What is Justice?

Back in 2020, just as the pandemic decided to kick-off, I did the Reflexivity course at the Centre for Leadership Development at the Salvation Army’s Booth College of Mission. I chose as my topic “What is Justice?”, hence the title of this post, and the subject of those last few posts from 2020. The following is most of the report I wrote for the course. It is full of holes, there are many themes left undeveloped, probably a multitude of errors, but it is what I managed to cobble together in the first of what is turning into a long line of seriously Covid-disrupted years. I have edited it lightly to remove one or two sections that don’t seem relevant, but otherwise, it remains intact.

The report:


In this article I start with the experience of running Puāwai, the first dedicated bail house in New Zealand, and observe what happens to defendants caught up in New Zealand’s criminal justice system. I then ask what is justice? I explore this question through an examination of classical philosophical systems including Confucianism, Daosim, Mohism from ancient China, and the ideas of Plato, Paul, and the Social Contract from the Western tradition.

I reach the conclusion that the common theme among all these philosophical traditions is that justice is about relationships. An ideal justice is a state in which all members of a society enjoy healthy relationships with each other and with society; injustice is brought by a breakdown in these relationships; and justice is achieved by a restoration of these broken relationships.


There are roughly 1000 inmates in Rimutaka Prison. Around one third of them are on remand – they are still stuck somewhere in the trial process, possibly convicted but awaiting sentence, perhaps more likely charged, but with no suitable address to be bailed to.

At Puāwai we work in a “justice-adjacent” space. Our clients are caught up in the criminal justice system – mostly as defendants working their way through the trial process, but a small number on home detention. But we focus on those still in the trial process – they have been accused, arrested, charged, but not yet convicted. By law they are innocent – at least, for the time being. As we walk with our clients through this situation they’re in, we start to wonder –

  1. Is there actually a system in this merry chaos?
  2. Is justice being done?

What is bail? The Community Law Manual[1] defines it thusly:

Bail is release from court or police custody on the condition that you will appear in court when next required.

How do you get bail?

Section 7 of the Bail Act 2000[2] sets out the rules for granting bail. In general, a defendant is bailable as of right unless they have committed certain serious crimes, or they have previously been convicted of a crime punishable by death or imprisonment. Even then, under subsection 5, with certain exceptions, a defendant must be released under certain terms and conditions unless “the court is satisfied that there is just cause for continued detention.” Section 8 of the same act goes on to set out what the court must consider in order to determine whether there is just cause for continued detention. It is a long list, but includes considerations of both the defendants’ and the victims’ rights, as well as protections for the integrity of the trial, and public safety.

Which is all well and good and perfectly reasonable – generally speaking, a defendant should be granted bail unless there is a good reason not to.

But how does this apply in reality?

Newsroom reported on November, 13 2020 that 36% of the current prison muster are on remand – that is, not yet sentenced. Some of those remand prisoners have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing; many are still somewhere in the trial process and may not even be convicted. Some prisoners are spending three years on remand, while the average number of days a prisoner spends on remand is 77.2 days, which is a 42.7% increase on the average stay on remand of a decade ago[3].

As shocking as these statistics are, and they do strongly indicate breaches of government’s legal obligations to be tried in a timely manner under the Bill of Rights Act[4], such a big picture review does not shed much light on the lived experience of those caught up in the criminal justice system.

Defendants stand bewildered in the dock as lawyers and judges negotiate the defendants’ fates in what may as well be a foreign language. Lawyers are chronically overworked, and may or may not have the time to explain court proceedings to their clients. Even if they do have the time, they do not necessarily have the skills to explain to the defendants what has just happened, and what their next court date will be about.

Bail bonds come out misspelled and poorly thought through, giving many examples of the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. One common phenomenon in Porirua District Court is bail conditions banning the defendant from crossing an arbitrary line drawn on a map – in order to prevent a defendant contacting his alleged victim in Porirua, the defendant may be banned from travelling north of Ngauranga Gorge, effectively cutting him off from work opportunities in the Hutt Valley.

There are human failings – a defendant on Electronically Monitored Bail might need to open a bank account in order to receive his benefit. One operator on the EM Bail team might allow him to go to a bank, as it is a requirement of a government department. Another operator might say no, because the defendant’s bail conditions do not allow him to go to the bank. One foreign citizen might manage to contact his embassy, as is his right under international law, and then have his case, and his return to his home country, expedited, while another accused of a similar crime does not manage to contact his embassy and spends months in remand with no progress on his case.

People’s lives are upended and they’re dumped into a kind of limbo. On top of the issues they brought with them into the system – issues that may well have contributed to them finding themselves in this situation – they may well find themselves cut off from family and supports, work, community. They do not know how long this situation will last, and often have little understanding of the system they are caught up in. Too often we hear of people pleading guilty just to get the whole ordeal over and done with.

And the real question is –

            – What is justice?

You would think that is an easy question to answer, given how often questions of justice are discussed in the media. Doesn’t everybody know what justice is?

Do we?

I’m not convinced that we do.


I set about trying to find an answer to this question through a combination of observation and reading. Observation meant observing what happens to our clientele at Puāwai as they work their way through the court process, listening to their stories, noting their experiences. Reading took a variety of forms – reading Acts of Parliament, such as the Bail Act, the Crimes Act, the Sentencing Act, the Human Rights Act, the Bill of Rights Act. Reading also meant reading classic works of philosophy, their more modern interpretations, and modern scholarship on the subject of justice.

Why go to the classics? Because the “Justice” is a concept humans have been struggling with since time immemorial. Why go to both Chinese and European classics? The European classics inform us how our modern, Western systems and philosophies have evolved. The Chinese classics provide a different perspective. Not only can looking at things from a radically different perspective give us fresh ideas, that radically different perspective can also act as a mirror, casting our own ideas and assumptions in a fresh light.

I started trying to find a definition of Justice, something closer to the Ideal than the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave that we usually muddle by with. Then I will try to compare this ideal with the reality of what really happens. Perhaps then we can explore some ways to make this reality match a little bit more closely with the ideal.

Findings or Discussion

The obvious place to start when you need a definition is the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has a nice, friendly website, which gives us these definitions of Justice[5]:

  • the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
  • the administration of law
  • the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
  • the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
  • conformity to this principle or ideal
  • the quality of conforming to law

And what is just? Merriam-Webster’s two most relevant definitions[6] are:

  • acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good : RIGHTEOUS
  • legally correct : LAWFUL

There are three themes that leap out from these definitions: What is legal; what is fair; and what is moral.

I will start with a quick look at what is legal. Justice is defined by law.  Parliament debates bills. If passed, they became Acts, which are then signed by the Governor General or Queen to become law. But Parliament is building on hundreds of years of tradition passed down from England and our own cultural, social, political, and legal evolution here in New Zealand. So it is not as simple as saying “Parliament makes the law”. In any case, it is not difficult to think of examples of laws that are manifestly unjust.  Apartheid and the Nazi period in Germany are perhaps two of the most notorious examples of unjust law. The Chinese Poll Tax is an example from New Zealand history[7] in which a law has targeted members of a particular ethnic, racial, or national group for special treatment of a fundamentally unjust nature. In a 2016 article in the Legal Beagle blog on Public Address[8], Graeme Edgeler points out that Sections 30 – 36 of the Maori Community Development Act[9] remain in force, allowing, among other things, the car keys of Maori to be seized – an example of how New Zealand still has law, although largely forgotten, allowing for members of one particular ethnic group to be treated as less equal than others. There are plenty of other laws whose justice is up for debate – the debates this year over the referenda on marijuana law and euthanasia providing two perfect examples. And yet it is law that defines our justice system and its operation, and it is the laws related to crime, punishment, and the rights and responsibilities of the accused and the convicted that seem to draw the most debate over what is or is not just.

