Why Science and Justice Share An Intimate Relationship

Created: 27 January, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
12 min read
What relationship can possibly exist between science and justice, much less one which is “intimate?” In my book,

A Just Solution, I propose an epistemological paradigm in which knowledge can take three forms: extra-rational knowledge, consensual knowledge, or observational knowledge. What is most significant is the degree to which each form of knowledge must be accepted ‘whether one likes it or not’— getting at universality.

The intellectual products of science are inherently in the form of observational knowledge. Such knowledge (if sufficiently verified) is necessarily valid for all human beings. The point of this essay is that the ethic of justice must be in that form of knowledge in order to be necessarily universal, therefore valid.

In the form of observational knowledge, the ethic of justice is ‘real,’ not an imagined ideal. Real justice will be contrasted with ideology. The postmodern critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’ must also be taken into account. A thumbnail sketch of that epistemological paradigm will come first.

Extra-rational knowledge is the realm in which beliefs are found. Beliefs are propositions (statements, etc.) which are not amenable to being verified within our (apparent) material existence. It is significant that this paradigm does recognize belief as a form of knowledge. This author does believe in the existence of God. Within this paradigm, that means I have knowledge of the existence of God. (‘Creationism,’ if science, would replace the certitude of faith with a mere theory.)

Only irrational beliefs (beliefs contradicting sufficiently verified observational knowledge) are invalid. The validity of any belief, however, is limited to its believers.

While people argue (some, incessantly) and even fight for or against one belief or another, rationally, any belief can only be accepted or rejected as a straightforward assertion. Rationally, no one is under any compunction to accept any belief. From the point of view of any individual, all beliefs of other people are completely arbitrary.

For any person to have beliefs imposed upon them is therefore indistinguishable from John Locke’s famous definition of injustice: being subject to the arbitrary wills of others.

“Consensual knowledge” refers to both ‘consent’ and ‘consensus’. The propositions (statements, etc.) of consensual knowledge get their validity from their acceptance by their (relevant) audience. Conclusions reached in the social sciences exist in this realm of knowledge. One can rationally argue for or against this or that proposition within consensual knowledge using whatever facts are available: logic, statistics, historical examples, analogies, etc.

Still, there can be no final, absolute verdict on the validity of any proposition within consensual knowledge; one can only be on one side or another of any question with more or fewer people sharing that position. Consensual knowledge does call on all people to consent to accepting such knowledge once something approaching a consensus within the relevant audience has been reached, but one can remain un-persuaded (or persuaded) and not be necessarily wrong.

Propositions (etc.) within observational knowledge can be verified or not, therefore accepted or rejected, via observation within material existence. It includes the intellectual products of science as well as the products of more casual observation. Once verified by observation, however, findings within this realm of knowledge must be accepted by all people.

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The goal of the physical sciences is to arrive at knowledge which is irrefutable. Yet, it has always been recognized by those involved in the process that all profferings along the way are contingent, that they can be overturned at any time—even if that qualification has been forgotten more than once.

To be sure, many propositions based on observation which were once accepted as indisputable truths have been overturned, such as the proposition that the Earth is flat. On the other hand, there are observations that are as valid today as they were the day Adam first gazed on Creation — such as the observation that anything tossed into the air (i.e., away from the center of Earth’s gravity well) will return to the surface of the planet (unless, observation has shown, it is accelerated to the necessary escape velocity).

The real issue, then, is the stability of observational knowledge. While all such knowledge can be said to be ultimately contingent, the more meaningful question is whether it is stable enough for the purposes to which it is applied. Some advances in knowledge of the physical world, whether initiated by theory, mathematics, experiment, trial and error, or even accident, have accompanied every advance in technology in human history.

The sufficient stability of those parcels of knowledge underlying (successful) technology is beyond dispute. It will be seen herein that the observation from which real justice follows is as verifiable and as stable as knowledge can be.

