camden, the 360 participants and CFET members had an interesting conversation on Eco-Literacy and Environmental & Social Justice. During this discussion, Michael from CFET made a comment that has remained with me through the course of this semester. He mentioned that he did not like the term “justice” as an organizing idea as it implies that there is always an impartial arbiter determining what is “right”. As someone who has felt involved and active in the pursuit of social justice, I had not previously thought there might be something problematic about this concept. Over the course of the semester, in and out of the 360, I have begun to question and challenge the idea of justice. What is justice? Who determines what is “just” and “right”? Must justice be achieved at the expense of something else? Does social justice perpetuate and reproduce existing social inequalities and hierarchies? What about ecological justice? Is there a way for eco-justice and social justice to co-exist or is there tension between them? Is justice inherently human centric? Is there a way to expand this concept to the wider natural world? To assist me in exploring these questions, I will draw on John Humbach’s essay “Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships”, J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex”. 

            Before diving too deep into these inquiries and to establish some groundwork, I thought it would be interesting to look up an official definition of justice. According to Miriam Webster, it is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments” and the administration of law; especially:  the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity” (Miriam Webster). John Humbach, a Professor of Law, examines justice in “Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships” in which he identifies two distinct types of justice: the justice of rights and the justice of right relationships. The justice of rights is defined as “a justice of entitlements […] in which the personal entitlements are the fundamental moral objects in view and their enforcement is crucial.” By contrast, the justice of right relationships “treats human relationships, not rights, as the fundamental moral objects, with no crucial role for entitlements at all” (Humbach 1). The justice of rights operates on the use of rights as “legal boundaries that may not be crossed, with punishments [handed out to] transgressors”. In the United States, we live in a society “where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are our inalienable rights”; rights that we expect to be protected by our legal system. Another characteristic of the justice of rights is to promote a mentality that “to give offenders what we feel they ‘deserve’ and to minimize crime and victims” (7). Right relationships, on the other hand, “are human relations in which each (or all) seek, without abandoning themselves, to be attentive and responsive to the needs and emotions of one another, quite apart from considerations of entitlement”(2). In right relationships, "nobody is counting. It is not tit-for-tat but the members' mutual and effective commitments to one another...."(1). Humbach further argues; “too many people act like the only really ‘right’ relationship is the relationship of victor and vanquished” and that until we as a society strive for a justice of right relationships, we will fall morally short (16).

            John Humbach’s essay provides a valuable perspective on how many people in the United States focus on the justice of rights, emphasizing this tit-for-tat reciprocity and retribution of wrongs, especially when individuals’ “inalienable rights” are in some way violated. This essay is incredibly interesting and well written, and Humbach addresses the moral shortcomings of our current conception of justice. Even still, though, Humbach’s conception of justice is very human centric. Is the term justice only compatible with the social world? How can this framework of a justice of right relationships be expanded to provide guidance for how humans should interact with the natural world?

            Teju Cole’s The White Savior Industrial Complex touches on the many issues and complexities that come about when trying to bring about “ a more just world”. Cole points out that individuals, who have a good heart and intentions sometimes cannot see and connect the dots of patterns of power behind “isolated ‘disasters’” (Cole 1). One of Cole’s most poignant arguments is that “there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems” (Cole 2). In responding to these issues the way that many do, they simplify what is going on, leaving out the patterns of power. “A nobody from America and Europe can go to Africa to become a godlike savior, or at the very least have their emotional needs satisfied” (2). Again, many found Cole’s argument to be extreme but he has some valid points. Justice is a complicated and layered term and sometimes, in pursuit of justice or what we feel emotionally is “just”, we reproduce existing social inequalities and structures of power.

            J.M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals presents a series of conversations about the unjust ways animals are exploited by humans. In this fictionalized tale, Elizabeth Costello is invited to Princeton University to give a lecture on literature, but chooses to talk about animal rights instead. One of the points Costello raises is that “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing [animals] into the world for the purpose of killing them” (21). While Costello admits she is using her “rhetorical power” to make a “cheap point” and runs the risk of polarizing people—she attempts to bridge the gap between the social and natural worlds. Is the way humans treat animals the same as the way particular groups of people have been treated in the past? Is the mistreatment of animals worth the products and food humans get out of it? Who decides this? Is it a fair and impartial process?  

            Later on in the same lecture, Costello identifies another issue with the human treatment of animals. “Today these creatures have no power […] animals only have their silence left with which to confront us” (25). While many characters in the book disagree with and pushback on what Costello says, she does advocate for animals and highlights the ways in which they, along with the wider natural environment, are not brought into human conversations on justice. In the United States, especially, the focus is on United States’ citizens’ liberty and justice. The whole idea of justice is human centric and leaves out the voices of animals and the broader natural environment. Is it “just” that human’s exploit and deplete the world’s natural resources? Is it “just” that humans harm and kill animals at the rates we do? What about the fact that marginalized groups of people often experience “environmental racism” and have less access to pristine natural spaces. In all of these issues, who is determining what is “just” and who even has a choice and stake in deciding this?

            Justice is clearly a complicated and somewhat problematic term in that it assumes that there can always be a fairness and impartiality in resolving various issues. As demonstrated by Costello, justice becomes even murkier and difficult to achieve when it becomes both a social and environmental issue. In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh juxtaposes the needs of the Bengali tigers and those of the villagers in a part of the text. This paradox is never fully resolved but does get the readers to think about ecological and social issues. In this particular part of the book, justice for the tigers would be achieved at the expense of the villagers and vice versa, justice for the villagers would be at the detriment of the tigers. In the novel, scientists and individuals who do not live in the village advocate for the Tiger’s habitat to be preserved. The villagers in this area however, would be put into harm’s way as the Tiger’s have a track record of killing different people. Moreover, the villagers, many of whom were uneducated and lived outside the city, did not have anyone to advocate for their needs. In this case, would justice for the tigers at the expense of the villagers’ lives be fair and impartial?

            In this essay, I have raised more questions than answers to my exploration of justice across different texts. To provide at least some conclusiveness to this examination, I would like to return to Humbach’s idea of a justice of right relationships. In his essay, Humbach claims that the justice of right relationships dates as far back as 23 centuries, when Aristotle brought it up in his own work. “Aristotle wrote of an alternative that he called epieikes, the ‘better’ kind of justice that results when a person ‘does not insist upon his rights to the damage of his neighbors, but is content to take less than his due, although he has the law on his side’ […] Aristotle saw this ‘better’ kind of justice as entailing the affirmative concerns and care that are characteristic of the best human relationships, writing: ‘If people are philios [in loving relation], there is no need for [ordinary rule-based] justice between them.... Indeed it seems that justice, in its supreme form, assumes the character of philia [amity/love].’” Is there a way our society’s notion of justice can expand to provide a framework for dealing with environmental issues? Perhaps we as a society could expand the idea of promoting for a justice of right relationships by encompassing the idea of interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. If there is a stronger moral framework in determining what is “right” and “just” in the social and environmental realms, we may be able to better confront juxtapositions and paradoxes that emerge. At this moment, though, the whole idea of justice is incredibly human centric, not taking into consideration the needs of animals and the rest of the natural world. Until we gain a better grasp of this and have someway of dealing with unjustness that takes place in society and nature and those murky, gray areas where the social/environmental issues connect, we will be falling morally short.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J. M., and Amy Gutmann. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

Cole, Teju. "The White-Savior Industrial Complex." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 07 May 2014.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

Humbach, John A. "Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships." Web. 06 May 2014.