Hoping for justice

Pope Benedict may have faith in his god, but appears to have none in humanity. In his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope) released on Friday he says “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.” That for humanity to establish justice is “both presumptuous and intrinsically false.” Even “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.”

The human hope for justice

Justice is a human construct. Every system of justice, past and present, has been created by mankind. Every future one will be.

Human history gives many examples of injustice and oppression in the name of justice (often linked with the name of God). But we are an intelligent species, capable of learning from mistakes. Capable of working to build societies and ethical systems aimed at providing better and more democratic justice.

Let’s face it – if we don’t create our own justice, no one else will!

Christian chauvinism

I suppose we should expect that a major statement from the Pope should express Christian chauvinism. But this chauvinism doesn’t provide any real leadership to either Christians or the many people of other beliefs. To declare “man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope” ignores realities.

We all have hopes and aspirations, whatever, our religious beliefs. We all have human rights and responsibilities, whatever our beliefs. And today we live in a pluralist society. Any attempt to provide human rights and justice must recognise this.

It may be in our nature to look for differences, to divide our fellow humans into “them” and “us.” This has been, and still is, a major problem. But our evolution has also provided us with a brain enabling us to empathise and reason. We are capable of overcoming the “them” and “us” mentality, of respecting the human rights that enable us to live in a pluralist society. We are capable of leaving behind the claim that some of us have “God on our side” and can therefore tell others how to live and what to believe.

Division or unity

Today there is a widespread recognition that religion can inspire people to violence and terrorist activity. It’s maybe understandable that Christians may be defensive about this and attempt to divert criticism by pointing to acts of violence and injustice which were not done in the name of a god. But this does nothing to reveal the true causes of such inhumanity. Nor does it help to overcome these causes. That requires us to use our intellect and reason.

Unfortunately Spe Salvi continues to promote divisive ideas. Blaming atheism for the failures of human societies, for “the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” does nothing to promote the community of interests and common actions required to build just societies.

See Also:
Encyclical letter Spe Salvi

Related Articles:
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Common values, common action?
Crimes of Communism and Christianity
Atheism and religious diversity
Family planning and the inhumanity of religion
God’s not as popular as we thought
Human rights for the non-religious

19 responses to “Hoping for justice

  1. As I’ve said before, Ken, I’m willing to work with and along-side ANYONE for justice…

    The difficult problem is that of defining justice!
    It looks differently to different people.

    I agree fully your notions of unity and human-ness, but the same problem looms there also. Unity in what? And, what does true human-ness look like? If humans are merely animals, why shouldn’t we act like other animals? Life in the animal kingdom is brutal and it’s all about survival, no? Is this not how our biological history and development is said to have gone? Why should humans all of the sudden be ‘respectful’ and have ‘peace’ with one another? I totally agree that we should, but the only basis I see that you’ve given for WHY we should is that we simply ‘can’, thanks to our highly developed brains.

    Yes. Fine. We ‘CAN’ act differently than other animals with less developed brains… Yes. Fine. We have the ABILITY to do so… But why should we? Does not our biological and developmental history justify us behaving like animals? Why not? Isn’t violence, fighting, killing and death a natural part of life?



  2. Don’t downplay the difference in human brains (compared with other animals) – it’s probably extremely important.

    The fact is that we can act differently to other animals, it’s in our interests to do so, and we DO act differently (without individually answering the question of why).

    In many ways we act intuitively like the animals we are – and I think the division into “them” and “us” is part of that “animal-like” intuitive action. And we seem to do that at the highest level (states, nations, ideologies and religions). But we are also capable of reason, of expanding the “us” concept to include the whole species (and even beyond). History suggests that this expansion may be occurring.

    Our reason enables us to develop our ethical and moral logic and to advance concepts of human rights. That is also part of our nature – and it is a liberating part.

    The problem is, though, that in advancing this humane, liberating part of our nature we have to continually fight against the other aspects we have inherited through evolution and which cause so much inhumanity and danger today.


  3. No downplaying intended, Ken. But the key question remains of how we ‘do’ ethics. How do we know what is good for us? How do we know that division into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is bad or good (or when it’s good and when it’s bad? – and why?) How do we arrive at the conclusion that humans have ‘rights’ other than other organisms? How do we know what is liberating and what isn’t? How do we know what ‘humane’ things are?

