Questioning Justice

Justice—what is it? After reading about it for a good part of the semester the definition of justice is still questionable. Socrates’ conception of justice definitely has its limitations. His conceptions are questionable in the Republic, as it is possible to interpret it as Thrasymachus’ conception of justice as the kind that emerges in Socrates’ ideas. Even in a controlled setting, the kallipolis, founded for the purpose of being a just city, justice’s definition varies when interpreting. The limitations of Socrates’ conception of justice outside of the just city were especially apparent to me as I was doing my final exam and was using Socrates’ conception of justice to build a response to a situation. In any real circumstance I would look absolutely silly telling someone not to cheat on their taxes because greed feeds the appetites of their soul. It seems apparent that to use Socrates’ conception of justice in our society makes little sense, perhaps because our society is based on other ideals than that of justice (such as rights and freedom). Even though Socrates examines the issue in great detail the conclusions that result from this are hardly satisfactory, and bring up more questions about justice.

So, not having a satisfactory answer to the question what is justice, I went to only place I knew that would have accurate and reliable answers: the internet. I googled “what is justice” and one of the results was a quote from a Yale professor, Steven Carter. He said:

“I’m a very long way from understanding what justice is.  I’ve always been of the Isaiah Berlin view.  Isaiah Berlin is one of my favorite philosophers, and his view in a nutshell – it’s a little oversimplified, I guess – was that if you know for sure what justice is, you’re probably gonna start killing people next.  […]  His view is that most of the misery in our history and the world’s history has come because someone has thought they know the single truth, or the truth in the face of which all other truths must fall.”

First of all, I was relieved to know that because I have a poor understanding of what justice really is I’m not going to go kill people. Carter claims that a singular belief that one knows the truth is dangerous and likely to bring misery. I thought what was interesting about Carter’s statement was how it might be applied to Socrates’ method of philosophizing. Socrates in Euthyphro questions the meaning of pious as if he doesn’t know what it is, destroying Euthyphro’s definitions. This kind of examining was the basis of his philosophy. If holding the belief that one has an absolute truth has a dangerous and misery-bringing property then destroying or causing reason to doubt such “truth”  was a service that Socrates provided society. Though his conceptions of justice might be limited and even irrelevant, the line of questioning and doubt of the conception of justice represents the importance of examining the values and concepts that our society defines for us. Though questioning conceptions that are fundamental to a society is potentially dangerous (might lead to nihilism), to not question such conceptions is equally as destructive. Socrates represents a way of examining values that that society should always engage in so that we don’t start killing each other because we think we know the truth. The act of questioning is more important than the answers.

The quote from Steven Carter I found through google here:


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