The Western philosophical tradition is quite strong on the legalistic definition of justice. Bertrand Russell describes Plato’s idea of justice thusly:

It consists, we are told, in everybody doing his own work and not being a busybody: the city is just when trader, auxiliary, and guardian, each does his own job without interfering with that of other classes.[10]

Russell goes on to give a bit more context:

Before philosophy began, the Greeks had a theory or feeling about the universe, which may be called religious or ethical. According to this theory, every person and every thing has his or its appointed place and function. This does not depend upon the fiat of Zeus, for Zeus himself is subject to the same kind of law as governs others. The theory is connected with the idea of fate or necessity. It applies emphatically to the heavenly bodies. But where there is vigour, there is a tendency to overstep just bounds; hence arises strife.[11]

And there is what Paul wrote in Romans 2:12-15:

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

So we can see that the two great sources of the Western philosophical traditions – Classical Greece and the Bible – agree that there is an overarching law governing the universe. The difference between the two being that while the Greeks seem a bit vague on the source of that law, the Bible makes it clear that God is the author of that law. And we can infer from both that a just society is one in which everybody is in submission to that law.

The Bible is, of course, a vastly more complex work than a few verses lifted from Romans show, and this complexity opens up a lot of room for interpretation. For example, it was St Augustine of Hippo who, through his interpretation of Romans, formulated the concept that through Adam all people are born in a state of total depravity. There are, of course, other interpretations of scripture, but Augustine’s version of Original Sin has proven quite popular over the millenia. Martin Luther and John Calvin were fans, and there are echoes of it in every populist politician who tries to prove their “tough on crime” credentials by shouting “lock ’em up and throw away the key!”

To sum up, Law is ordained from on high. Justice is obedience to the Law. Injustice stems from people breaking the law, and people are bound by their very nature to break the law.

Ancient China offers up a very different view, one put forward by the Confucian philosopher Mencius – that people are basically good by nature. What makes people good or bad is not their nature, but the environment they are raised and educated in. This is set out in the opening lines of the Three Character Classic[12]:

Men at their birth

are naturally good.

Their natures are much the same;

their habits become widely different.

The character translated here by Herbert Giles as “habits” implies study and knowledge. These habits that become widely different are habits that are learned. And education is a key point here – for Confucians, although people are good by nature, the goodness does not come out naturally; it is developed through education. Confucians have traditionally shied away from too strict an application of law, preferring to take a situational approach to questions of right and wrong. Mainstream Confucianism has also taken the opposite approach to St Augustine of Hippo’s strict interpretation of Paul’s discussion of human nature. Confucians would agree, however, that absent a good environment and sound education, people are bound to break the law.

Another common theme in the dictionary definitions is morality or righteousness. We can define justice as being what is morally upright or good, or righteous. But who defines what is morally upright or good? What is righteous?

Throughout history and around the world every culture has had its own version of morality or righteousness. In each culture these ideas of morality and righteousness have constantly evolved – and continue to do so. We can all think of examples of things that are considered moral now that were not when we were children; or things that were considered immoral when we were children but are now accepted.

So is there a universal definition of morality or righteousness? Is there a constant that remains true across time and culture?

Wikipedia has an extremely useful list of variations on the Golden Rule[13] from a wide variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions. Around the world and throughout time, cultures have summed up morality as being reciprocity, utu[14], treating others the way you want to be treated, or, not treating others the way you don’t want to be treated.

This is a good, simple, easy start. But human societies don’t like simple or easy, and each culture has built on this foundation in its own particular way to create its own image of a good, just, moral society.

I’m going to start with ancient China, specifically with three philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism.

To try and find a Confucian understanding of justice, I want to look briefly at two core Confucian values, ren (仁), benevolence or humaneness; and xiao (孝), usually translated as “filial piety” – respect for one’s elders and superiors. Benevolence is treating others the way you expect to be treated – with respect for their innate humanity. Xiao becomes easy to understand when you understand that Confucianism is at its core an ethical system based on correct relationships. It is a hierarchical system – children obey parents; subjects obey rulers. But xiao is not absolute, blind obedience. The Xiaojing (孝经 – Classic of Filial Piety) explains xiao, and includes this on “Filial Piety in Relation to Reproof and Remonstrance[15]“:

The disciple Zeng said, “I have heard your instructions on the affection of love, on respect and reverence, on giving repose to (the minds of) our parents, and on making our names famous. I would venture to ask if (simple) obedience to the orders of one’s father can be pronounced filial piety.”

The Master replied, “What words are these! What words are these! Anciently, if the Son of Heaven had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him, although he had not right methods of government, he would not lose his possession of the kingdom. [……] Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a father be accounted filial piety?”

In other words, a truly “filial” child will tell their parents off when they do wrong. A truly “filial” subject will tell their ruler off when the ruler does wrong.

Fortunately, this comes with an understanding that people will correct their errors, as in the Analects 19.21[16]:

Zi Gong said, “The faults of the superior man are like the eclipses of the sun and moon. He has his faults, and all men see them; he changes again, and all men look up to him.”

Or, a just society is a society in which people show benevolence to each other, people understand their proper place in the world, people know their responsibility to speak up when their social superiors do wrong, and people correct their mistakes when they are made aware of them.

The Daoist view is quite opposed to the Confucian view. The Daoists start with their own version of the Golden Rule, as explained in Chapter 49 of the Daodejing[17]:

The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind of the people his mind. To those who are good (to me), I am good; and to those who are not good (to me), I am also good; – and thus (all) get to be good. To those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere; and to those who are not sincere (with me), I am also sincere; – and thus (all) get to be sincere. The sage has in the world an appearance of indecision, and keeps his mind in a state of indifference to all. The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his children.

Which probably needs further explanation. In Chapter 38 of the Daodejing[18] we read:

 Thus it was that when the Dao was lost, its attributes appeared; when its attributes were lost, benevolence appeared; when benevolence was lost, righteousness appeared; and when righteousness was lost, the proprieties appeared.

And in Chapter 19[19]:

If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it would be better for the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly. If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.

In other words, it is the imposition of values such as filial piety, etiquette, and benevolence that causes disorder and injustice.

This, of course, needs further explaining. Zhuangzi’s story of the Marquis of Lu welcoming a seabird as an honoured guest might help[20]. The seabird landed in the State of Lu, and the Marquis went out to greet it. He took it to the ancestral temple, prepared a sumptuous feast, and treated it as an honoured guest. The seabird died. Why? What’s appropriate treatment for an honoured human guest is not particularly healthy for a seabird. What’s the point? The proper way to honour a guest is to meet that guest’s needs. Or, trying to force a rigid set of rules on all people without regard for their individual needs creates disorder and injustice.

Or, a just society is one in which the ruler does not enforce rigid, artificial rules, but treats all the people well and sincerely, accepts each person as they are, and meets their particular needs.

The Mohists were also opposed to the Confucians, but their opposition took quite a different form to that of the Daoists. The Mohists also saw Confucian ethics as the cause of disorder and injustice, not because the Confucians were trying to impose rigid, artificial rules on people, but because they drew distinctions between people. That is, the Confucians advocated for degrees of love and loyalty, depending on the closeness of relationships – i.e. more love to the members of one’s immediate family, less to strangers; more loyalty to the ruler of one’s own state, less to rulers of other states. It is this drawing of distinctions that leads to injustice, as we read in the Mozi[21]:

Now among all the current calamities, which are the most important? The attack on the small states by the large ones, disturbances of the small houses by the large ones, oppression of the weak by the strong, misuse of the few by the many, deception of the simple by the cunning, disdain towards the humble by the honoured – these are the misfortunes in the empire.