Turning to the subject of justice, every attempt to resolve that issue to this point in human history has involved beliefs (or something equally arbitrary).

Before Confucius and the ancient Greeks got onto the question of justice it was firmly bound up in religion, which was firmly bound up with rulership. Those philosophers applied critical analysis to justice outside the context of religion. The Romans, being of a pragmatic bent, hardly bothered with justice as a theoretical question; basically, justice was conformity with Roman law, whether promulgated by the Senate or a Caesar.

Actually, the deification of the Caesars represented a regression, and after Rome, for the non-Confucian world, the religion/rulership paradigm again became the context of the question of justice until European philosophers revived the subject in what its participants were pleased to call “the Enlightenment.”

Those thinkers recognized that an ethic of justice had to be universal to avoid arbitrariness. They began by rejecting religion as a basis for justice; although any religious belief can be universal, it had been amply demonstrated that people will kill and die for their particular beliefs. Those philosophers concluded that subjectivity negates any possibility of universality. They therefore equated universality with objectivity and objectivity with secularism.

In seeking a universal form of justice, European philosophers and their intellectual progeny stumbled upon ideology: in effect, secular religion. Any ideology is every bit as subjective as any spiritual religion is because all are based on beliefs. That includes the ideology of philosophical liberalism, which is based on beliefs in human equality and liberty as an a priori Right. (‘Natural’ or ‘Human’ or anything else, such Rights can only be the product of belief.)

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To be required to live in conformity to the strictures of an ideology is in no way different from being forced to conform to behaviors dictated by a spiritual religion. Such obvious injustice includes being forced to recognize either the “equality” or the a priori “Rights” of other people. It takes real intellectual courage for people accustomed to believing in those ideals to accept that proposition without knowing what follows from it.

Here we must engage the postmodern critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’ (as postmodernists often refer to that period of intellectual ferment), which included the genesis of science as well as the advent of ideology. The intellectual position that would evolve into postmodernism was post-structuralism, which called into question, based on observation, the existence of universal norms across human cultures. It was realized that cultural norms have always been subjective, even if universally held to be valid within a particular culture (which could only be the case in the simplest societies).

Postmodernists have rejected the universal-objective-secular transitivity of modernist philosophers due to the impossibility of human objectivity. [‘Critical theory’ does not go quite so far, questioning only the capacity of any person to transcend the inevitable, myriad influences that shape all human subjects.] The objection to objectivity per se applies without doubt to the possibility of judging the validity of beliefs—or ideals, rules of governance, etc. based on beliefs.

The intellectual momentum of the postmodern perspective has taken some thinkers all the way back to the subject/object duality implied by Renée Descartes’ famous cogito, however, questioning whether material existence can be separate — or separated — from subjectivity. In my book, I attempt a refutation of that hyper-skeptical position, but that is not within the scope of the present effort.

It is noteworthy that such skepticism is more of a problem for justice than it is for science. Scientists can continue to accumulate knowledge in the face of it, but either a valid ethic of justice does exist or one does not.

Justice — real justice — depends on the existence of a necessarily universal ethic. Otherwise, any attempt at justice must boil down to some people imposing their beliefs on others. A necessarily universal ethic, on the other hand, impels itself on all human beings. Its existence depends on the possibility of necessarily universal knowledge — which depends in turn on that ontological duality.

Let us assume, then, that there really is an objective, material realm one’s subjective self correctly perceives as being exterior to oneself, which is populated in part by other beings who perceive that realm of existence the same way — at least to the extent that we are able to communicate usefully with one another regarding it. One characteristic of us being of that kind is rationality. One of the uses of that rational capacity is to explain the material world we experience to ourselves. Observations of the material world are a means to that end.

Other than the mere existence of the aforementioned duality, ‘objectivity’ is not the basis of the universality of observation. Observation is its own standard of universality, without the intervention of objectivity as a state of mind one is or is not capable of achieving.

