Brief notes on ‘The bewilderment principle of justice’

These notes are, in some respects, a sketch of a response to Ben Newmark’s excellent blog about the purpose of teaching.

Based on a consequentialist ethic, the strength of our justifications lies in likelihood that our stated means will achieve particular ends. If, however, we agree that education is in-itself valuable and thus does not require external justification (as I do) then we have the problem of how we justify our decisions. How, for example, does a head of department justify which topics to study, or a head teacher decide which subjects to offer at A-Level, or whether to mandate a particular teaching method.

The three most obvious non-consequentialist methods of justification appear to be the following:

  1. we do whatever we feel to be right
  2. we do that which has traditionally been done
  3. we do that which would appear to be supported by the majority

Of course, these are just three of many possible kinds of justification we might give, but it is fairly obvious that whilst each method of justification has its benefits, it also has its weaknesses – in certain situations, the democratic principle described by (3) would result in a tyranny of the majority, for example. For reasons I won’t go into here, I would suggest that attempting to define a just decision positively (i.e. by prescribing that we follow a certain principle in this way) is a rather fruitless task.

Instead, building on the ideas of Simone Weil, I would argue that we should define that which is unjust. Whilst there may be many ways in which an action is justified, there is only one way in which it is unjustified: if it is lacking justification, if it is causes confusion, bewilderment, if one’s response to it is ‘Why are you doing that?!’

Simone Weil (2005) describes this conception beautifully:

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.

Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, ‘Why am I being hurt?’, then there is certainly injustice. For if, as often happens, it is only the result of a misunderstanding, then the injustice consists in the inadequacy of the explanation. (pp.71-72)

According to this view, justice is the absence of misunderstanding or bewilderment. This principle of justice (let’s call it ‘the bewilderment principle’ or perhaps ‘the WTF?! principle of justice’ is catchier) is obviously also closely related to expectations. In this sense it is subjective. Some might see this as a weakness, but I think it is a strength. Justice does, after all, concern relationships, and to ignore their messiness for the sake of objectivity or universality will certainly result in iatrogenic injustice.

Of course, a decision may have a justification, but this may not be enough to render it understandable. We might say, ‘…Yes, I understand X, but I can’t see how that justifies Y’. I.e. X does not seem to be sufficient justification for Y – something is still somehow lacking, more is needed, and if it is not forthcoming, the confusion still remains.

I think it is also important to note that, frequently and especially in schools, trust can suffice for justification. Although the degree to which this suffices often also depends upon the degree of pain suffered. There is normally a threshold beyond which our supplies of trust are outstripped.

There are various other objections that I can imagine being leveled at this principle:

  • ‘this seems to suggest that I have a responsibility to explain myself to anyone who is confused by my actions’. I would respond by saying that if one is bewildered by someone’s questioning, then it is they, in the first instance, that have some explaining to do. However, it would seem fairly obvious that good intentions are not sufficient, if one is causing pain to another. That other deserves a justification for their pain.
  • ‘Sometimes it is either impossible or impractical to explain oneself – either due to their lack of understanding of the situation, their age, time constraints etc.’ This is a much more difficult objection to deal with, and it requires more thought and detail. In lieu of such detail, my initial response would be that justice demands an explanation at the earliest possible opportunity, although that justification may take many different forms – i.e. it can be shown rather than said, or may take the form of a norm expressed as something akin to ‘…because this is just how we do things here’. Although, the weight of such an expression of a norm does depend upon whether it is true that this is actually how things are done.

This is only a sketch of an idea that has been kicking around my mind for a while, something that I am considering fleshing out at some point in the future. There are plenty of other objections I can think of and I would be pleased to hear others. I do, however, think that the ‘bewilderment principle of justice’ is a reasonable starting point for schools. After all, what are schools for if not for reducing confusion and increasing understanding?

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