Friday, July 24, 2015
In the last act of Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare has a number of his characters calling on the Duke for justice. Of course, each has something different in mind regarding this appeal. But isn’t that the way things are in the world today? People call for justice and their definition of justice seems to be colored by their experience, expectations and education. Justice in this sense becomes so general as to be almost meaningless. It joins the ranks of healthy, natural, green and sustainable as a word used to elicit automatic support from those who don’t take the time to think too hard about the specifics of the situation.
Behavior has consequences. These consequences may take the form of hard lessons, unpleasant experiences, meant to teach us to change and improve our actions or decisions in the future. Consequences are feedback mechanisms that either punish bad behavior or reinforce positive behaviors with pleasant outcomes. Consequences may come immediately – touch a hot stove and burn a finger; or they may evolve over time – smoke cigarettes as a teen and develop lung cancer decades later. Delayed consequences are more difficult to connect with the behavior and tend to be less powerful. (That’s why the wise learn from the mistakes of others.)
Often, we find ourselves in a difficult position. We (or the government we elect) have the power to protect people from the consequences of their behavior by bailing them out (or, in the case of government, forcing everyone else to finance the bailout). Many consider these as just actions or just laws because they keep people from suffering. They see these actions and laws and those that promote them as caring or compassionate, but there is a fine line between compassion and enabling: the first protects someone who is not yet able to make changes on their own; the second protects someone who is capable but, as a result of this protection, chooses not to improve behavior. This kind of enabling takes the responsibility away from others and is neither caring nor compassionate in its results, but instead may be very destructive.
It is not necessarily caring to isolate people from the consequences of their choices. To deprive people of earned benefits or to protect people from earned and deserved sanctions is unjust and destructive to both the individuals and to society (because we are all linked by that economic spider web). When the emphasis shifts too far in the direction of compassion in the name of justice, the important and beneficial concept of tough love is easily lost.