Tag Archives: injustice

My Most Challenging Unitarian Universalist Principle

Commentary on an essay by Richard S. Gilbert on UUA Principle Two: We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Printed in With Purpose and Principle by Edward S. Frost (ed.).

          In opening, Reverend Gilbert offers us a bit of history for his discussion of Principle Two, including the focus on practical application of religious principles to daily life promoted by Faustus Socinus in the 16th century Minor Church of Poland; Ralph Emerson’s emphasis on deed over creed in the 19th century; and the contemporary appeal by Eugene Pickett “…to create heaven on earth.”

 Rev. Gilbert follows up on this introduction with a discussion of several concepts associated with Principle Two:

The essay defines compassion as shared suffering, which leads to empathy and finally to action. He goes on to ask, “How can we presume to understand our society without deep feelings of moral outrage at the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice?”

 As I discussed in an earlier piece, I think the development of social perspective taking leads to an expansion of empathy, which in turn engenders compassion. Compassion motivates an ego-free response, if any response is possible, toward the person for whom one feels compassion. I think that “moral outrage” is an emotionally motivated egotistic state that is incompatible with both empathy and compassion.

Personally, I don’t pretend to understand our society, which is the reflection of very complex, dynamic and organic processes. I suspect that Rev. Gilbert doesn’t understand it either. I think that he has certain beliefs about society through which he filters and construes his observations. While he doesn’t elaborate on what those beliefs are, they are no doubt the source for his emotional state of “moral outrage.”

The essay also offers us the position of David Williams that states, “We are joined together by a mystic oneness whose source we may never know, but whose reality we can never doubt…We are our neighbor’s keeper, because that neighbor is but our larger self…”

David Williams seems to be offering us a vision of a transcendent self that is merged in the unity of All That Is, which is similar to the unified field of consciousness that I have mentioned in previous talks. I would suggest that Williams’ perspective on caring for our neighbors grounded in the understanding that our neighbors and we are joined through the unity of transcendent consciousness is a firmer basis for compassionate action than “moral outrage.” Thus, I find it hard to reconcile “moral outrage” with “mystic oneness” and personally would find true compassion to be more likely to arise from the latter than the former.

 It seems to me that “moral outrage” must be against the alleged perpetrators of perceived injustice, which creates a dualism that is incompatible with the non-dualistic “mystic oneness” of David Williams. The “victim versus the perpetrator” struggle in Rev. Gilbert’s dualistic conception merges into transcendent unity in Williams’ non-dualistic conception. The former seeks victory of one over the other and the latter seeks reconciliation of differences. I would argue that the implications for actions arising from these two views are very different and makes this section of the essay a study in contradiction. Personally, compassion flowing from “mystic oneness” resonates better with me than “moral outrage.”

The essay states that equity is not equality but fairness. Rev. Gilbert then asserts that equity is the measuring rod for social justice and that social justice demands that society improve the conditions of its impoverished and call into question the corruption of its affluent. He asks, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?”

 I think it is important to understand the term “fair” since this is the core meaning of equity in Rev. Gilbert’s definition of the term. According to the dictionary, the primary meaning of “fair” is “free of bias or dishonesty;” and the secondary meaning is “proper according to the rules.” Of course rules can be or not be biased or dishonest so I’ll focus on the primary meaning. Bias in a negative sense implies that a rule is constructed in such a way that it arbitrarily favors one person over another person.

For example, a law prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because of their skin color is not fair or equitable because it is based on an arbitrary characteristic of the person. On the other hand, prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because they have a communicable disease that can reasonably be expected to be transmitted through use of the water fountain would be fair and not an arbitrary bias. Thus, the issue is not bias per se but arbitrary bias or arbitrary discrimination. I would suggest that “dishonesty” is simply another way of saying “arbitrary bias.”

 We can conclude then that justice requires that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Indeed, one of the primary meanings of justice is the quality of being equitable and one of the secondary meanings is that of lawfulness; that is, justice requires laws free of arbitrary bias both in wording and in enforcement.

 The notion of “social justice” is peculiar given the understanding of justice just arrived at. Justice could of necessity only be reflected within society either at the community, state or national level and is thereby inherently social. Thus, those who use the term obviously mean something different from the meaning of justice just discussed. The term social justice was initially used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest and was, a few years later, taken up by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The initial use of the term was a call for virtuous behavior by parishioners in their personal dealings with others. Mill’s use of the term implied that society should behave virtuously.

 The idea that an abstract entity, “society,” could take on virtue in the sense that an individual can be virtuous seems to me to be a case of fallaciously attributing human characteristics to an abstraction. Thus, what I take Rev. Gilbert to be suggesting is that some “agent” acting on behalf of society should impose his or her notion of virtue on the aggregate of individuals comprising society. This was precisely what Benito Mussolini did in his national socialist state in fascist Italy, which he proudly proclaimed to be a totalitarian state. At the time, totalitarian meant that the agent acting for the state, for example Mussolini, imposed his notion of virtue on all aspects of society or the total. Interestingly, emulation of Mussolini and his totalitarian state was suggested to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as the way to overcome the economic depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt declined to fully embrace the idea.

