Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (II)


...continued from Part I:

Obviously, in such times as these we cannot dispense ourselves from discussing the most profound and ultimate justification for the inviolability of what is due to man; of course, it is not enough that it be discussed; rather, by using every means available for something like this, society must be made aware and kept aware of the insight that something is inviolably due man, because behind man stands a tribunal beyond all human discussion; because, to say it differently and more clearly, man is created by God as a person. This and nothing else is the lone, ultimately valid justification for the inviolability of the obligation to justice. This of course does not mean that an “atheist” cannot be just, just as it does not mean that “theists” must be especially just. We need not waste another word about that.

Yet, if that ultimate reason for the obligation to justice really were to disappear completely from man’s consciousness, something could happen that no longer seems utterly beyond our experience: not only will the executioner not know and not want to know why something is due to his victim, but also the victim will potentially no longer be able to explain why he is suffering injustice.

One may not object that such a grounding of the obligation to justice by falling back upon an absolute authority is something specifically Christian or theological. Indeed, the very same Asian, who was a member of the UNESCO Commission explained that though the phrase “human rights” does not appear in his language and tradition, the matter it concerns does—this Chinaman quoted to his colleagues a sentence, which, as I can well imagine, was received with some puzzlement, and which was taken from the millennia-old “Book of History”: “Heaven loves the people, and the ruler must obey heaven.” That is, as one sees, essentially the same foundation for the obligation to justice known to the Christian-Western tradition, in which it has found a particularly clear and profound formulation, but not at all only in doctrines of justice based on theological arguments. The following sentence, for example, expresses the same thought: “We have a holy ruler, and that which he has given to men as holy is men’s right.” This sentence, however, is not to be found in a theological Summa from the thirteenth century, but rather in Immanuel Kant’s lecture on ethics, who thereby also teaches that man’s right requires, as its final guarantee, a refuge in an absolute, divine ground.

I said, when the old doctrine of justice spoke of right, then it meant “the other’s right,” and nothing besides that. Justitia est ad alterum; this sentence, according to which justice essentially has to do with the other, has more than just one aspect. Surprisingly, for example, this otherness is to be taken much more precisely and literally than one would immediately suspect. It is indeed this, it is said, which distinguishes the structure of justice from the situation of love: the partner formally confronts me “as” other.

Of course, there is another concept of justice which does not exclude love, just as there is a concept of love which includes that of justice. Whoever grasps the distinguishing characteristic, the differentia specifica, must simply see that love has nothing to do with an “other” or with a “stranger,” but with someone who belongs and is bound to him; lovers do not say to each other: “This is due to me, and that to you.” Rather, they say: “All of this is ours.” Lovers give each other gifts; the act of justice, however, is not the giving of a gift, but the paying of a debt. When the ancients insist on this distinction, not only a need for conceptual exactness is in play, but a completely illusion-free idea of reality as well. To be just means: to recognize exactly where one cannot love. This is precisely what the demand contained in this picture of justice signifies: confirm the other in his otherness and help him to obtain what is due to him.

Spelling out what is apparently obvious will not appear superfluous once one remembers that the term “liquidation” has entered into men’s mental vocabulary—and not just the concept, but the reality. “Liquidation” signifies not so much a punishment, or even an execution; “liquidation” means: extermination because of otherness. And it would be, I believe, simply unrealistic, not to acknowledge that this impulse—“whoever is different must be liquidated”—shapes and threatens man’s thought like a poison, or at least as a temptation, perhaps ever since the beginning of the world, perhaps ever since Cain, but especially in our own time. That is the reason why it is still important to name the most elementary components of the ancient concepts of “justice” and to keep them present in our minds. It is the “other,” indeed the “stranger,” who is explicitly meant as the partner of the man who is called to justice—the man who actually “stands off at a distance” or also the man who is mentally perceived as a “stranger,” the man who perhaps unintentionally makes his appearance as our competitor or as a threat to my own interests, to whom it would never occur to me to give a gift, against whom I must hold firm and assert myself: To give even him what is due to him, not more, but not less—that is the achievement of justice.

If one considers the matter from the other shore (so to speak), from the side of the receiver, of the man with a right, then the distinction between the gifted and the debtor proves to be quite acute. Everyone knows the formula: I don’t want any charity, I want my right—whether it deals concretely with the Christmas bonus or foreign aid for development. Even the one who is “gifted” (in quotation marks!) feels that he has been unjustly treated; he wants nothing more than what is due him; but he wants everything that is due. Perhaps he is not wrong.

Yet it is just as evident that we have unintentionally touched upon the most sensitive points of man’s communal life. The inability and the refusal to accept a gift; the unwillingness to show gratitude (why should one express thanks when he is only being paid what is due him?)—all these are after all somewhat problematic things. But in all of them there arises a concern about first principles, namely the question whether perhaps justice, however much it forms the metallic core of all communal life, could nevertheless not be enough for the realization of a truly human existence among men. As a matter of fact, the ancients are of the opinion that justice is not sufficient. (I will have a word to say about this at the end of this reflection.)
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