The Mohists taught instead jian’ai (兼爱), universal love. This stems from an egalitarian ethic common in Mozi’s social class[22], which Mozi then expanded to encompass the whole of society. Further in the same chapter of the Mozi we read[23]:

When we try to develop and procure benefits for the world with universal love as our standard, then attentive ears and keen eyes will respond in service to one another, then limbs will be strengthened to work for one another, and those who know the Dao will untiringly instruct others. Thus the old and those who have neither wife nor children will have the support and supply to spend their old age with, and the young and weak and orphans will have the care and admonition to grow up in. When universal love is adopted as the standard, then such are the consequent benefits. It is incomprehensible, then, why people should object to universal love when they hear it.

The Mohists taught that a just society is one in which we stop drawing artificial distinctions between people – my family/not my family; my city/not my city; my state/not my state – and instead love all people equally.

And in the different approaches of the Confucians and Mohists we see the third theme emerge – what is fair. Both Confucians and Mohists argued for correct relationships, but where Confucians argued for hierarchy and distinctions between people, the Mohists argued for a flat, equal society.

The Mohist argument comes to resemble an idea that has had a powerful influence in Western political philosophy, that of the Social Contract. In answering the question “Why should people voluntarily choose to have such an absolute authority over them?” Fung writes:

The answer, for Mo Tzu, is that the people accept such an authority, not because they prefer it, but because they have no alternative. According to him, before the creation of an organized state, people lived in what Thomas Hobbes has called “the state of nature.”[24]

Actually, in Europe, Social Contract ideas can be traced back to the Classical period. For example, Russell writes that Epicurus’ idea of Justice “consists in so acting as not to have occasion to fear other men’s resentment.”[25] – in other words, Epicurus taught that we should treat each other kindly and justly so that we will have no fear, and therefore be able to attain ataraxia – the state of untroubledness.

It is with Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau that the Social Contract went mainstream. Hobbes argued that before the creation of government, people lived in a “state of nature”. With no government, people’s rights are not limited, and people strive to preserve their own interests at the expense of others. This results in war of all against all, and a life which is, to quote Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The social contract arises when people agree to give up their rights and submit to a central authority – a ruler or government. The role of this central authority is to reign in the worst excesses of individual rights so as to maximise everybody’s welfare.[26]

A contract is normally an agreement between two people to which both parties have freely given their consent. How does one consent to the social contract? One could argue that by moving to a country, one freely consents to be bound by the social contract in force in that country. But what of the country one was born in to? If we were born in New Zealand, then at no point in our lives has anybody sat down and explained to us the Social Contract or asked for our consent to be governed by the government of New Zealand. I’m not talking about elections, here, to be clear. At no point has anybody asked us for our consent to be ruled by the system of governance we have in place in New Zealand. And the same applies to every other country. The Social Contract is presented to us as a fait accompli.

There is, however, in New Zealand history, a good example of a contract freely entered into for the governance of the country – The Treaty of Waitangi. It is far from a perfect document, the problems arguably starting with the differing texts of the Treaty and their interpretation[27]. Over the past 180 years attitudes towards and understandings of the Treaty and its place in New Zealand society have evolved, but the experience of Māori with policing and the criminal justice system shows that there is still a lot of work to be done before we can honestly claim that Māori enjoy an equal status before the law. As Police Commissioner Andrew Coster admitted in an article in The Spinoff on June 18, 2020[28]:

While I believe New Zealand’s style of policing is different to that we see in many other countries, we have to acknowledge that criminal justice outcomes for Māori in particular are appalling.

In the same article Coster goes on to argue:

In policing, and in criminal justice generally, we are frequently operating as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We do not get to control who comes off the cliff. This is a function of a range of disadvantage, whether social, economic, health or education – and often a combination of all of the above.

In the incidents we are called to, whether reports of crime or disorder, mental health crises, or tension in families, our people must deal with what’s in front of them. Sadly, Māori are over-represented in many of the challenging situations that we send Police to resolve every day.

Justice is not simply about obedience of the law, and injustice is not simply breaking the law. Injustice stems from deeper problems, and crime is simply a superficial symptom of those underlying injustices. One could apply a Mohist argument that modern New Zealand society clearly still draws artificial distinctions among people, and therefore fails in its application of universal love, along ethnic lines. One could also argue that there is a breach in the social contract, in that the government is failing to protect the interests of large segments of the population.

I’m no closer to a definition of justice, but I have found something: The key to all of these theories, the common theme running through them all, is relationships. Injustice happens when there is a breakdown in these relationships. If you punch me, you will be charged with assault, but you will have done that because our relationship has degraded to the point where you felt physical violence was the only means left with which to express yourself. That is a breakdown in an interpersonal relationship. A young man who makes a career of breaking into cars and stealing their contents clearly does not feel he belongs in mainstream society. That is a breakdown in the relationship between the individual and society. When a rebellion breaks out in a country, there is a breakdown in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, to the point where a significant segment of the population has withdrawn its consent to the social contract, or, in Confucian terms, feels the ruler no longer enjoys the Mandate of Heaven – different terminology, but it amounts to the same thing.


We can approach the topic of justice from different angles. We can define justice by what is legal; by what is fair; or by what is moral or righteous. Each approach has its shortfalls.

We can argue that justice is defined by law – the law defines what is just and what is unjust. However, the existence in history of laws that were fundamentally unjust, the fact that manifestly unjust laws are still in force, and the continued debate over what is just and unjust show the weakness of this approach. Philosophers such as Plato and Paul have appealed to a higher authority – Law is defined by a higher power such as God – but theological debates are just as fraught and constantly evolving as legal debates. Law is best viewed as an attempt to formally codify what is fair, moral, or righteous.

What is fair is just as difficult to pin down as a truly just law. It seems to depend very much on a definition of what is moral or righteous – a Confucian would consider it perfectly fair to show more love to one’s own family than to a stranger; a Mohist would abhor that drawing of distinctions and argue that ‘fair’ means showing equal love to all people. What is fair is perhaps best seen as an expression of what is moral.

Morality and righteousness may seem at first glance to be concepts as slippery as fairness or truly just law, but they all fall back on a variation of the Golden Rule as their basis – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The differences in the definitions of what is moral or righteous between the different religious and philosophical traditions arise from the expansion of the Golden Rule and its application to the complications of life in the real world.

The common theme running through all those religious and philosophical traditions, and the common theme we see in the myriad individual stories of those caught up in the criminal justice system, is relationships. Those relationships are interpersonal, but also between the individual and their family, community, and wider society. Those relationships are also between the individual and the state, between communities, and between communities and the state. When those relationships are healthy, justice happens. When those relationships break down, we see injustice. The key to justice lies in restoring those relationships to a healthy state.

