Friday, June 29, 2012

Justice and Patience

[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.


  1. I’m not sure I have anything useful to say, but here are some thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading.

    In Hebrew (my native), the words for tolerance and patience are almost the same: SOV-LA-NUT and SAV-LA-NUT. They have the same root (S.V.L.), and the word for suffering also shares it.

    I remember as kids, it took time to learn the difference between tolerance and patience. Tolerance was regarded by the teachers as the more important virtue, or concept, among the two. I guess it is easier to see why tolerance would be politically useful--easier to see that than with patience. Now, when we first learned about tolerance, we all already knew about patience. It was the baseline from which we could be taught about tolerance. And since we all were expected to know (at least at some level) what patience was, patience was regarded as simpler, and more mundane. It was not even clear that patience had anything to do with ethics. It was regarded as if it naturally belongs somewhere in the domain of etiquette.

    I remember that sometime during high school it occurred to me that there was something deeper about patience, but I have never given it much thought. I just very much like what you are doing here. It is as if patience has more forms, and more dimensions. But this makes it very complex and elusive. The patience we were supposed to have as kids--to sit quietly, and listen to the teacher, for instance--is only one model for other forms of patience.

    Here is how it strikes me; and tell me if you think I’m off track. Patience goes with restraint. It also somehow goes with seriousness--with willingness to make an effort. It involves the ability to control one’s own attention. It also goes with receptivity--with active and mindful absorption. (It looks passive to be patient, but it seems to me that it is a form of activity. maybe this is part of why it feels to me elusive.) Relatedly patience goes with humility. It is an antidote, perhaps to mindless self-assertion. One kind of humility patience involves, mainly perhaps, is the acceptance of the temporal nature of things—that certain things take time.

    (There is a question I have about the usefulness of definitions, as opposed to characterizations. In this case, I have a strong sense that definitions can mislead. But this is an aside.)

    One thing that I thought might be useful to ask is how patience is taught or learned. I think that as kids we were first just asked to be quiet, to wait. But I bet that even those of us who complied just became bored--at least at first. It seems to me that to become bored is one of the ways to fail to be patient (you emphasize another way: anger). But how do you teach people--children--not to become bored?

  2. Reshef,

    Thanks for all of this. The point about "tolerance" and "patience" in Hebrew is helpful, and this appears to be a common connection. (For example, there is a Tibetan term--I forget it at the moment--that can be translated either as tolerance or patience, though the translator who makes this point acknowledges that these terms are not entirely synonymous either.)

    I agree with everything you say about how things strike you here, especially that although "patience goes with restraint," it is also "a form of activity." Much of what I want to do is to work on this active/passive distinction. (And I, too, am trying more to provide characterizations than a definition--in large part because patience has, as I sometimes put it, various aspects.)

    Your questions about how patience is taught or learned, and the more fundamental question about boredom, are good ones. Perhaps part of the answer to the latter question (about boredom) is related to your ideas about finding meaning in things. As a teacher, this must involve some combination of making things seem appealing to students--getting them hooked, so they at least think that there is something here worth attending to, even if they aren't yet clear on what it is--and doing something like modeling what it means to find meaning in things (which might show itself in the passion one has for the subject--but of course, a teacher who is passionate about the subject, but not good as relating to the students, or impatient as a teacher, may nevertheless breed boredom in the classroom). As I'm sure you know, this is a struggle.

  3. You are making a connection between the idea of finding meaning in things and patience. Do you think there is an essential connection here? I mean, do you think that the reason why we need to be patient is because this would make it possible for us to see meaning in things? Is this why it is hard to be patient—because we never fully know what we are waiting for? Or maybe there are two kinds of patience: one in which we know what we are waiting for, and the other in which we don’t?

    The second kind of patience is intriguing. What does it take, exactly, to wait for something when you don’t even know what you are waiting for? – When you don’t even know if there is something to wait for in the first place? – When you don’t even have the concept of that for which you are waiting? What kind of patience is necessary? Does this undermine the applicability of the idea of patience?

    This idea of waiting without a clear idea regarding what one is waiting for reminds me of Wittgenstein's discussion in the Tractatus of asking questions without having a clear idea what we are asking about. It also reminds me of ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Ionesco’s ‘Chairs.’ And it also remind me that I need to read Simone Weil’s ‘Waiting for God.’

  4. Yes yes! I am intrigued by the second kind, too. I am trying to work out the first sort, in all of its forms (waiting is, as I put it, only one part of patience), before turning to this second.

    Of course "Godot" and Weil are incredibly different. "Godot" is perhaps a parody of "religious" waiting (or a deflation of it?). But Vladamir and Estragon actually do--most of the time--know what they are doing: they are waiting for Godot. Again, perhaps one could employ this to ridicule patience awaiting God's grace (or something like that), but the serious thinkers about grace would say that we don't really know what form grace will take. (So we do and do not know, in that case, what we are waiting for?) Maybe a secular-ish analogue would be waiting for inspiration (as an artist). The trick here--and perhaps this is partly why it remains correct to speak of patience--is that we can take on bad ways of thinking about what would count as inspiring (or, what counts as grace) that effectively close us off from a possible source of inspiration. A setting of conditions (a kind of impatience?). (Compare: expecting a prayer to be answered in a very specific way.)

    I'm reading and re-reading Weil, and she is definitely helpful in making sense of this kind of patience. To be continued...