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Our sense of justice might be out of date

Like all our other senses, our sense of justice also has ancient evolutionary roots. Human morality was shaped in the course of millions of years of evolution, adapted to dealing with the social and ethical dilemmas that cropped up in the lives of small hunter-gatherer bands. If I went hunting with you and I killed a deer while you caught nothing, should I share my booty with you? If you went gathering mushrooms and came back with a full basket, does the fact that I am stronger than you allow me to snatch all these mushrooms for myself? And if I know that you plot to kill me, is it OK to act pre-emptively and slit your throat in the dark of night?1 On the face of things, not much has changed since we left the African savannah for the urban jungle. One might think that the questions we face today – the Syrian civil war, global inequality, global warming – are just the same old questions writ large. But that is an illusion. Size matters, and from the standpoint of justice, like many other standpoints, we are hardly adapted to the world in which we live.

The problem is not one of values. Whether secular or religious, citizens of the twenty-first century have plenty of values. The problem is with implementing these values in a complex global world. It’s all the fault of numbers. The foragers’ sense of justice was structured to cope with dilemmas relating to the lives of a few dozen people in an area of a few dozen square kilometres. When we try to comprehend relations between millions of people across entire continents, our moral sense is overwhelmed.

Justice demands not just a set of abstract values, but also an understanding of concrete cause-and-effect relations. If you collected mushrooms to feed your children and I now take that basket of mushrooms forcefully, meaning that all your work has been for naught and your children will go to sleep hungry, that is unfair. It’s easy to grasp this, because it’s easy to see the cause-and-effect relations. Unfortunately, an inherent feature of our modern global world is that its causal relations are highly ramified and complex. I can live peacefully at home, never raising a finger to harm anyone, and yet according to left-wing activists, I am a full partner to the wrongs inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. According to the socialists, my comfortable life is based on child labour in dismal Third World sweatshops. Animal-welfare advocates remind me that my life is interwoven with one of the most appalling crimes in history – the subjugation of billions of farm animals to a brutal regime of exploitation.

Am I really to blame for all that? It’s not easy to say. Since I depend for my existence on a mind-boggling network of economic and political ties, and since global causal connections are so tangled, I find it difficult to answer even the simplest questions, such as where my lunch comes from, who made the shoes I’m wearing, and what my pension fund is doing with my money.2 Stealing rivers

A primeval hunter-gatherer knew very well where her lunch came from (she gathered it herself), who made her moccasins (he slept twenty metres from her), and what her pension fund was doing (it was playing in the mud. Back then, people had only one pension fund, called ‘children’). I am far more ignorant than that hunter-gatherer. Years of research might expose the fact that the government I voted for is secretly selling weapons to a shady dictator halfway across the world. But during the time it takes me to find that out, I might be missing far more important discoveries, such as the fate of the chickens whose eggs I ate for dinner.

The system is structured in such a way that those who make no effort to know can remain in blissful ignorance, and those who do make an effort will find it very difficult to discover the truth. How is it possible to avoid stealing when the global economic system is ceaselessly stealing on my behalf and without my knowledge? It doesn’t matter if you judge actions by their consequences (it is wrong to steal because it makes the victims miserable) or whether you believe in categorical duties that should be followed irrespective of consequences (it is wrong to steal because God said so). The problem is that it has become extremely complicated to grasp what we are actually doing.

The commandment not to steal was formulated in the days when stealing meant physically taking with your own hand something that did not belong to you. Yet today, the really important arguments about theft concern completely different scenarios. Suppose I invest $10,000 in shares of a big petrochemical corporation, which provides me with an annual 5 per cent return on my investment. The corporation is highly profitable because it does not pay for externalities. It dumps toxic waste into a nearby river without caring about the damage to the regional water supply, to the public’s health, or to the local wildlife. It uses its wealth to enlist a legion of lawyers who protect it against any demand for compensation. It also retains lobbyists who block any attempt to legislate stronger environmental regulations.

Can we accuse the corporation of ‘stealing a river’? And what about me personally? I never break into anyone’s house or snatch dollar bills from anyone’s purse. I am not aware how this particular corporation is generating its profits. I barely remember that part of my portfolio is invested in it. So am I guilty of theft? How can we act morally when we have no way of knowing all the relevant facts?

One can try to evade the problem by adopting a ‘morality of intentions’. What’s important is what I intend, not what I actually do or the outcome of what I do. However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed, but even more so from ignorance and indifference. Charming English ladies financed the Atlantic slave trade by buying shares and bonds in the London stock exchange, without ever setting foot in either Africa or the Caribbean. They then sweetened their four o’clock tea with snow-white sugar cubes produced in hellish plantations – about which they knew nothing.

In Germany in the late 1930s, the local post-office manager might be an upright citizen looking after the welfare of his employees, and personally helping people in distress to find missing parcels. He was always the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave, and even in snowstorms made sure that the post came on time. Alas, his efficient and hospitable post office was a vital cell in the nerve system of the Nazi state. It was speeding along racist propaganda, recruitment orders to the Wehrmacht, and stern orders to the local SS branch. There is something amiss with the intentions of those who do not make a sincere effort to know.

But what counts as ‘a sincere effort to know’? Should postmasters in every country open the mail they are delivering, and resign or revolt if they discover government propaganda? It is easy to look back with absolute moral certainty at Nazi Germany of the 1930s – because we know where the chain of causes and effects led. But without the benefit of hindsight, moral certainty might be beyond our reach. The bitter truth is that the world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.