So, if the subject/object duality is valid, any knowledge of the material world that has been sufficiently verified via observation must be accepted by all human beings populating that world. Only knowledge gleaned in that way can be necessarily universal (necessarily valid for all human beings).

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Deriving the ethic of real justice begins with the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices (choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition). The range of people’s alternatives and people’s capacities to effect any choice varies greatly, but that observation is irrefutable.

A corollary to that observation is that no one can demonstrate, rationally, that anyone is in any way inherently more (or less) worthy of having one’s choices be effected than is any other person. [“Effecting choices” is from Warren J. Samuels, who analyzed “social power” as the ability to effect choices (“Welfare Economics, Property, and Power,” Perspectives of Property, Gene Wunderlich and W.L. Gibson, eds., 1972).]

That observation and its corollary do point toward some idea of equality. Yet, a straightforward requirement of mutual respect is more immediate: in effecting all choices human beings are required to engage in mutual respect for the capacity of all people to make their own choices. That is the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice. It tells what we must do to act justly. (Unavoidable dependencies and hierarchies such as family and work are addressed in my book.)

The minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice tells us what we must refrain from doing in order to avoid acting unjustly. It is this: no one may co-opt any other person in the process of effecting any choice, to include simply ignoring another person’s presence in it.

That minimum condition of justice comes down to six prohibitions that must govern our interactions with other people in effecting all choices: no killing, no harming, no coercing, no lying, no cheating, no stealing. It’s simpler than the Ten Commandments.

In other words, everyone must take into account other people who are affected when one is effecting any choice. Any other person’s involvement in that process must be sufficiently informed and wholly voluntary.

Now, that’s real justice. The set of interactions among human beings in the process of effecting choices is the large but finite domain of real justice. It includes more direct interactions among people as well as the structure and intended functioning of ubiquitous communal processes. Those are the economy and the political process (which can be defined as the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole—to include choices regarding the economy); both are “ubiquitous” because all geopolitical communities have both and all members of every community are affected one way or another by both processes.

Within that domain, people must be governed by the ethic of real justice; outside it personal morality takes over. The result of applying that ethic to life would be an improved version of the paradigm of governance based on equality and liberty as an a priori Right: maximum liberty, a stronger foundation for political democracy, and the transformation of the functioning of the market-based economy (leaving its defining institutional structure intact).

Rationally, no objection to real justice is possible unless one insists that the subject/object duality is invalid, which cannot be ‘proven’ any more than the converse can.

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Moreover, to reject the validity of the subject/object duality is to render human relations undefined. For sure, that would render issues of governance irrelevant.

As for spiritual religion, unless one wants to establish a theocracy and one’s faith rejects mutual respect in effecting choices as an ethic of communal governance, there can be no objection to replacing ideology with real justice.

Ideology is another story. It is the extra-rational barrier to justice that real justice must justly overcome. (Basically, that means such efforts are limited to rational persuasion.)

Ideology is also a constant threat to science. Lenin made it an explicit article of Bolshevik ideology that “theories” of history and even science could not be valid unless they furthered the goals of Marxism-Leninism. Fascists (philosophically, more romantics than anything else) have had much the same attitude; when in power they have suffered the existence of science to the extent that it furthered their aims.

Philosophical liberalism has allowed within it space for science, but that space has reduced in size in recent years. Today, many people on the political Right within philosophical liberalism explicitly subvert science to their ideology, and in the U.S., it appears that they have captured the Republican Party, which seems to be growing in power.

With necessarily universal knowledge as their common genealogical link, science and the ethic of real justice are, it turns out, intimately related. That is so even though the latter is known only to a handful of people so far. Yet, the relationship between science and justice is in reality so close that it calls into question whether science can thrive in any culture that refuses to adopt real justice.

If interested, more on "real justice" is available on IVN ("How to Implement Mutual Respect as the Ethic of Justice") and on the "Real Justice" page at www.ajustsolution.com.

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