    You talk on one hand of continued development in continutity with our history, but then on the other hand you talk of the need to fight against ‘other aspects’ that are dangerous and inhumane… How do we work out what things should be progressed and what should be fought against?

    Again, on what basis do we do this?

    Personally, I think you’re on to something with the idea of an objective morality (worked out like mathematics)… even if we can’t have objective access to (or knowledge of) it.



  4. “How do we work out what things should be progressed and what should be fought against?”

    Think about how you do it – how do you make up your mind about things like imprisonment of the teacher in Sudan or the treatment of the rape victim in Saudi Arabia. We all come to some sort of moral decision about questions like treatment of women, apartheid, racism, attitudes to people with different sexual orientation,violent discipline of children, etc., etc. We are doing it all the time – and mostly coming up with humane approaches.

    It think its a mixture of some “absolutes” that are intuitive and result from evolutionary processes (e.g. attitudes to incest) and a more conscious development of logical ideas. We have an inbuilt implicit emotional reaction without thinking, and a moral logic. Maybe the moral logic is based on some fundamentals, like arithmetic, and inbuilt (“wired in” to our brains) empathy for others, but this enables us to determine a moral position. Maybe we have to think a bit harder on some issues (the logical process in action) but we seem to be able to come to some common agreements on some issues, a majority on some and big divisions on others. I think there develops a sort of social morality and this is definitely partly relative, changing with time. The disagreements will be mainly in those “relative” areas.

    There will always be some individuals who are morally challenged because of biological or psychological problems. But I think most of us develop our moral attitudes this way, whatever our religious or ethical traditions. Of course the latter will have an influence on members of those traditions through teaching and codified values. But I think those are derived as I have described and differ only in that they are codified and usually given a religious sanction or obligation.

    I don’t think our morals are “god-given” and I think the danger of moral “recipes” enforced or obliged by religious authority, rather than reason, is that they can be unthinking. This encourages dangerous attitudes to others outside the “flock” and can also mean the moral beliefs can be weak because they are “accepted” rather than developed through understanding and genuine empathy for others.


  5. Thanks Ken,

    Yes, I agree we are all ‘doing’ the morality thing all the time. But how do we distinguish between doing it ‘right’ and doing it ‘wrong’?

    We can talk and think for ages about HOW you or I or anyone works out their morals… But what if we come to different conclusions about the same act at the same time with the same circumstances? And behind all this is the question of values… If life (human or otherwise) is not intrinsically valuable, then most ethical conslusions go out the window. But we humans value a lot more than life – we value comfort, convenience, style, possessions and our individual rights. Disruption or loss of any of these get us upset, but none of these ‘extras’ (in biological terms) is necessary for survival. What gives?

    Another problem… Just because in some areas we seem to all generally agree and others seem more ‘relative’ does not mean that we’re not wrong about what we agree about, and that one side is ‘right’ where there is disagreement! In short, popular agreement does not equal moral correctness.

    I agree, however, that moral ‘authority abuse’ is sick and wrong. It makes people passive, and they (as you say) ‘accept’ things rather than (I like to say) ‘own’ them for themselves. But this is like everything. When done in a healthy way, it’s good; when not – it’s not.

    One of my key questions has been – and still is: Why is anything (for example, violent rape) wrong?
    I’m not asking how you think certain mental processes have developed to lead some to think it’s not in our best interest, I’m asking why it is wrong!

    Forget evolutionary change for just one moment… Right here… Right now… How things are in the world right now. Diversity of social development all around us. From violent tribal cultures to sophisticated, rich, comfortable westerners looking for cheap prices on christmas gifts… Do you think –right now– that violent rape is right or wrong??

    Further, if in a violent tribe culture, murder was normal and accepted, why should we go and teach them that it is not? Who are we? Does our social evolution give us some kind of authority? Who’s right about murder? us or them?

    must run…



  6. While justice is a human construct, it is a hypothetical construct. Hypothesis means to suppose and requires a test to prove. There are no tests for justice since it is a relative term and not absolute. Justice is a concept that has to do with the “proper” ordering of human actions within a society and hence subject to the communal nature of that society, and since we have a variety of societies, justice is relative to those societies.