 Rev. Gilbert asked the question, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?” I think the answer is that you don’t, because the question contains inherently contradictory elements. You can’t have an agent (or agents) acting on his or her notion of virtuous behavior decide how to allocate resources and have a free society at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. Having a so-called virtuous society would require an agent that can impose decisions about what is correct and incorrect behavior on the total population. In short, a totalitarian order imposed by dictatorial powers.

 The essay goes on to address justice, which I have already given considerable attention to earlier, separately from social justice. Justice according to Rev. Gilbert requires more than can be achieved by mere compassion. He states that justice requires a systemic approach that addresses underlying problems. A systemic approach he says must address government policy, taxation, welfare programs and income redistribution among others. It requires transcendent values or virtues that, according to Rev. Gilbert, cannot be determined by democratic processes or market forces. Thus, by implication he is arguing that a systemic approach must rely on values or virtues derived from and imposed by an authority.

 It seems to me that it matters little who that authority is. It is a call for an authoritarian or totalitarian approach to governing society so that it might be recast in the image of an individual or group of individuals believed by some to be virtuous. Clearly, this goes well beyond the definition of justice derived earlier as requiring that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Personally, I can embrace a definition of justice based on “equitable law” as previously discussed but find Rev. Gilbert’s notion of justice alien to my notions of equity and fairness.

 The essay continues beyond the three basic elements of the second principle to talk about the Beloved Community and the Prophetic Imperative. Rev Gilbert states that the concept of a beloved community best characterizes a liberal religious concern for justice, equity and compassion, which he finds to be in step with the UU tradition of attempting to build “heaven on earth.” I am immediately reminded of a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

The reason I think that Popper draws this conclusion is that there has never been a successful utopian community over the long term. Such communities invariably fail because they ultimately require a totalitarian order formulated according to the beliefs of some authoritarian leader. Since no one is infallible, there is always a flaw in the vision of such “leaders” and ultimately “heaven” sinks back into the mundane world in which real and ordinary people live.

 The prophetic imperative is, for Rev. Gilbert, the requirement that we all work to make the beloved community or heaven on earth a reality. He argues that we should attempt to repair the world, for in doing so we will repair ourselves. I’m not sure what prophecy his prophetic imperative is grounded in, but whatever it is, I am certain that it is flawed as have been all such idealistic notions.

 The need to repair something implies that at one time it was in good working order. What specifically does this repair intend to restore and when and where did it exist? I believe life is too “messy” for it to ever exhibit perfection. Can a community, state, nation or indeed the world be improved? I believe it can through a spiritual practice. I also believe that it can only be done by starting with oneself, not some abstraction such as society.

 In an earlier piece I offered some thoughts on employing a personal ideal or standard to guide one’s own behavior in interacting with others. Setting and following a personal ideal is a spiritual practice in its most basic sense and probably the best way to “repair” oneself. The primary way in which a personal ideal needs to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of family, work and associations. It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. It is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Change is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself, not with an abstraction. This I think was the intent behind the original use, by the Sicilian priest, of the term “social justice.”

Immigration Policy

              This country without doubt has a problem with illegal residents. Why? First and foremost is that there are many places in the world that are so politically oppressive and economically impoverished that there is no shortage of people who want to get out and find a more favorable circumstance. Second, we have a problem because the U.S. has an immigration policy that is so restrictive that many people despair of ever being able to legally immigrate and decide to take matters into their own hands and ignore the law. Finally, we have a problem because the federal government has shown itself either unwilling or unable to maintain the integrity of the territory comprising the U.S. The latter is a problem that goes well beyond illegal residents and includes problems related to smuggling and security to name two major concerns.

I favor immigration reform and reform that would significantly increase the number of immigrants. Why do I favor immigration reform? The answer is out of self-interest. First, immigrants supply a pool of individuals with little or no stake in the status quo. A regularly renewing pool of such individuals provide the fresh perspective and talent needed to keep the country moving forward. Second, without immigrants the U.S. population is approaching zero growth due to a falling birth rate. Without immigrants the U.S. population will very likely begin contracting within a few decades. Population growth rates below replacement levels are already a problem for many countries such as Italy, Japan and Russia. Further, it is a problem faced in the near future by a number of countries such as the U.S. and China. Thus, many of the countries in the world will soon be in competition for a diminishing pool of working-age adults who want to immigrate. The U.S. has a huge debt, an even larger pool of underfunded obligations and unfunded guarantees that need to be met. These cannot be satisfied with a flat or declining working-age population. In short, we must grow economically or face an economic collapse such as that recently endured by Russia.

