Justice and mercy in politics

Randall Smith writes:

I have had the pleasure of discussing Josef Pieper’s wonderful book on The Four Cardinal Virtues with my students this semester. Sometimes I wonder whether the best education I could give my students would be simply to take the list of books in Fr. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning and start working our way through them.

Every page of Pieper’s book brings new insights, but I was struck by this one the other day. Justice is one of those topics much in the news these days, whether it is “political justice,” “economic justice,” or “social justice.” Early on in his discussion of “justice,” Pieper makes this challenging observation: “We may venture to assert that expressions like ‘calumny,’ ‘malign aspersion,’ ‘backbiting,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘talebearing’ are now in their proper meanings scarcely intelligible to most people.”

Indeed, none of my students had ever heard the term “talebearing,” which admittedly is not much used in American English. Fortunately, Pieper defines it: “talebearing” is “privately spreading evil reports about another, and to that other’s friends, no less.” Classically, this was considered an especially grievous violation of justice, “since no man can live without friends.” The writer Pieper quotes to this effect is not some socially-conscious Brit writing during the age of Jane Austen or John Henry Newman; it was made by one rather socially-unconcerned Italian friar named Thomas Aquinas.

In Latin, the term Thomas and his contemporaries would have used for this vicious disposition to tear people down was derisio, from which we get the English term “derision.” It is the act that violated justice “by bringing shame to another through mockery.” How, asks Pieper, would we designate the special form of justice that “consists in sparing another man shame?” We no longer have a word for that virtue, perhaps because it has largely disappeared from society. …

I am not claiming there is never room for public shame. People who do morally wrong acts should feel guilt. They should be ashamed. Whether public shaming is the way to bring about this inner transformation in them is not clear. …

In the same chapter on justice, Josef Pieper adds another interesting comment. Suggesting that it might be possible for a just person to be mistaken about some particular issue and propose an objectively “unjust” solution to a problem, Pieper asks this question: “Should not all this be of some significance for the realm of political discourse, which is of course concerned with what is just and unjust? Does it not imply for example, that it may be quite possible and logical to reject a certain political objective as ‘objectively unjust’ – and even to combat it with intensity – without at the same time bringing the moral integrity of one’s opponent into the discussion?”

I wonder. Current evidence suggests not. Our opponents aren’t just mistaken, they are either fools or scoundrels or both. And the key skill we look for in political discourse is derision. This is what sells, both in television news commentary and in the magazines on supermarket checkout lanes. Are just institutions built on unjust words? Will constant recrimination bring reconciliation?

I like the idea that we can all gain from removing aspersions and derision from our political discourse. It reminds me of something Arthur Brooks talked about a year or two ago, which is the goal of practicing “warm heartedness” with one’s political opponents—that has to be the route to cultivating a better and more resilient society, doesn’t it?

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