[1] Bail: Being released while your case is ongoing, Community Law Manual, https://communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-33-the-criminal-courts/how-criminal-cases-beginpleading-guilty-not-guiltybail-and-name-suppression/bail-being-released-while-your-case-is-ongoing/

[2] The Bail Act 2000, on New Zealand Legislation, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2000/0038/latest/DLM68903.html

[3] Three years waiting in prison without being sentenced for a crime, Laura Walters, The Spinoff, https://www.newsroom.co.nz/three-years-waiting-in-prison

[4] Section 25(b), New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, http://legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1990/0109/latest/DLM225527.html

[5] Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice

[6] Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/just

[7] Poll Tax Imposed on Chinese, New Zealand History, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/poll-tax-imposed-on-chinese

[8] Edgeler, G; New Zealand’s Most Racist Law, Legal Beagle; https://publicaddress.net/legalbeagle/new-zealands-most-racist-law/

[9] Maori Community Development Act 1962, New Zealand Legislation, http://legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1962/0133/latest/whole.html#DLM3262830

[10] Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 113

[11] Russell, History, 114

[12] Three Character Classic; trans. Herbert Giles, https://ctext.org/three-character-classic#n90564

[13] Golden Rule, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

[14] Utu, definition 3, The Māori Dictionary, https://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?idiom=&phrase=&proverb=&loan=&histLoanWords=&keywords=utu

[15] Filial Piety in Relation to Reproof and Remonstrance, Classic of Filial Piety, trans. James Legge, https://ctext.org/xiao-jing/filial-piety-in-relation-to-reproof

[16] Analects 19.21, trans. James Legge, https://ctext.org/analects/zi-zhang#n1594

[17] Daodejing Ch. 49, trans. James Legge, https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing#n11640

[18] Daodejing Ch.38 https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing#n11629

[19] Daodejing Ch.19 https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing#n11610

[20] Perfect Enjoyment, Zhuangzi, https://ctext.org/zhuangzi/perfect-enjoyment#n2834

[21] Universal Love III, Mozi Book 4, https://ctext.org/mozi/universal-love-iii#n682

[22] Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1991), 250

[23] Universal Love III, Mozi Book 4, https://ctext.org/mozi/universal-love-iii#n684

[24] Fung, Philosophical Writings, 255

[25] Russell, History, 244

[26] Russell, History, 550

[27] What Does the Treaty Say? New Zealand History, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/treaty-faqs#WhatdoestheTreatysay

[28] Andrew Coster, ‘We Need to Examine Our Attitudes’: Andrew Coster on policing and racial justice, The Spinoff, https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/18-06-2020/police-commissioner-andrew-coster-we-must-make-sure-we-are-not-part-of-the-problem/


Working out what Justice might be?

What is Justice? In this earlier post I attempted to find something of an answer via the dictionary and etymology, but the result was not satisfying.

It would seem to me that Justice is something we talk a lot about, but that we very rarely define. It seems to me that there are many approaches to Justice, but that we mush most of them together into one lump, then leave it to the courts to exercise one particular version of Justice.

It would seem to me that Justice starts with some basic principles. Things like 仁,rén, which is something I rambled about some time ago. Surely there can be no Justice without some measure of benevolence or humanity in society? In that post linked above I included a few quotations. Possibly the most relevant to this topic of Justice might be:


Zi Gong asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

Analects 15, Duke Ling of Wei #24

Which is fine. More than fine – it seems to be one of those rare examples of a genuinely universal value.

Keeping with the Chinese traditions for now, we can also look at Taosim. It might seem odd that a philosophical tradition that started with a very self-centred withdrawal from the world would have much to say on the subject, but it did develop some answers to these questions of how we should interact with others1.

Chapter 49 of the Daodejing seems to have it’s own variation on the Golden Rule:


The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind of the people his mind. To those who are good (to me), I am good; and to those who are not good (to me), I am also good; – and thus (all) get to be good. To those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere; and to those who are not sincere (with me), I am also sincere; – and thus (all) get to be sincere. The sage has in the world an appearance of indecision, and keeps his mind in a state of indifference to all. The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his children.

However, when trying to apply this to understand Justice, it has to be tempered with Taoist ideas of governance. Take this from Chapter 38 of the Daodejing, for example:


Thus it was that when the Dao was lost, its attributes appeared; when its attributes were lost, benevolence appeared; when benevolence was lost, righteousness appeared; and when righteousness was lost, the proprieties appeared.

And from Chapter 19:


If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it would be better for the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly. If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.

From a Taoist point of view, the Confucian insistence on benevolence, righteousness, and propriety is the very cause of disorder and crime. A truly enlightened government rules by “not ruling”, reverting to a simple, natural state.

Fung Yu-Lan, in his A Short History of Chinese Philsophy, quotes the story from Zhuangzi of the Marquis of Lu treating a visiting seabird as an honoured guest, and the seabird dying as a result, then explains:

When the Marquis treated the bird in a way which he considered the most honourable, he certainly had good intentions. Yet the result was just the opposite to what he expected. This is what happens when uniform codes of laws and morals are enforced by government and society upon the individual2.

So from a Taoist point of view, it isn’t simply the artificial imposition of by rulers of virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, and propriety that leads to disorder and crime. The imposition of these values on societies fails to allow for the individual needs of each person, and so has the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

Mozi gives us a different view, starting the chapters on Universal Love with:


The wise man who has charge of governing the empire should know the cause of disorder before he can put it in order. Unless he knows its cause, he cannot regulate it.

And what is the cause of disorder? Mozi continues:


Suppose we try to locate the cause of disorder, we shall find it lies in the want of mutual love. What is called disorder is just the lack of filial piety on the part of the minister and the son towards the emperor and the father; As he loves himself and not his father the son benefits himself to the disadvantage of his father. As he loves himself and not his elder brother, the younger brother benefits himself to the disadvantage of his elder brother. As he loves himself and not his emperor, the minister benefits himself to the disadvantage of his emperor. And these are what is called disorder. When the father shows no affection to the son, when the elder brother shows no affection to the younger brother, and when the emperor shows no affection to the minister, on the other hand, it is also called disorder. When the father loves only himself and not the son, he benefits himself to the disadvantage of the son. When the elder brother loves only himself and not his younger brother, he benefits himself to the disadvantage of the younger brother. When the emperor loves only himself and not his minister, he benefits himself to the disadvantage of his minister, and the reason for all these is want of mutual love.

Mozi develops this argument to show that the cause of disorder isn’t just a want of universal love, but a drawing of distinctions between people: “my state” vs. “that other state; “my family” vs. “somebody else’s family”; “myself” vs. “another person”. If we were to remove those distinctions and love all people equally, as we love ourselves, then there will be no disorder or crime.

The Confucians, as alluded to above, tend to put more stock in the virtues of benevolence, righteousness/justice, and propriety. Mozi found this too divisive, as the Confucians advocated for degrees of love and loyalty, depending on the closeness of relationships – i.e. more love to the members of one’s immediate family, less to strangers; more loyalty to the ruler of one’s own state, less to rulers of other states. For the Taoists, the Confucian approach is an artificial imposition on the natural order which has the perverse effect of creating the very problem it seeks to solve.

Zhang Dainian, in his Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy3, puts Benevolence and Justice (仁义) in the same chapter, Moral Ideals. On p291 he begins to examine Justice (义), starting in the Pre-Han era:

“As Confucius valued benevolence, he also promoted justice. Benevolence is the highest moral norm, whereas yi 义, what is right, refers generally to the existence of moral norms.”

According to Zhang, initially Benevolence and Justice weren’t used as a “binomial pair”. It was Confucius’ disciples who first put them together, with one of the earliest instances being in the Mean and Harmony, traditionally attributed to Confucius’ grandson, Zi Si, where the two concepts are defined homophonically:

Benevolence [ren] is to do with human beings [ren] and is most conspicuous in one’s love for relatives. What is right [yi] is to do with what ought to be done [yi] and is most conspicuous in honoring the worthy.

Zhang, p293, quoting Mean and Harmony 20

And in that last quotation we see the divisiveness Mozi complained of. However, for the Confucian, this isn’t so much ‘division’ as a proper focus on the rightness of one’s relationships, and the beginning of righteousness/justice.

But what are benevolence and righteousness? We can see benevolence, 仁, in terms of The Golden Rule. Or, as in the last two sentences of Analects 6, Yong Ye:


Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves – this may be called the art of virtue.

Mencius framed it in terms of an entirely natural, innate compassion, as explained in his Gong Sun Chou I:


Mencius said, ‘All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. […..]  When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress.

Mencius is clear that this “feeling of alarm and distress” is not motivated by any externalities, but is an innate response of pure compassion for the suffering of others.

