It might not be politically or religiously correct, but there are all the reasons in the world to advance my interests over yours if I see you as disconnected from me, as other. Humanist or religious attempts to bridge this divide — all people as one human family or children of one God — as well as rationalist analysis along the lines of mutually advantageous cooperation have not worked in general, because they come from the outside or are abstractions without enough pulling power.
Certainly they work in some cases, but these are too few and far between to impact human society on the scale needed to chart a new path of partnership with life. This is largely due to the fact that these ideologies are expressed in ways too disparate to lead to consensus. Either they have no objective basis to lend them strength and flexibility amid adversity, or they come bundled with any number of additional beliefs as part of “all-or-nothing” packages that increasing numbers of people cannot fully accept.
If, on the other hand, there is no self or tribe to promote or advance at the expense of others, since the very concept of “other” is erroneous, then no one has any reason, let alone any right, to take more than an equal share of what life has to offer. This holds true at all levels. No one person, no one community, no one country has any greater claim to anything than any other person, community or country. One simple, fundamental insight, with no associated baggage, produces an inviolable imperative. If any choice is left, it is between self-interest and self-destruction.
Is this anything more than the common abstract principle of justice that has been around for ages, and flouted for just as long? Yes, because we are not trying to balance self-interest with the interests of others. I think we can safely conclude that this balancing act is impossible without some outside arbiter, since the prospect of balancing a world of disparate individual interests is perhaps even beyond the realm of fantasy. It requires either a Supreme Omniscient Being as ultimate judge to ensure justice in some hereafter, since it assuredly is not realized here, or Supreme Omnipresent Bookkeeping, which is the only way I can conceive of the concept of karma. But even the latter relies on a kind of individual continuance, through reincarnation, to allow for accounts to be settled.
Even if, for the sake of discussion, we assume the continued existence of some individualized form of life beyond death, there is no way my imagination, however wild it runs, can conceive of a being who could record every motivation and action of every person that ever has been and then sort it all out. The idea that this could somehow happen on its own is no more convincing, even in the age of ever-more-powerful computers. Of course, great thinkers who do find these ideas plausible, or who perhaps found the alternative too frightening or dangerous, have done their best to reconcile things. The Christian idea of conscience might provide one such solution. Each individual conscience, fashioned by the Creator with an infallible sense of right and wrong, could keep a running total. But this just has the Supreme Being creating infallible and physically non-existent software that accurately tracks the neuronal paths of our biological hardware. The obvious difficulties require a dizzying spiral of complexity built upon complexity.
Our simple alternative is merely to widen self-interest, the greatest motivational factor in human history, to embrace the unity of life, the full and only self. Justice, despite the nobility with which we have invested it from our fragmentary viewpoints as individual selves, really is nothing more than recognizing our true self-interest as opposed to indulging a false self-image. Conversely, greed and selfishness do not turn out to be anything inherently wrong or evil, a fundamental flaw we need to correct. They are nothing more than the essential self-preserving activity of life mistakenly applied to a false notion of self. They are natural errors resulting from a more fundamental one. Recognizing that life as a whole is our identity removes the error that these and other mistakes naturally spring from.
Justice thus reduces to reality, as does ethics, and reassuringly so. If any individual causes harm, or takes advantage of another, even of the natural world that supports life on Earth, we — all of life including that person, even if he or she would not recognize it — suffer the consequences. There is no appeal; there is no recompense. Justice simply comprises the immutable consequences of actions, some of which rebound on the actor primarily responsible but most of which frequently do not.
What then of the “injustice” of, for example, natural disasters or congenital deformities? Here the notion of injustice arises because the consequences seem selectively “targeted” at people or other forms of life that had no hand in producing them. But if there is no individual to begin with, there is no selective targeting and there is no injustice. There is pain, but properly seen and felt we suffer as a whole. Just as we feel the pain when someone close to us, someone we identify with, is involved in tragedy, so we will feel the pain of the world — and respond to it — if we stop isolating our selves from it.
Clearly this sensitivity could be overwhelming for an individual, and I am sure it is the cause of some if not much mental distress among people who grasp only part of the reality. I know people who find the suffering around them debilitating. They are dealing with an expanded sense of self, but fail to identify with the totality of life – birth as well as death, creation as well as destruction. Perhaps they came to the brink of insight but panicked, pulled back rather than let go, and are stranded with a half-formed understanding of the nature of self. Hinduism preserves great wisdom in the dance of Shiva, which creates as it destroys.
The concept of justice reduces from an abstract concept to an almost physical reality once we remove the false concept of self. By definition it is impartial, a simple matter of cause and effect. Misguided actions by any sentient life forms cause inescapable consequences, perhaps for life as a whole. This is easiest to see on the large scale, as with widespread destruction of the environment around the world, which clearly affects life on a global scale. But what about an act of violence by one person against another, or theft, or oppression of a group of people through force or economic marginalization?
