Justice: Four Windows

By Hirshfield, Jane | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Justice: Four Windows


Hirshfield, Jane, The Virginia Quarterly Review


1. Evolution and Justice

The mineral world stands apart from the axis of justice. A mountain rises and erodes, sandstones form and harden, granite decomposes to gruss, rivers change course without the possibility of outrage or protest. What happens cannot be put on the scale of morality, cannot be felt as right or wrong. It is simply what happens.

The vegetable world also seems innocent of justice's negotiations. Light comes and goes from a field. Heat, cold, rain, drought come and go and are, as we say, simply weathered. If the color-changed light cast onto one tree's leaves by the leaves of another shows they are approaching too closely, the branch quite frequently turns away, in a gesture described as "crown shyness." Some experience of suffering may accompany the competition for soil nutrients and water, but if so, it is suffering of a kind beyond human grasp.

Recognizable conceptions of morality and justice begin with the rudiments of a sense of a separate self and of self's "place"; that is, with the social birds, fishes, and mammals. The experience of a correct order, or of dismaying disorder, becomes possible only if order is first present. The whiplash of inequality-its enforcement, its possible correction-becomes possible only when there are compacts of behavior between those who live in the context of a larger whole.

Hierarchy in herd, flock, or troupe is the acquiescence of others, won, maintained, or lost. Discomfort over who eats or mates first, last, or not at all is precursor to our ideals of "inalienable rights," to our feelings that each human being should know freedom of body, spirit, and mind; know security from arbitrary power; know love more than hunger, curiosity and ingenuity more than fear. Among social animals is also the beginning of visible mercy; the body language of submission is a surety that injury will end. Social animals (with a single exception-ourselves) rarely kill their own kind, and among the few species that do, almost never within their home community unless that community is stressed past bearable limits.

Primates, recent experiments show, possess both a sense of fairness and the impulse to collaborate and assist. A capuchin monkey, rewarded for some trained action with a bit of cucumber, sees a neighbor rewarded for the same behavior with a tasty grape and goes on strike, sulks in a corner, refusing clearly inequable wages. The capuchin's ostracism of the experimenter is a communication as telling-and, in the wild, as strongly repercussive-as a bite. Conversely, another recent experiment revealed that both chimpanzees and eighteen-month-old human infants will hurry to bring a dropped item back to the researcher's hand-though if the clothespin or book is deliberately thrown down, it will be left where it landed.

This innate impulse toward helpfulness offers one alternative to the order of punishment and force. Altruism, empathy, and mutual nurturance-the evidence of a basic tenderness between fellow creatures-carry the survival strategies of symbiosis into the social world. Red foxes bring food to other, injured foxes that are not their own young. Elephants bring edible branches to dying elephant elders unable to rise. Scientists have videotaped a humpback whale repeatedly lifting another, dead whale to the surface, the same way a newborn whale is lifted to the surface for its first breath; the whale carried the corpse for five hours before giving up. These acts, which might be rightly named acts of empathy, of compassion, extend interspecies. Traditional stories in many cultures tell of animals adopting and suckling orphaned young of a different kind, including the she-wolf's suckling of Romulus and Remus. One man who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was brought to the surface by a seal (a circumstance so unnerving he spoke of it to no one for three years). Newspaper stories, most recently one from Australia, report dolphins forming a circle around human swimmers to protect them from sharks. …

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