So benevolence is an outwardly-focussed virtue. Benevolence is one’s attitude towards other people.

Righteousness, 义, which can also be translated as justice, is more inwardly-focussed. While benevolence is one’s attitude towards others, righteousness is one’s correct personal conduct. It can be seen as a correcting force that prevents people from doing what is wrong, as in Xunzi 16, On Strengthening the State:

A sense of what is right is to be used to stop people acting in an evil and treacherous way.4

Benevolence and righteousness are closely related, and must be kept in proper balance with each other. Zhang Dainian quotes Zhang Zai from the Siku Quanshu 9, The Most Appropriate5:

Yi (义, righteousness) is the movement of ren (仁, benevolence). Proceeding only in accordance with yi may result in harm to ren. Ren is the constant force of the body. To be excessive in ren may result in harm to yi.

So we can see benevolence as the guiding principle and righteousness as its application, with the two to be kept in an appropriate balance to prevent an excess of one harming the other. An excessive focus on benevolence could lead to unjust or unrighteous conduct, while an excessive focus on righteousness could lead to malevolence rather than benevolence.

The common theme I find in each of these three approaches is relationships.

For the Taoists, disorder and therefore injustice arises when the ruler interferes excessively in the lives of their subjects, artificially imposing definitions of right and wrong, benevolence and righteousness. That artificial imposition has the perverse effect of causing the problem it claims to solve, and a genuine solution to the problems of disorder and injustice lies in the ruler stepping back and unruling, allowing the people to fall back into their natural state of healthy, naturally-ordered relationships.

For the Mohists, disorder and injustice stems from people drawing distinctions amongst each other, thereby failing to love all others equally. Order and justice will come when people put aside these artificial distinctions between ‘self’ and ‘other’; ‘my family’ and ‘other families’; ‘my state’ and ‘other states’. Order and justice stem from all people being loved universally without artificially imposed distinction or division.

Although the Confucians draw distinctions in hierarchy and relationships, they start with the values of benevolence and righteousness being the keys to order and justice. If one’s attitude to others is guided by benevolence, and one’s conduct by righteousness, then there will be order and justice. Disorder and injustice stem from either an absence of benevolence or righteousness, or from an imbalance in the two.

Three very different approaches, but they each argue that an ordered, just society stems from correct relationships between people.

1: Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan; Foreign Languages Press; Beijing; 1991; pp258 – 265

2: Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan; Foreign Languages Press; Beijing; 1991; p310

3: Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy; Zhang, D, translated by Ryden, E; Foreign Languages Press; Beijing, 2002

4: As quoted in Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy; Zhang, D; p 297

5: Zhang, p303

Original Sin?

The trouble with ideas like Original Sin is that they seem to get lost in the wash of lazy cultural assumptions. It’s Just There. It’s been generally accepted as somewhat truthy for so long it’s almost a reflex. Ask anybody raised in the Church where the idea of Original Sin comes from and they’ll say “Duh! The Bible!”

But really?

And where does one begin with this question?

Fortunately modernity has brought us the internet, which has brought us Wikipedia, which is a useful starting point, in that it distils an awful lot of writing about topics into one easy to digest (if somewhat dodgy) article. And Wikipedia seems to pin this particular idea on Augustine of Hippo. Well, not quite. As always, there’s a mixture of ideas, some from non-Christian sources, some varying interpretations of scriptures, contesting ideas….

Bertrand Russell, in his The History of Western Philosophy, sums up Augustine’s argument thusly:

Saint Augustine taught that Adam, before the Fall, had had free will, and could have abstained from sin. But as he and Eve ate the apple, corruption entered into them, and descended to all their posterity, none of whom can, of their own power, abstain from sin. Only God’s grace enables men to be virtuous. Since we all inherit Adam’s sin, we all deserve eternal damnation. All who die unbaptized, even infants, will go to hell and suffer unending torment. We have no reason to complain of this, since we are all wicked. (In the Confessions, the Saint enumerates the crimes of which he was guilty in the cradle.) But by God’s free grace, certain people, amoong those who have been baptized, are chosen to go to heaven because they are good; these are the elect. They do not go to heaven because they are good; we are all totally depraved, except in so far as God’s grace, which is only bestowed on the elect, enables us to be otherwise. No reason can be given why some are saved and the rest damned; this is due to God’s unmotived choice. Damnaton proves God’s justice; salvation His mercy. Both equally display His goodness.

Russell, p3651

Russell then notes that this doctrine was revived by Calvin, but since then has not been held by the Catholic Church.

So now that we have a situation in which Augustine’s more extreme view of original sin, rejected by the Catholic church, but retained by Luther and Calvin. To me this is reminiscent of the split in the Confucian tradition between Mencius and Xunzi.

The Three Character Classic opens with:


Men at their birth
are naturally good.
Their natures are much the same;
their habits become widely different.

The Mencian idea being that people are naturally good. Whether they turn out good or bad depends on their environment and education.

Xunzi took the opposite view. As Fung Yu-Lan explains, quoting chapter 23 of the Xunzi:

Human nature, too, should be cultured, for, from Hsun Tzu’s view, the very fact that it is uncultured means that it cannot be good. Hsun Tzu’s thesis is that “the nautre of man is evil; his goodness is acquired training.”2

Fung, p351

This sets up an interesting parallel. In both Western Christian and Chinese Confucian traditions, we have a mainstream view of people being by nature not so bad. The Christian tradition still insists on humanity’s tendency to sin, of course, while the Confucian tradition holds that our nature is good. Then we have the extreme splinter group, represented by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin in the Christian tradition, insisting that all humans, even newborn babies, are sinful creatures deserving of eternal damnation; and in the Confucian tradition by Xunzi with his insistence that human nature is evil. The difference, of course, lies in the means of salvation – by the grace of God in the Christian tradition; by education and culture in the Confucian tradition.

But rather than stumble into some attempt at comparative theology, my question is to what degree Augustine’s and Xunzi’s ideas persist in popular understandings of the world, and how these ideas have affected our understanding of criminality and justice. I would argue that although the mainstreams of both traditions have taken a more moderate line, the extremes represented by Augustine and Xunzi have persisted in the popular consciousness.

For example, the Sensible Sentencing Trust continues to push its hard line, and Judith Collins is talking tough on crime again. In East Asia the death penalty is not particularly controversial, and a typical Chinese response to a criminal being sentenced to death is to shrug it off with a “活该“.

Whether derived from Augustine or Xunzi, the assumption that people are evil by nature and automatically deserving of severe punishments seems simplistic and inflexible. People commit crime because they are evil. What should we do with them? Punish them! Can people become good? Well, kind of, through either the grace of God (Augustine) or culture (Xunzi), but the fundamental evil of human nature remains and must be reined in.

It also seems to me that the attraction of these views lies in their simplicity. There is a simple answer to why crime happens – people are evil. There is a simple answer to what to do with criminals – punish them. There is a simple answer to why some are criminals while others are not – those who are not criminals are those who have managed to stick to the rules handed down by society that define correct, non-criminal behaviour. There is even the possibility of redemption held out – that criminals at the end of their punishment may be reintegrated into society, though, of course, they always carrry that stain of past criminality, and it is commonly assumed that they will soon revert to their criminal ways.

But is this Justice?

1 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1945

2 Fung Yu-Lan, Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1991

What is Justice?

The easy answer to the question is to check the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has a definition here. “The maintenance or administration of what is just”; “the administration of law”; “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair”, “the quality or principle of just dealing or right action”; “righteousness”; “the quality of conforming to law”. These are all useful and helpful, but only up to a point. 

The point we’re now at is the one where we ask, “What is just? What is righteousness? Who decides the law and how do we know it is just or righteous?”