Where is justice when people “get away” with crimes, or when one community profits for centuries at the expense of another, maybe through outright or more subtle forms of slavery? Obviously there is none from the individual point of view: some individuals and communities/tribes/countries win, and some lose. As a whole, however, we lose. How? Because neither the winners nor the losers are well placed to carry the grand experiment of life forward.
Those who take more than their fair share or harm others in more direct ways obviously are acting for self-interest, even if their self-identity has expanded to include their family/community/country. Blind and stumbling, they cannot move forward, which absolutely requires identification with the whole of life.
On the other hand, those who receive less than their fair share can be physically hindered, as through malnutrition, or constrained through lack of opportunities for development or education. They might have to expend a disproportionate amount of their time and energy on survival. At the same time, they will be disturbed by the state of affairs. Direct violence heightens this dynamic, which is not limited to the victims but extends to those who in various ways identify with them. Further acts of violence or oppression can result, creating a negative spiral that clearly works against human advancement, as is particularly clear in the extreme case of war. But even when this does not occur, physical and/or psychological conditions limit the contribution that people who see themselves as having suffered injustice in the conventional sense of the word could otherwise have made.
Obviously the magnitude of this loss cannot be determined, but I think it is more than fair here to shift the burden of proof to anyone who would like to claim it would not be significant. (Interestingly, this dynamic could provide an existential justification for martyrdom in the broad sense, in that the person sacrificing her or his life for another approaches death more willingly and hence less traumatically than a person resisting it. Thus life proceeds with an infusion of nobility and true selflessness, which could even help enlighten an oppressor, rather than just terror and other negative emotions.)
Should anyone still be tempted to see the collective sense of justice we have been sketching as a wave of the hand that absolves individuals of blame, I would encourage them to think more deeply about the consequences. I noted above that this concept of justice is inherently impartial. Now we need to understand it is inflexible. As I said earlier, I do not exclude God as a possibility, thought I cannot accept any well-defined concept of who or what God is. Certainly I am not willing to leave the fate of our world to a hypothetically timely intervention by a Divinity who is otherwise content to let things take their course over billions of years. An unknowable number of species have gone extinct in the course of history — with humans to blame in more and more cases — and I see every reason to conclude that the human race has at least a decent chance of joining them.
I don’t really know how to convey the gravity of a situation in which we could make the final act in billions of years of evolution a fantastic show of self-inspired greed. These are the stakes we are talking about when we speak of this most natural justice. If we screw it up beyond repair, we lose. This is not a practice round that really doesn’t count. There is no second chance, no appeals court where some of us can plead that it wasn’t our fault, that we were not to blame but they were. No. In the words of a nursery rhyme, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” And we here means more than just human life.
One need not believe that the catastrophic results of environmental destruction are pushing (or have pushed) us beyond the point of no return. It is sufficient to consider that we are now triggering warnings of impending doom that are at least reasonable at an alarming rate. As I already noted, only a few decades separate the specters of nuclear annihilation and irreversible ecological destruction.
So a self-less sense of justice leads to a collective sense of responsibility. What eventually matters is not what I do, not counting what you do, or what you do, forgetting about what he or she does, but what we all do. Of course the nature of human beings and the complexity of human consciousness mean, I think, that there may always be people who act in unreasonable and unpredictable ways. But we need to cultivate a sense that we are responsible for one another, since we will all suffer the consequences of what one or another of us does.
How much damage can we do? Besides the example of environmental destruction, we have horrific individual examples such as Hitler, as well as mass examples such as the current state of capitalism or the equally capitalistic remnants of the official purveyors of communism. These anonymously brutal contemporary systems cause huge numbers of people to suffer because of a minority who think too little of the consequences, let alone of people in need.
It takes a lot for one person to impact the progress of life as a whole, but it does not take so much on an individual level for a large number of people to have a cumulative impact, perhaps critically. However, this cumulative impact could be positive as well as negative. Hence there can be no shrinking from our responsibility. In order to reach the evolutionary future, we must do whatever is necessary to get everyone moving in a mutually advantageous direction.
Here we come to the full flowering of this understanding of justice. It is academic that if we are not individual selves but points of consciousness in a web of life, then we are responsible as a whole and there is no room for taking advantage of another, because in doing so we hurt our self and hinder our evolution. But in practical terms it means ensuring that everyone has what he or she needs to participate fully in life. And this springs not from some liberal or charitable ideal but from true self-interest.
Of course, we have to deal with the thorny issue of whether it would not be better, defined as in the interest of all of life, to remove “flawed” instances of consciousness — people who for one reason or another won’t or can’t cooperate, who insist on harming others or place great burdens on available resources. Would not our inflexible justice of reality condone this?
Before we consider this, however, I want to cover another matter that we also must deal with — love. We must first get to the heart of the matter.