    That we are an intelligent species is questionable by degrees and relative to other animal species. It is a fallacy to say that humankind “all of a sudden” evolved to have respectful and peace with one another. 30,000 years of evolution of brain development that has learned to reason the hypothetical constructs of love, morality, beauty, and the good, the ancient virtues is not all of a sudden. Perrott is quite correct in saying evolution has provided a brain that empathizes and reasons and this is proved in this very article by Campbell’s various posts at the very least.

    Campbell asks, really sympathetically, if violence, fighting, killing and death is not a natural part of life? Yes, of course these behaviors are in all of the animal kingdom’s species including humans, but humans are differentiated by their critical thinking skills and have reasoned an altruistic and selfless concern for others, i.e., the Golden rule of ethics regardless of Nietzsche’s proposal of amoralism. We call it egalitarianism and there are just as powerful arguments for this point of view including the basis of this very country in which we live. I suggest an article by Marc Hauser, Harvard psychologist whose thesis is that the human animal is hardwired to know right from wrong. Also, Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene examines the scientific basis for morality, as well as a whole bibliography listed at Wikipedia.org/wiki/evolutionary_ethics. It just takes a bit of research. It can be called brain stretching.

    The problem has been succinctly put by Arthur C. Clarke when he said, “The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.” The dismissing of justice by the current pope is unconscionably irrational and unimaginably parochial (which is ordinarily descriptive of the religious anyway). His browbeating religious provincialism can be chalked up to intentional protectionism due to the inexorable migration of educated minds away from his kind of religious dogmatism.

    As a counter question to Campbell, I would ask why we should not act differently to the merely survival instinct of natural violence of animal behavior?


  7. Thoughtful addition, ‘Shenonymous’,

    I do appreciate what you’ve said, but we still are left with the question of why egalitarianism is in fact the best ‘way’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for equality, human rights, environmental responsibility, social justice and more; it’s just that biological, social, mental, moral, ethical or any other kind of evolution cannot do at least two things: 1) they cannot (for me) explain why egaliltarian values are ‘good’, and 2) they cannot provide any kind of assurance that we will not evolve away from these ‘good’ egalitarian values.

    As for She-non’s counter question, I am, after all, a Theist, so I think we all have (we like to say ‘given’ – yes, implying an intent of a Creator, no surprise) a moral ‘conscience’, which is basically saying that we (ALL humans, by the way, not just ‘religious’ ones) actually are moral beings who intuitively distinguish right from wrong – a kind of ‘inbuilt egalitarianism’ if you will. This is not to talk of some esoteric ‘tapping in’ to some floating body of moral truth ‘up there’ or something… This is, in my view, an ordered cosmos, in which these moral beings ‘work with’, ‘tend’, and ‘manage’ the order in themselves and the order around them.


  8. This does illustrate the problem with the theist approach. We are being asked how we work out what is “right” and “wrong”, how we get our morality, etc. It’s possible to discuss this and advance hypotheses, perhaps even test, them. But the minute we bring in a god, a creator, and claim (or even hypothesise) that this is the source of our morals or even the source of order, scientific investigation stops. Postulating a god-given morality prevents investigation, unless one is prepared to “put up” in the sense of admitting the possibility of investigation, testing, and possibly even rejecting on the basis of evidence.

    To say we have an “inbuilt” (god-given) morality is not an answer. We still have to ask why, and how it came about.

    The danger too (as well as stopping true inquiry) as that many theists (and I know you aren’t one of them Dale) then go on to say that they know the mind of God, they know what is correct, right and wrong, and then proceed to tell us how to behave.

    I much prefer the theist who doesn’t propose a god as an answer to anything. They can assume a creator as the source of order, etc., but this should never be used in place of true evidence and reason for answering these sort of questions. God is never the correct answer to such questions precisely because it gets in the way of investigation and finding the correct answer.


  9. Yes, the introduction of a god (or any external, revealed source of morality) is a discussion-stopper. If you don’t believe it just try having the same conversation with someone who has a different version of god from yours.

    Also, the real world is full of issues that are many shades of grey and pulling out a revealed source of morality tends to draw lines of black and white where no such lines can be drawn. This is why revealed morality is so poor at dealing with hypothetical moral dilemmas as well as real-world ones.