“Parliament decides the law” you say. Well, kind of. Parliament debates Bills and passes some of them, which then become Acts which are usually signed by the Governor General or Queen to become law. But Parliament is acting on hundreds of years of tradition passed down from England and our own cultural, social, political, and legal evolution here in New Zealand. The same principles hold true in basically every other jurisdiction. And in any case, there is no shortage of laws which are manifestly unjust: The Chinese Poll Tax, Jim Crow, and Apartheid being three easy examples. Add on top of that a multitude of laws whose justice is up for debate, including plenty which are still on the books.

So let’s look at “just“. Merriam-Webster’s definition 2 of just as an adjective seems most relevant. “Acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good”; “being what is merited”; “legally correct”. These are three quite distinct definitions masquerading as variations on a theme. So the questions now become “What is ‘morally upright or good’? How do we decide what is merited? And how does ‘legally correct’ interact with these first two?”

I gave three examples two paragraphs above of things that were legal but were manifestly unjust. It is not difficult to find more such examples. Clearly ‘legal’ only means ‘allowed by law’, and ‘illegal’ only means ‘not allowed by law’. The fact that something is legal does not make it morally upright, good, merited, ethical, or righteous. The fact that something is illegal does not make it immoral, bad, unearned, unethical, or unrighteous. 

Perhaps looking at the etymology of righteous will help us? “from Old English rihtwis, from riht + wis “wise, way, manner””. So ‘righteous’ means ‘the right way; the right manner’. And right? “”morally correct,” Old English riht “just, good, fair; proper, fitting; straight, not bent, direct, erect,””.

Forgive me for feeling like we’re going round in circles here.

This question of “what is justice” is one I intend to explore further in this blog. Stand by for more ramblings…

The Path

I recently read The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. I’d seen a fair bit of chatter about it, all of it positive, and I’d seen it in the shops and hemmed and hawed and finally got around to reading it.

The application of classical Chinese thought to modern, Western (more specifically American, but certainly not exclusively so, as can sometimes happen) makes the word “new” in the subtitle fair enough.

I liked how in Chapter 1: The Age of Complacency the authors set about breaking certain modern myths, views of the world and our own complacent assumptions of modernness versus tradition. On page 7:

The fact is there has been a wide range of visions of how humans can lead lives of their own making. Once we recognize that, we can see the “modern” for what it actually is: one narrative out of many, built from a specific time and place. An entire world of thought thus becomes available to us – one that challenges some of our most cherished myths.

Or of who we are and what “self” is and how “self” can be found. Page 11:

The goal of a self-acutalized person is now to find himself and to live his life “authentically,” according to an inner truth.

The danger of this lies in believing that we will all know our “truth” when we see it, and then limiting our lives according to that truth.

And they deal with other myths, but those are two that leap out at me.

I also appreciated how Chapter 2: The Age of Philosophy draws out the commonalities in the ancient civilisations of wider Eurasia during the Axial Age, the common challenges faced by those civilisations, and how various ancient thinkers in those various cilisations responded to those challenges, thence how the religious and philosophical traditions of those civilisations developed in their different ways. I find too many discussions of different cultures and traditions place an awful lot of emphasis on difference, and it was nice to see, for once, authors looking deeper in to the common, which is a good way of both seeing how the difference arose while still keeping a sound base in the common.

I went into Chapter 3: On Relationships: Confucius and As-If Rituals with a perhaps slightly unhealthy level of scepticism, but I really appreciated the depiction of ritual-as-playacting-with-real-world-benefits. Ritual-as-role-play-that-helps-rebalance-relationships. And considering my only grudging appreciation of Confucianism, my tendency to view Confucucius as the kneejerk-reactionary-conservative, Family First of Warring States China, I really appreciated what for me was a fresh look at Confucianism as actually a more liberal, even progressive system. Confucianism still has its problems, and my respect for it is still only grudging, but it is always good to look at things from a fresh angle, and I like to hope that my understanding of Confucianism is now a touch more nuanced thanks to this book.

The rest of the book I found to be a bit too much of a beginner’s introduction to classical Chinese thought for my own tastes, but although my own understanding of the subject is very limited, I very much doubt I’m in the target market. As a basic introduction to classical Chinese philosophy for a Western, Anglophone audience, being so grounded in modern Western life yet while casting all the way back to the common challenges faced by ancient peoples across Eurasia, thereby basing itself soundly in the commonality of human experience, it works. It works well.

My only real quibble with this book is the lack of “chapter and verse” references for the quotations from the Chinese classics – it would be nice to be able to check the originals quickly and easily myself (and “chapter and verse” references would be even more necessary for somebody in the “not yet familiar with Chinese philosophy” target market), look through the wider context of each quotation, or compare the various translations.

But would I recommend this book to somebody with (near-) zero prior knowledge of Chinese philosophy wanting to find out how Confucius and Laozi and so on were and what they were all about? Absolutely yes.

sedition and dissension

An exchange of comments over at Public Address got me thinking (or thunking, at least) specifically the exchange that culminates here:

He was charged with sedition rather than threatening personal violence.

Helen Clark was Prime Minster, not a private citizen.

So, in protest at the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, somebody through an axe through Helen Clark’s office window, and was then charged with sedition.

I typed up my own comment, then something went wonky and it vanished into the ether, but that’s ok, because it was only tangentially relevant to the discussion at hand, but it’s annoying because I typed all that stuff out only for it to vanish, and it’s stuff that I find at least tangentially relevant to a lot of things happening in the world right now, both historically and currently (and if that doesn’t make much temporal sense, don’t worry, it shouldn’t). So here goes again:

  1. Violence is rarely necessary and even less often justified. This is especially true in a place like New Zealand. Having said that, throwing an axe through somebody’s window is vastly more violent than chopping down a flagpole or a prominently-planted tree or shooting or burning a flag. In other words, I don’t have much of a problem with symbolic violence that is part of a ritual discourse – or, if it’s ok for the All Blacks to perform a haka before a rugby game on the implicit understanding that they will do no more violence to their opposition than is allowed within the rules and customs of rugby, then it is ok for people to destroy political symbols on the implicit understanding that they will do no actual violence to their political opponents. So go ahead and chop down that flagpole or tree, just make sure you’re following the proper health and safety protocols so that it doesn’t fall on anybody. But putting an axe through somebody’s window? No, that is a step too far, that is threatening actual violence.
  2. Let’s be clear: Under Helen Clark, the New Zealand state did do actual violence towards marginal groups in New Zealand society. The state has done violence under all governments, and continues to do so. Much of that violence is a necessary part of ensuring the fairest deal for the largest number of people possible under the laws and customs of the day – Police arresting criminals is inherently violent, but good because allowing criminals to go free results in greater violence and a less fair society – but sometimes the violence is unnecessary and unjustified. Ideally, the state, its leaders, and its agents would be held accountable for that unnecessary, unjustified violence. The prime minister labelling people “haters and wreckers” because they express their belief that legislation her government is passing confiscates their land and restricts their right to seek redress through the courst was unnecessary and unjustified violence because she was speaking from a position of power to the powerless and she could’ve easily chosen to first listen to then negotiate with those people before passing legislation that all parties agreed was a fair compromise.
  3. I strongly dislike that there is, or at least has been, a crime called sedition. That strikes me as being the kind of law that is easily abused towards political ends, the kind of law that governments use to put their political opponents safely in jail, the kind of law whose threat is used to silence dissent and enforce adherence to the party line.
  4. Further down that sedition tangent, here’s a bit from our national anthem that I have always disliked:

    From dissension, envy, hate

    And corruption guard our State,

    Envy, hate and corruption are definitely bad, I will not quibble with that. But let’s play “one of these things is not like the other”…. Dissension? What’s wrong with that? If anything, we need more dissension, more of the free and vigorous contest of ideas. If anything, we need a lot less of middle class Pakeha telling marginalised groups to shut up and get in behind. And guard our State, because that is what’s most important, isn’t it? Not the nation, not the people, they should all just meekly get back into their place. It’s all about the State. Nope, that’s completely backwards. The State should be serving the people, the State should be protecting the people, so far as is practically possible, from itself.