Most of the injustices in the contemporary world result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices, and our hunter-gatherer brains did not evolve to detect structural biases. We are all complicit in at least some such biases, and we just don’t have the time and energy to discover them all. Writing this book brought the lesson home to me on a personal level. When discussing global issues, I am always in danger of privileging the viewpoint of the global elite over that of various disadvantaged groups. The global elite commands the conversation, so it is impossible to miss its views. Disadvantaged groups, in contrast, are routinely silenced, so it is easy to forget about them – not out of deliberate malice, but out of sheer ignorance.

For example, I know absolutely nothing about the unique views and problems of aboriginal Tasmanians. Indeed, I know so little that in a previous book I assumed aboriginal Tasmanians don’t exist any more, because they were all wiped out by European settlers. In fact there are thousands of people alive today who trace their ancestry back to the aboriginal population of Tasmania, and they struggle with many unique problems – one of which is that their very existence is frequently denied, not least by learned scholars.

Even if you personally belong to a disadvantaged group, and therefore have a deep first-hand understanding of its viewpoint, that does not mean you understand the viewpoint of all other such groups. For each group and subgroup faces a different maze of glass ceilings, double standards, coded insults and institutional discrimination. A thirty-year-old African American man has thirty years’ experience of what it means to be an African American man. But he has no experience of what it means to be an African American woman, a Bulgarian Roma, a blind Russian or a Chinese lesbian.

As he grew up, this African American man was repeatedly stopped and searched by the police for no apparent reason – something the Chinese lesbian never had to undergo. In contrast, being born into an African American family in an African American neighbourhood meant that he was surrounded by people like him who taught him what he needed to know in order to survive and flourish as an African American man. The Chinese lesbian was not born into a lesbian family in a lesbian neighborhood, and maybe had nobody in the world to teach her key lessons. Hence growing up black in Baltimore hardly makes it easy to understand the struggle of growing up lesbian in Hangzhou.

In previous eras this mattered less, because you were hardly responsible for the plight of people halfway across the world. If you made an effort to sympathise with your less fortunate neighbours, that was usually enough. But today major global debates about things such as climate change and artificial intelligence have an impact on everybody – whether in Tasmania, Hangzhou or Baltimore – so we need to take into account all viewpoints. Yet how can anyone do that? How can anyone understand the web of relations between thousands of intersecting groups across the world?3 Downsize or deny?

Even if we truly want to, most of us are no longer capable of understanding the major moral problems of the world. People can comprehend relations between two foragers, between twenty foragers, or between two neighbouring clans. They are ill-equipped to comprehend relations between several million Syrians, between 500 million Europeans, or between all the intersecting groups and subgroups of the planet.

In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas of this scale, people often resort to one of four methods. The first is to downsize the issue: to understand the Syrian civil war as though it were occurring between two foragers; to imagine the Assad regime as a lone person and the rebels as another person, one bad and one good. The historical complexity of the conflict is replaced by a simple, clear plot.4 The second is to focus on a touching human story, which ostensibly stands for the whole conflict. When you try to explain to people the true complexity of the conflict by means of statistics and precise data, you lose them; but a personal story about the fate of one child activates the tear ducts, makes the blood boil, and generates false moral certainty.5 This is something that many charities have understood for a long time. In one noteworthy experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a poor seven-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia. Many were moved by her story, and opened their hearts and purses. However, when in addition to Rokia’s personal story the researchers also presented people with statistics about the broader problem of poverty in Africa, respondents suddenly became less willing to help. In another study, scholars solicited donations to help either one sick child or eight sick children. People gave more money to the single child than to the group of eight.6 The third method to deal with large-scale moral dilemmas is to weave conspiracy theories. How does the global economy function, and is it good or bad? That is too complicated to grasp. It is far easier to imagine that twenty multibillionaires are pulling the strings behind the scenes, controlling the media and fomenting wars in order to enrich themselves. This is almost always a baseless fantasy. The contemporary world is too complicated, not only for our sense of justice but also for our managerial abilities. No one – including the multibillionaires, the CIA, the Freemasons and the Elders of Zion – really understands what is going on in the world. So no one is capable of pulling the strings effectively.7 These three methods try to deny the true complexity of the world. The fourth and ultimate method is to create a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution or chief, and follow them wherever they lead us. Religious and ideological dogmas are still highly attractive in our scientific age precisely because they offer us a safe haven from the frustrating complexity of reality. As noted earlier, secular movements have not been exempt from this danger. Even if you start with a rejection of all religious dogmas and with a firm commitment to scientific truth, sooner or later the complexity of reality becomes so vexing that one is driven to fashion a doctrine that shouldn’t be questioned. While such doctrines provide people with intellectual comfort and moral certainty, it is debatable whether they provide justice.

What then should we do? Should we adopt the liberal dogma and trust the aggregate of individual voters and customers? Or perhaps we should reject the individualist approach, and like many previous cultures in history empower communities to make sense of the world together? Such a solution, however, only takes us from the frying pan of individual ignorance into the fire of biased groupthink. Hunter-gatherer bands, village communes and even city neighbourhoods could think together about the common problems they faced. But we now suffer from global problems, without having a global community. Neither Facebook, nor nationalism nor religion is anywhere near creating such a community. All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than in understanding the global truth. Neither Americans, Chinese, Muslims nor Hindus constitute ‘the global community’ – so their interpretation of reality is hardly trustworthy.

Should we call it quits, then, and declare that the human quest to understand the truth and find justice has failed? Have we officially entered the Post-Truth Era?

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