    I love to explore the boundaries of ethics but find it nigh-on impossible with my family who are of a fundamentalist bent. I realise that you’re not like this Dale and I’m interested to know how you deal with this world of greys we inhabit.

    With regard to egalitarian values, (and I take it you mean equal rights?) it seems pretty clear to me the progression of other species who evolve (culturally) varying degrees of social altruism. The larger the community group you need to participate in the wider your ‘in-group’ needs to be in order for you to enjoy a fair chance at survival and reaping the benefits that come from community. Humans still have out-groups but with the technological changes in weapons the penalty for belonging in an out-group is becoming more and more severe. Equal rights, in my opinion, is the best option in this day and age for a global community that’s armed to the teeth.

    That said, this is the first time I’ve ever given any thought to the issue so I’m keen to hear counterpoints.


  10. Thanks to Ken and Damian,

    (by the way, we’re discussing the same issues on my blog if you’re interested! – http://by-default.blogspot.com)

    I’m not trying to use ethics to ‘prove God’ or something, though I’m curious as to your disgust at my mention of God relating to ethics – after all, I am a Theist – and even the most basic expressions of what is often called ‘ethical monotheism’ entail the Creator as also being the universal foundational personality behind morals and ethics. You’ll get no “My God exists, therefore my version of morality is authoritative” junk from me, so there’s no reason to accuse me of ‘conversation stopping’… (In passing, I do want to say that it seems rather ungenerous of you to demand that theist must keep their God out of moral discussions. Why not engage them in how they see that working?)

    My question has been and still is: how can we truly distinguish ‘good’ things/actions from ‘bad’ things/actions, without being relativistic? It’s one thing to postulate how we came to our egalitarianism, but it’s quite another to provide rationale why our egalitarianism is more moral than other cultures throughout human history or in other places in the world (even now).

    Just a quick note on one thing… While a Deist view of god may be ‘external’, many Theists are committed to the view that God is ‘among’ and/or ‘alongside’ the universe. In responding to the ordered cosmos, we humans, as moral beings, are continually working-out morality inherent in it. I’ll stop myself there and spare you my incessant rambling… 🙂

    I’m not trying to lower Ken’s site-hits, and boost mine, but I’m tempted to repeat what I’ve been saying in my comments over there. So, if you wish, check out that conversation…

    In summary, human moral values have always been (as far as we know) varied. If we are true naturalists, then (which begins to start a completely different tangent for me to go on…), how can we say that our egalitarian values are ‘the best option’? Aren’t all moral values equally valid given that they are a part of social evolution? When we start to divide ‘humane’ values from ‘inhumane’ ones, we need a basis for this! What is this basis!!??


  11. I think you misunderstand me Dale – I aren’t disgusted. However, I think god explanations are just not explanations. I approach questions of morality and ethics, how our sense of “right” and “wrong” arise, etc., as any other question in human investigation. And as for any other question the minute a “god explanation” is used true investigation stops (unless a realistic hypothesis can be proposed for testing!).
    Granted, it’s hard to prove the morality of one’s own culture is better (or more correct) than the morality of another culture, and issues of cultural chauvinism abound. However, I do think there is a moral logic which can be used. That doesn’t mean one can necessarily convince the other person. But I guess that it is the same with arithmetic. We may not be able to convince someone from another culture that our arithmetical logic is more complete or more appropriate than theirs. Maybe it depends on cultural experience.
    For example, early missionaries in NZ were able to convince Maori than cannibalism was bad and may have succeeded because of the changes that occurred in Maori society after contact. Then again, Moriori did develop a pacifist culture which didn’t include slavery or cannibalism without outside contact.
    I think that a minority in any culture can develop a moral stand against the prevailing cultural morality and they must do that by applying moral logic.


  12. The Relative God

    Let’s give the theists the benefit of the doubt and say there is a God, which I will even capitalize to show my respect for their views, even though I should say at the outset that I am an atheist.

    First of all how do you distinguish these moral beings? When you say they intuitively distinguish right from wrong, you essentially are saying it is an innate quality to be moral. Since morals happen in the mind and have an effect on the behavior of the body, that is, its actions to act in a moral way, then we have to say that morals are as evident as is the mind. If because you think and therefore that is proof enough of having a mind, then the infinite regress question is what exactly is doing the thinking? There would be no end to the question and you would forever be asking it. Poor use of one’s time. And from your statements you think a creator has intended these moral beings to have a moral conscience. If the creator is as you describe, then why are some beings given this moral conscience and others not? What is the criteria for the creator to give it apparently discriminately? How would one even attempt to find out the intention of a creator that is invisible in all ways?