  5. As for Helen Clark’s candidacy for UN Secretary General, well… I was in China for most of her reign as prime minister. My view-from-eleven-thousand-kilometres memory of her prime ministership is that although, yes, many good things were done on her watch, plenty of bad things were done, too. And I recall reading of a mysterious H2 and a  lot of control freakery. And I remember thinking during their third term in office that Clark and Cullen and the other old guard should probably start shuffling towards the exits and bringing fresh talent up through the ranks if they want a fourth term in government, or even just to ensure their party is well set-up for the future, but that didn’t seem to happen. As the John Key years have progressed I have become less and less comfortable with how many on the left seem to be almost deifying Clark. I don’t think she was a bad prime minister, I just don’t remember her being so great as to justify all the adulation. And now the hype surrounding her candidacy for Secretary General seems to be taking on similar tones to the build up to a rugby world cup, with a similarly sinister expectation that we all support what has been deemed the National Cause, and those whose responses are insufficiently enthusiastic are a bit suspect and not quite Kiwi enough.
  6. Having ranted point 5, I must say it was good to see #kiwitreason break out on Twitter.

That’s enough incoherent ranting for now.

仁,ren, or its modern lack

We’re a friendly bunch, a warm, welcoming nation, we like to tell ourselves. We take care of each other. So we say.

“New Zealanders are very friendly, but very difficult to make friends with”, immigrants from Europe told me around about the time I was graduating from university. I didn’t quite know what to make of what they were saying – it seemed to make sense, seemed to have a certain ring of truth to it, but… …a decade and a half and a bit later I return to New Zealand, and now I get it.

And yet I’m not convinced New Zealanders are all that friendly, really. Anymore. Not unfriendly, not haughty or arrogant or disdainful.



But not all New Zealanders, of course. Even so, I have been surprised by how cold, distant and uncaring this society has become.

Become? Or…

I don’t recall seeing beggars on the street when I was a child. I remember a time, as the Rogernomic revolution was just starting to bite, when my parents where able to go to the home of each individual family requesting a food parcel and see what they had and what, precisely, they needed. In my early twenties, before heading off to China, I did come across one or two on the streets of Wellington whose behaviour could’ve been classed as begging. Late last year I walked the length of Lambton Quay on a weekday lunchtime and counted half a dozen beggars. Observing the behaviour of everybody else on the street, it is clear that this has become normal, perhaps even accepted. And now we have the housing crisis at a point where the media has noticed the sheer number of homeless people, families living in cars, and a marae opening its doors to the homeless, but being overwhelmed and calling for help.

And where is the government in all this? Surely it’s the government’s role to ensure all people have all they need to function in society? Shouldn’t that include ensuring all people have healthy, warm, dry accomodation? Nothing fancy of course, but at least a basic roof over their heads and four weather-tight walls to fend off the winter chill?

And it is heartening to see so many, civil society groups and individuals, step up to help those in such desperate need, but doesn’t a society get the government it deserves? Could it be that for all that so many civil society groups and individuals are doing to help the situation, this society as a whole is now so desperately lacking in something, and this lack has allowed this situation to develop? In a democracy, is it enough or acceptable to just blame the government? After all, we, the people, put those politicians in parliament.

仁, rén.

A simple, little concept, really. Usually translated as ‘benevolence‘ or ‘humanity‘, which you will see if you scroll down that linked page just a short way. And yes, I am skating just a little bit too close to the etymological fallacy in linking to Etymonline for those two words, but in these two cases I think the etymology does demonstrate reasonable well what I’m getting at here.

But 仁, rén is a concept lifted from Classical Chinese philosophy, specifically what we know as Confucianism, though in this case Confucius may have been somewhat truthful in claiming not to be an innovator, merely a transmitter of ancient truths.

So, a little help from Zhang Dainian*. In Chapter 39. Benevolence and Justice, Ren-Yi,仁義, page 286, he writes:

[……]but Confucius was not the first to use the term. Several examples from Zuo’s Commentary may be cited to show that benevolence was already seen as a moral principle. The grand minister of Jin, Jiu Ji, said,

I have heard: to go out of the door as a guest and to undertake affairs as if one were performing a sacrifice is the norm of benevolence. (Zuo’s Commentary 5, Xi 33, p. 223)


The Commentary also includes a judgement by Confucius of King Ling of Chu:

Zhong Ni [Confucius] said, “It is contained in an ancient book that to subdue self and return to propriety is benevolence. True is the saying and excellent.” (Zuo’s Commentary 10, Zhao 12, p. 638)

Zhang then quotes (p. 287) the Analects 6, Yong Ye to show Confucius’ definition of benevolence. Zhang has the relevant passage as #28, though on ctext it’s #30:

Zi Gong said, “Suppose the case of a man extensively conferring benefits on the people, and able to assist all, what would you say of him? Might he be called perfectly virtuous?” The Master said, “Why speak only of virtue in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? Even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this. Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves – this may be called the art of virtue.”

My emphasis added. Then to show what being established means, Zhang quotes (p. 288) the Analects 20: Yao Yue:


The Master said, “Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man. Without an acquaintance with the rules of Propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established. Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.”

Again, my emphasis added.

On pages 290 and 291 Zhang has a few more quotations from the Analects on the subject of Benevolence as a summary. Here’s my selection, with my own emphasis added:

Analects 12, Yan Yuan, #2:


Zhong Gong asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, “It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family.” Zhong Gong said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”

Note: The “perfect virtue” in the above quoatation is 仁, benevolence.

Analects 15, Duke Ling of Wei #24 [Note: Zhang has this as #23 and translates 恕 as’empathy’; ctext has this as #24 and translates 恕 as ‘reciprocity’. I’m running with the ctext version for convenience’s sake]:


Zi Gong asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

It is worth noting that this law of reciprocity, the Golden Rule, is about as close to a universal value as you’re going to find.

So, to sum up, according to Confucius:

  1. To establish yourself, you must establish others. To enlarge yourself, you must enlarge others.
  2. Knowledge of the rules of propriety is necessary for character to be established.
  3. Benevolence means, among other things, following the Golden Rule.
  4. The Golden Rule, or reciprocity, or treating others the same way you expect to be treated, is the rule you should order your life by.

But what does this have to do with modern New Zealand?

Here we are in a society in which families are living in cars and children are dying from easily preventable diseases because the only homes their parents can afford are cold, damp and mouldy. There are beggars on the streets in a land of plenty. And yes, there are people and organisations who step up to help, but…

…crowd-funded ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, much?

And in any case, wouldn’t prevention be better? And if it’s too late for prevention, how’s about repairing the fence at the top of the cliff so as to minimise the number of people who fall over it?

Now, we can blame the government all we like – and if we’re going to be fair, we have to admit that governments of all stripes for the last 32 years have been pushing the policies that have enabled this situation to develop. But this is a democratic state. Governments are elected. When we cast our votes, are we voting for parties we honestly believe will benefit all the people of our country? Or are we voting only for the party we believe will be best for our own immediate self-interest? Are we voting with benevolence and reciprocity in mind?

It would seem to me that for all the benevolence that has been shown in societal responses to the current housing crisis, short-term self-interest remains the dominant driving force in this society, as it has been since the 1980s. And if that is the case, how can we expect to have a healthily-functioning society? How can we expect anything other than growing poverty and deprivation?

