I have served as a religious leader and teacher for much of my adult life. And in this kind of job, you’ll find that there are certain questions which are difficult to answer. Whether you’re consoling a family member in the waiting room of a hospital as they await the verdict of the doctors concerning a loved one or answering the ever-relevant question, “What is just? What is social justice?”, there are just some questions that are less philosophical and more emotional; for which you know that all the logical reasons in the world would not answer.
The death of George Floyd and other young members of the African American community like him have shot to the forefront of our national consciousness some questions very much like the ones mentioned above. For this reason, I hesitated to write this blog. By in large, I’m not a member of any community that considers themselves primarily concerned with this battle. Ethnically white and raised in small towns for much of my life, I knew that to write about this issue at all meant to be called out at some point regarding the prerequisite street-cred necessary to discuss the issue.
And as I prayed and taught, I found my students inquiring more and more on the topic and decided for their sake something must be said.
Therefore, I acknowledge to the reader that for all my degrees in philosophic theology and computer science, and for all my years of experience, I am not an authority on race relations. I try therefore in this blog to be merely a member of humanity and to speak from that place which is appropriately humane.
If you should be a member of an oppressed minority, then in reading these words I beg your forgiveness for any ignorance I may show and if you should find any truth in what I may say, I ask that you simply adopt it and spread it to others as you have occasion.
The protests and civil unrest that I see cascading through my screen are reminiscent of the same scenes we’ve all seen in our high school’s civics classes; studying, as we did, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the angry young people, I see the technicolor shadows of their forbearers, marching with fists raised, demanding social justice.
It is without a doubt that their cause is just. But the reason that they march at all is that some do not believe this simple truth. That the power and those in authority seek to oppose, and in extreme cases to shut down, the marchers, making arguments on news shows that these are vandals and thug-like ruffians whose goal is not social justice but anarchy.
A deeper question than if the marchers’ cause is just is why there is disagreement about this point. And like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle before us, this leads us to the fundamental question, “What is social justice?” For if we could define that, we would understand at a glance what ideas were just, and those that weren’t.
The study of social justice and what is just is a branch of ethical philosophy called jurisprudence. And while there is a wide range of views on the topic, by far the oldest view of jurisprudence that’s been enshrined in the Western form of thought is the Natural Law.
Natural Law is the belief that the concept of social justice and what is right and wrong flows from Nature herself; that the instincts of each creature push them toward what is right in their nature and each creature is pushed toward the good, where the good has its root in the creature’s nature.
For instance, eating grass is good for the rabbit. And so it is naturally driven by its own internal mechanisms to eat grass, while the same principle is not true for humanity. Grass doesn’t serve as substantial nutrients for humans and therefore we are repulsed by our own instincts away from that food source.
These same simple examples can be extrapolated into human societies. Even a major part of the ancient philosophical study was associated with the prospects of the Good Life, which the same philosophers reasoned, that if each man could live it according to his nature, societies would naturally flourish.
This flourishing was called the State of Justice and was often associated with living in harmony with the natural world. The concept of Natural Law was picked up by Christianity when it became popular in the 1st – 3rd century until it was perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas, thus planting itself firmly into Western-European thought.
Natural Law Theory is in fact what this very country is based on. We find evidence for this in the idea that one of the greatest philosophers that contributed to the thought of our founding fathers was John Locke, who said concerning Natural Law, “All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
But this reference is at best indirect. The most direct evidence that our founders saw the formation of America as an attempt to build a society on principles of Natural Law and the Good Life is found in the Declaration of independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuiting Happiness.”
Here, God (“The Creator”) is being the founder and author of nature. Man, being implied to be her most perfect creation, is like all of its other creatures, endowed by virtue of existence in nature, with certain natural rights.
To interfere with those rights seems, by this document’s internal logic, to interfere with the order of Nature herself.
With this short history and philosophy lesson, we can return to our modern-day marchers.
The marchers call for equality between the races and protection against the overstepping of those in authority. We can see that this is just for by the principles of our own nation, all human beings are endowed the natural rights of life, which was violated against George Floyd in his murder.
Liberty, which is violated by an over-powered police state, which violates the natural rights of many minorities of motion, travel, property, and safety. And it can be seen also that this authority by its very nature would violate the right of pursuiting happiness, for, without both life and liberty, no creature which now exists can pursue happiness.
In fact, it can be seen that in many ways, happiness is the natural result of these other two rights. In contrast to the natural law theory of morality, we find in Plato’s Republic a conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus that seems to answer the question of why both police and government entities are opposed to the marchers’ demands.
“…The different government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view of their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. That is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of social justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.”
Thrasymachus seems to be telling us what later philosophers and politicians would put succinctly into the phrase, “Might makes right.”
The police would, of course, be opposed to any questioning of their authority or lessening thereof. And since the simplest definition of power can be defined as having the sole license to violence, governments too would not wish to interfere with the police’s authority.
The police are law enforcement. This is just a more common way of saying how the powerful force the unwilling and weak to obey through the threat of violence or intimidation.
Throughout the controversy, I have heard protestors mention the rights that police have that they themselves do not; the right to compel, to forcibly enter homes, to confiscate property, and even to kill.
“If I did any of that, I’d be in jail,” many of the protestors proclaim.
But this is the very essence of the point. That while Natural Law would dictate that laws should only be made to protect and nourish, the law of Might Makes Right, as Thrasymachus showed us, says that those in power make decisions for their own interests and for the preservation of their own power.
Jailhouses and prisons themselves could be seen as institutions of this power. Men and women who are taken to county jails are most often awaiting trial. This means that they have not been found guilty by a court of their peers and yet they are taken and held forcibly and charged bail for release; bail being a more acceptable word for ransom. Should any civilian, in almost any circumstance, contain another citizen in this manner, they would find themselves in prison. But given the badge of the state, what would be termed as kidnapping in any other scenario is dismissed as law enforcement.
In short, the protestors’ demands for equality are just. But because of the empowerment of the police and the protection thereof, it is a matter of the power of the state to enforce its will. Little will probably be done. Even if the officers in question are convicted of their crimes, this would only be a small sacrifice by the state to quiet the masses, to make ready for the next wave of violence.
This is so because the state needs violence to enforce its will. Because in its modern incarnation, the state has grown away from natural law. If the state truly aligned its laws in all ways with the Natural Law Theory, then very few people would violate because the laws would be seen by our own internal nature to be for our good. Our instincts would direct us toward them. Our founding fathers would’ve had it this way. But modern politicians have forged ahead in a different direction.
So was born the institutions of slavery, racism, and divisions. Which are self-evidently only for our destruction. This is opposed to the rights of life, liberty, and pursuiting happiness, which are self-evidently good.
Violence is needed to enforce that which people cannot see as serving their own interests. And this has been the tactic of tyranny for age in memorial.
What is left to us is to realize that the powerful depends upon the weak? For it is only at the expense of the many that the few profits.
Therefore, the true test of the protestors and marchers would be, can they be more than a mob? Anarchy will not do, for chaos too is self-evidently opposed to the good.
So while the demands of the protestors are right and just, whether they succeed will be determined by whether they themselves can establish candidates for power and policies, which will pull our country back to the natural principles which are self-evidently good: equality, liberty, and justice for all.