    My next question has to do with the god/creator that apparently is relative to each individual. Whose view of the god/creator is to be believed? Shall all versions be acceptable? If so, then why go to war, or justify murder at the drop of a possible insult such as innocently naming a teddy bear the name of a prophet whose name is given to hundreds of boys at birth? Then the god is not relative but dogmatically described and prescribed, as are each of the Abrahamic religions’ gods. You seem to think morals come to individuals as Athena did to Zeus, they just appear in the mind and jump out of the forehead when deemed needed.

    Evolution theory can explain why egalitarian values are good, they are good because they promote particular lines of replication, and evolution would not devolve as it most likely would not be in the best interest of the genetic material to do so. But if at sometime in the future that was to be proven the case, that it is in the best interest of the genetic being to regress because of some cataclysmic event in the universe, then the definition of “good” would permutate as well, and it would be part of the way of being with nothing lost.

    The notion of an ordered cosmos is not inconsistent with an evolved cosmos. And I would agree that morals are individuals’ responsibilities. But since morals are defined within the group in which one exists, then knowledge of those morals are made known to the group and one chooses to follow them in order to live well within the group. That there are basic and innate senses of right and wrong, is not inconsistent with an evolved sense of right and wrong. Evolution provides the genes with choices for survival and that survival determines what is right and wrong. Otherwise the gene dies and is no longer within the gene pool for further replication.

    What is true egalitarianism is determined by what is true for all in the group. It is not a big question, really. The basis for human and inhumane values becomes conventional within the group. When you have competing groups is where the trouble come and then there are various ways of solving that problems as well both by peaceful agreements or by warfare. And whoever is left standing is how the world will go.


  13. Shenon,

    If (within your outlined framework above) every moral situation had life or death consequences, it would begin to make sense. Even so, it still leaves us with truly relative morals – which many people (of all religious persuasions – or non-persuasions) would find unsettling.

    And further, I most certainly do think we see moral ‘regress’ all around. Certainly things happening that worry us. And we’re not talking about anyone being removed from the gene pool because of it. Your treatment has a ‘onwards and upwards’ feel to it, which I don’t think matches what we see in all of the world.


  14. What do you see in “all of the world?” Evolution does have the onwards and upwards vector. It is not just a “feeling.” The machinations of the gene pool does eventually eliminate the regressions. You are just too impatient because of your limited lifespan to wait for it. But it is inexorable, like it or not. You, personally, do not have any control, mainly because your particular and unique genetic make up is now passé. Moral situations do not have to be extreme life or death consequences and it is irrelevant whether there are even “many” that would find “truly” relative morals unsettling. There is a lot that is unsettling but it really doesn’t matter. Life is what it is.


  15. Shenon,

    Well, I don’t know how much further we’ll get…

    I’m no biologist, but the idea of eventually eliminating all regressions seems to me to turn a slowly onwards-and-upwards trajectory into a ‘straight-up’ trajectory, no?

    “There is a lot that is unsettling but it really doesn’t matter.”
    If it doesn’t matter, then why is it unsettling?



  16. Good evening -d-
    The idea of regression is manifold and what is proposed is that when there is a threat of regression, if there is one, genetic evolution takes care of it over the space of time it takes, whatever that may be. And hence, yes, there is a endency to a straight up vector. That does not seem repugnant to an evolving universe, it is natural. Perhaps you should become a biologist. Vectors do not have to be exponential but in biology is by degrees.

    Why it is unsettling would depend on to whom it is unsettling, and that is the force of my nonchalance. Whatever is unsettling to some is settling to others. As can easily be seen, not very much is uniform in any articulation, even snowflakes are quite different from each other even though there is the appearance of being the same.


  17. Sorry, please correct the word endency to tendency in my last comment. Thank you.


  18. Well… my loose grasp on genetic regression keeps me from engaging further on that… 🙂



  19. From this discussion, -d-, you can say you now grasp it a little bit better. Have a happy holiday.


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