We need some more 仁, we need to bring benevolence back.


*Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2002.


With some older blogs that this would’ve been more appropriate to disappearing into the ether, unconnectable, I think I’ll just post this here.

It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly modified our landscape is. It’s not just the obvious stuff, like deforestation, non-native species, the laying of roads and powerlines and building of houses and other infrastructure…



You get out of the car and walk the land and observe and you see there is so much more going on.

This corner of Wellington is naturally a web of narrow, steep, forested gullies that drain into the Porirua Stream. The forests are long gone, but even the gullies and streams are disappearing, slowly. A stream rises and, before you know it, it’s disappeared under a road.


It passes under the road and a tennis club then gets a stretch more fresh air and sunlight.


Then it vanishes under a shopping centre and another road, to reappear behind an earthen dam.



A dam which is there, of course, to help protect the good folks downstream from flooding.


(Because of course we should be modifying our environment to suit our desires rather than modifying our behaviour to suit our environment)

I guess it was having grown up in New Zealand then moved to China for a decade and a half then moved back. I’d certainly grown used to the heavily-modified nature of China’s environment. I think that while always having been aware that New Zealand’s environment fell far short of the “100% pure” hype, I’d managed to take it for granted, somehow running on the assumption that despite the deforestation, non-native species (many of which have run amok), stop banks along the Hutt River, and the odd bit of filled-in or reclaimed land around the harbour, that the landscape itself was in a fairly natural state.


Now I see that is most definitely not the case.


waiting for the miracle

1: I remember an old joke that did the rounds in the late ’80s:

There was a big flood and a dude was stuck on the roof of his house. A guy came along in a row boat and called out to the dude to jump in. “No, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher. A while later another guy came along in a motor boat and called out, “Hey, dude, the water’s getting higher, jump in my boat and I’ll take you to safety!” “No, thanks, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher still and the dude was having to tread water when a helicopter flew by, spotted him, and dropped a rope. But the dude refused again, “I’m ok, my God will save me!” The dude drowned, and when he got to Heaven, he went up to God and said, “I waited and waited. Why didn’t you save me?”

“What are you talking about?” God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

2: About the same time I remember a lot of people saying that science is the process of discovering God’s creation.

3: Three quotations from God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam*, which I have been reading recently:

Some extremists advocated ignoring Greek philosophy altogether and insisted that everything that you needed to know was in the Bible. St Augustine of Hippo disagreed. He wrote:

Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were, from owners who have no right to them. (Augustine of Hippo (trans. Roger Green), De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 125 [II:144])

page 88


Echoing St Augustine and St Anselm, the Church believed that reason illuminated faith and you could not have one without the other.



Back in the fourth century, St Augustine of Hippo had wrestled with the matter of what to do when the Bible and science said different things in his commentary on the book of Genesis. Genesis clearly conflicted with the best available Greek science of the time. Augustine was worried that Christians who read their Bible too literally risked making their religion look ridiculous. In his commentary he wrote:

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and other elements of this world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions … Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. (Ernan McMullin, ‘Galileo’s Theological Venture’, in The Church and Galileo, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 98)

Augustine’s solution was to set out the circumstances when the Bible should be read in a figurative rather than a literal sense.

pages 314 – 315

4: The above three points are linked. Somehow. Allow me to try and explain. Somehow

Recently I have seen people promoting the “young Earth”, “6-day creationist” view of the origin of the universe. This is in direct opposition to the Theory of Evolution. Unfortunately, they have had nothing new to add to my understanding of the world. Unfortunately, they have only rehashed the same tired, old arguments. Unfortunately, the arguments presented have been fundamentally dishonest. Even more unfortunately, the tactics they have used have been highly manipulative, even bullying.

One common tactic has been to start with a question like “Do you believe in Genesis?” or “Do you believe in the Bible?” and to then go and set up a false dichotomy in which your options are to either agree with their particular interpretation of scripture or burn in Hell. Forget two thousand years of Church history and Christian scholarship, philosophy and science, forget the full diversity of Christian experience, your options are either this one particular interpretation of scripture or eternal damnation.

One of them quoted from Hosea, I believe Hosea 4:6a:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;

Well, I remember the quotation being “dying” rather than “destroyed”, but the Bible wasn’t written in Modern English, so different translations use different words… and looking at it now, the quotation does seem to be taken just a teensy bit out of context, and would seem to be arguing more the opposite of what they wanted to say…

“Mmmhmm”, I thought, “I wonder can you tell me why? Can you give me an honest answer why they might be dying or destroyed for lack of knowledge?”

It seems to me that that old joke about the dude on the roof of his house waiting for God to rescue him from the flood is just as true today as it was back then. So many Christians, especially, it seems to me, those of an evangelical persuasion, seem to be sitting around expecting God to swoop in any minute now all miraculous like the miracles they read of in the Bible, when the miracle they need is sitting right in front of them, resolutely ignored.

They’ll tell you that we are made in God’s image. They’ll tell you that God is omnipotent. But then they’ll tell you that God’s actions only fit into a very specific, tightly defined box. God does only this, but not that.

The two boats and the helicopter from that old joke are the knowledge that modern science brings us. It is by no means perfect knowledge – and that is the beauty of science, that it is imperfect and constantly being updated as we learn more. And it is the best tool we have for figuring out how this world works, and it is sitting right there in front of us ready for us to use. But so many Christians, especially those of an evangelical persuasion, reject it – or at least, those parts of it that make them feel uncomfortable – because it doesn’t fit the very tightly defined box of possibilities they allow for God. And so I wonder: Do they worship an omnipotent God in whose image we were created? Or do they worship a weak, limited god created in the image of their own fears and insecurities?

If we are made in God’s image, then surely we’re nothing more than God’s shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave? Pale, fuzzily-defined images that only hint at the Ideal that cast them?

If God is omnipotent, then surely he is not limited by our petty fears and insecurities, lack of imagination, or weak faith?

Surely St Augustine had a very good point – large parts of the Bible aren’t to be taken as literally true because they represent God explaining things to people of a particular time and place in terms that they could understand? After all, if God had sat down with Moses on the top of Mt Sinai and tried to explain to Moses the Theory of Evolution, or General Relativity, or Quantum Mechanics, or even something as (seemingly) simple and quotidian as gravity, how would Moses have reacted? Likely run down the mountain laughing his little head off at the obvious insanity of such ideas…. Moses could not possibly have had the educational or cultural background to even begin to comprehend such ideas (and fair’s fair, most modern people don’t either, despite the wealth of resources we have at our disposal). Surely large parts of the Bible, as St Augustine argued, are eternal truths presented in figurative or metaphorical forms – truths presented in terms the audience can comprehend. Kind of like the parables that Jesus told.

So if, as so many people were saying 20 or 30 years ago, science is the process of discovering God’s creation; and if God is omnipotent, and therefore capable of doing anything he wants; and if science shows us that the universe is actually billions of years old, multiple gazillions of light years across, and that Evolution is the particular process by which God created the species we currently know about and the myriad species that have gone extinct before we knew them, then what’s the big deal?

Shouldn’t we put the knowledge sitting right in front of us to the best use we can? Or should we continue to sit here rejecting that knowledge and demanding that God swoop in all deus ex machina-style because that is the role we have assigned to him?

What do we have to fear?

To have come back to New Zealand after all these years away and see that so little has changed is so very


But to come back to New Zealand and watch as people try to manipulate and bully others into submitting to only one very particular dogma, to see them deny the full diversity of Christian experience, to see them openly reject knowledge and work so hard to keep others bound in ignorance, that is


My people are dying for a lack of knowledge… because they are manipulated and bullied into submission to ignorance.

*God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science; James Hannam; Icon Books; London; 2009.