[This is an excerpt of a work in progress, in which I am attempting to illustrate the claim that patience supports the development of other virtues. As the post title suggests, here I am looking at justice, as a character trait. I'm not entirely happy with this, which is in part why I'm posting it here for comment.]
As Seneca suggests, anger poses a difficulty if we aspire to be fair in our judgments and treatment of others because anger tends to fixate intensely upon a harm (or a perceived harm) and to lash out in response. We might say that lashing out is anger’s idea of justice: you hurt me, so I hurt you. Yet when we are not angry, we easily see that this kind of reactionary “reasoning” (if it can be called that) is misguided. Although it has been so often repeated that it now seems cliché, we know that there is a great deal of truth in Gandhi’s remark that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But precisely because that remark tends toward cliché, it is easy to nod in passing agreement without pausing to appreciate the significance of its implications. For it means that we have to rethink, and essentially reject, the logic of anger, which presumes that an injury or harm can be canceled out by responding to it in kind.
Responding to the injustices of others with patience rather than anger […] is certainly not to “do nothing.” Indeed, the failure to respond to injustice can itself constitute a further injustice, and there is nothing patient about those who “tolerate” injustice because they lack the motivation to address it. Thus, as we seek to reflect upon the relationship between patience and justice, we must bear in mind that apathy and despair—as well as attachment to the goods we may enjoy as a result of injustices in the society as a whole—can also pose obstacles to just action and a just character.
The challenge of justice is rooted in the problem of power. That is, it is in the power we can exercise over others that we find the possibility of treating them with either justice or injustice. It might be said, then, that we commit injustice when we abuse our power, and are complicit in injustice when we fail to exercise our power to respond to those abuses committed by others. But some might go further and suggest that we become unjust when we fail to offer assistance to those who are suffering, even when that suffering is the result of natural causes rather than human wrongdoing—that it is not merely wrong, or unkind, but unjust to stand idly by when we could provide great relief to others. This further thought might be vindicated by suggesting that we owe others basic moral consideration, simply in virtue of our sharing a world with them, and that ignoring the suffering of others is an instance of the fundamental injustice of not honestly acknowledging them as members of the moral community.
Through news and other forms of media, we can learn of many problems, many injustices, about which we can realistically do little or nothing, as individuals. At the same time, we may feel complicit in governmental policies and chains of production and distribution (of goods, like food and clothing, which we need) which trouble us morally if we look at the details closely. Indeed, we may worry about complicity precisely because we suspect ourselves—those of us living in privileged nations—to be one of the few. These observations and concerns can become a source of weariness, and thus a problem to which I will return below.
If we are called to settle a dispute—between children, or friends, or colleagues—then justice requires a fair hearing. We must attend to both sides, weigh details and claims, and offer not only judgment but justification. Often, the parties to the dispute will themselves be angry and impatient, which we ourselves will have to endure. If we are infected by their anger, we may well lose the ability to judge impartially. In patience, we are able to keep our attention properly focused; good judgment requires wisdom, but it also can take time. Justice cannot always be swift. In many cases, “swift justice” may not be justice at all, but only the violent outbursts of anger or other forms of impatience.
Importantly, failures of patience that take the form of despair may also undermine our capacity to act justly. The weariness I mentioned above can manifest itself in the despairing attitude of those who, overwhelmed by injustice surveyed at large, withdraw into their own lives and narrowly defined worlds, choosing to live their own lives without paying as little attention as possible to the world beyond. Of course, we all do this to some extent, because there is only so much attention we can pay and only so much that we can do. And we do indeed have our own lives to live. Thoreau writes, in “Civil Disobedience”:
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
In this respect, Thoreau leaves it open that we may, without being unjust, withdraw from the busy world in pursuit of our own Walden Pond. But the risk of withdrawing is that we may be doing so in bad faith, that we withdraw from the world, convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do, as a rationalization for enjoying the conveniences and comforts of our own lives and labors, and for not getting involved in larger affairs.
The withdrawal I have in mind here is not so much a physical withdrawal—say, of the hermit who goes off to live far away from others—but rather a mental withdrawal, in which a person focuses only upon his or her own circumscribed life, a turning inward that is merely self-absorbed rather than contemplative, and thus obscures the possibility of mindful attention to others, of taking notice of others—a withdrawal that has excused itself from taking notice of others. This kind of orientation could not possibly be conducive to a just character.
Thoreau’s conditions for justly devoting our attention “to other pursuits and contemplations” call for a kind of patience. It is the patience required to examine our own lives, to determine whether we are giving “practical support” to unjust practices, through the goods we purchase or the leaders we support, and so forth. Since most of us do not choose to withdraw from society, to live in the woods or the deserts, this means roughly having the patience to make ourselves reasonably informed citizens. (Here, we might take “reasonably” to imply that we don’t try to “inform” ourselves to the point of self-defeating psychological and moral exhaustion.) Thus, the examination of our own lives and habits ultimately requires the patience to attend to the world of which we are a part, to resist the temptation to withdraw mentally. All of this takes time and attention which is easily spent, and often wasted, on other things: media and technology, for example, enable us to connect, but they can also promote immense disconnection, distraction, and self-absorption.
We often think of patience as involving the endurance of something irritating and unpleasant, but here we might recall the remark of the Sufi mystic Sahl al-Tutsarī that, “Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation.” When life is good, patience as constancy and mindfulness is crucial if we seek to maintain a commitment to justice, to maintain a just character. This is because we can become spoiled by our own good fortune, and in our enjoyment, fail to give thought to those who deserve our moral attention. This is not the place to theorize about what, in terms specific acts, we owe to those others, but if we lack—or lose—that disposition for patient attention to the world beyond our own immediate lives, then it appears that we lack a necessary component of a just life and character.