I think the current geographic quota based policy is unacceptable. Application for immigration status should be open to anyone who meets a couple of simple tests. First, the person should be capable of supporting him or herself as evidenced by sufficient assets to do so or by having secured a contract for suitable employment within the U.S. Second, the person should pose no clear threat to civil order or national security. I think immigration status once granted should extend to an applicant’s immediate family, which includes spouse and dependent children but reaches no further. I would place no limits on the number of immigration applications approved each year and would not have any restrictions related to country of origin. I would offer work visas under the same guidelines as immigration (excepting the asset criterion) to anyone wishing to legally work here on a temporary basis.

We have restrictive policies that generally limits immigration and virtually prohibits immigration from some parts of the world. We also have a less than flexible policy about temporary work visas. Given these conditions it is not surprising that we have a large population of illegal immigrants who have made their way here from around the world. Migrants from Mexico, Central and South America probably comprise the majority due to geography but certainly points of origin extend beyond this hemisphere. I do not think it wise to allow this de facto immigration policy to continue to operate. I also do not have much sympathy for people who are willing to flaunt U.S. immigration law, even though it is flawed. I personally know people who would like to immigrate to the U.S. but who are not eligible to apply and who have enough respect for the rule of law not to take the matter into their own hands. If I had to choose between these two types of people, I will favor the latter group hands down every time. However, we do have around 15 million illegal residents in the country so one issue is what to do about them.

It is unlikely that we are capable of deporting 15 million people not to mention the problems this would cause in many cases. For example, in families where the adults are illegal and the children are citizens what is the proper course of action? Personally, I think citizenship by birth granted to children of non-citizen parents in the U.S. is something that needs to change. However, it is the law and those children are not only legal residents but citizens. Therefore, I favor amnesty for illegal residents whose only legal violations have been of immigration law. Convicted felons should not receive amnesty for violations of immigration or criminal law.

By amnesty I mean forgiveness not legalization. Legalization of past law violations is logically equivalent to making something illegal retroactively. Amnesty should be limited to forgiveness of violations of immigration law. In short, if you are granted amnesty you will not be subject to prosecution for violation of immigration law. Amnesty does not mean being rewarded with a fast track to citizenship and jumping ahead of everyone else in the world who wants to immigrate to the U.S. For example, when Vietnam era draft dodgers were granted amnesty, they were relieved of any risk of being prosecuted. They were not, however, rewarded with veterans’ benefits along with amnesty. So, where does that leave formerly illegal residents who have been granted amnesty?

I think any such resident who is employed should be able to apply for and be granted a work visa good for a fixed period such as three years. This visa should cover the applicant and any dependents in his or her immediate family. Renewal of the visa should be available as a matter of course at the end of the visa period. If such a person wishes to apply for immigrant status and be on track to citizenship, he or she should follow the same application procedures as anyone else in the world who wants to immigrate and become a citizen. If the immigration reform that I favor and discussed above were to be adopted, persons already in the country and holding a work visa would have an advantage in the immigration process. I see no easy way to avoid visiting this injustice upon persons outside of the U.S. who want to immigrate. In an imperfect world, we may just have live with it.

The proper venue for getting changes in immigration law is the U.S. Congress. If you want changes in the ground rules for immigration, you should be advocating and lobbying with your congressional representatives. No one else has the authority or power to change the laws in the U.S. All other actions are a waste of time and largely amount to political grandstanding.

I do have a major concern related to Mexican immigration into the U.S., especially in border states. Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor of economic history, has put forth an historical hypothesis about the causes of the conflicts in the twentieth century. He discussed his hypothesis and the evidence supporting it in his book War of the World. What he argued was that the recipe for conflict has three ingredients. These ingredients include overlapping ethnicities populating a geographic area, economic stress and either an inability or unwillingness by authorities to maintain order. Today one can see these ingredients coming together in several locations including the area where Iraq, Iran and Turkey come together (the Kurd “problem”); the area including the northwestern part of China (Xinjiang) and the territories in northeastern Pakistan (the Uygur “problem”); and the southwestern U.S. and Mexico (the Mexican “problem”). All of these areas, among others, have the potential to become violent. There exists a real possibility that an increase in Mexican immigration into border states could fuel the fires of ethnic conflict. I don’t argue that immigration should be restricted because of this concern but one should recognize the potential and attempt mitigate the factors that could cause conflict to erupt.

I also think that there is a downside to increasing immigration that is often overlooked. While immigration reform would increase the population and expand the tax base, which has some clear economic benefits, it also means growth. For those who are concerned with energy independence, conservation of resources, pollution, protection of the environment and similar endeavors, growth is a significant threat to all of those goals. If one advocates for expanding the population it follows that the economy must be expanded to accommodate the new citizens and the increased birth rate that will follow them. An expanding economy will put additional strains on meeting the goals mentioned. There is an inherent contradiction between increases in population, economic expansion and concern for the quality of life. We may have to choose between economic stagnation and financial chaos or environmental degradation and diminished quality of living conditions. Carefully consider what you ask for because you may get it.

See Also:

Borderlands and Immigrants

Arizona, Borderlands and U.S. — Mexican Immigration