A long time ago in graduate school I worked as a teaching assistant for a professor named Lane Davis. I handled the discussion groups for his introductory class in politics. For that class, we would read pieces of the canon, such as the Melian dialogue in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, and Socrates’ famous dialogue with Thrasymachus in The Republic about the meaning of justice.
After we had a look at the various definitions of justice advanced by Thrasymachus and his friends, Lane would ask, “What was Socrates’ definition?” That query was a little difficult, of course, because Socrates often does not reveal all of his thinking when he questions his interlocutors. That’s particularly so in this conversation about justice. You know he doesn’t agree with Thrasymachus, that justice is the interest of the stronger, but what does he think?
Lane proposed a surprising answer: to do justice means to mind your own business. It’s surprising because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with justice at all. How is minding your own business related to our everyday ideas about acting justly?
Think about the question this way. The Athenians told the Melians, “Whatever you might say about fairness, we’re stronger than you, and we’ll do whatever we like. That’s the way justice works between parties of unequal strength.” Thrasymachus endorsed that view. Now consider what minding your own business implies about human interactions. It altogether removes strength from the way people interact with each other. In fact, it greatly reduces the interactions. When people do interact, say, because they bear joint responsibility for something, they still focus on their own share of the activity. They do not meddle, scheme, give orders, conceal the truth, or undertake any of the other things you might do to have your own way. Having your own way does not matter to a just person.
These thoughts come to mind as we watch the war in Syria and Iraq become worse by the day. The Islamic State offers people – people who are weak and unable to resist its military might – a fourfold choice: convert to Islam, pay a fine, leave your home, or die. If the villagers try to act justly – that is, ignore the command as they go about their business – they will not find a similar conception of justice among the new strongmen in town. The strongmen act like the Athenians – we will do what we like with you. Whatever we say is just, that’s justice. Do as we say, and you can live.
Because aggressive warfare involves overt coercion in so many respects, times of war illustrate why minding your own business – following a principle of live and let live – defines the only way for people to live justly with one another. Every other mode of living – every other principle of interaction – results in conflict that deals injustice to weaker parties. People want power, not to protect others so they can go about their own business, but to take advantage of them.
All over the world, in our country and elsewhere, you see strong people having their way with the weak. The crimes of rape, murder, slavery, theft and torture all turn on this idea that stronger parties can impose their will on people too weak to resist. Warfare magnifies these crimes from individual acts to organized activities undertaken by armies, governments, guerilla bands, security forces, criminal organizations, tribes, political parties, and other groups who recognize how to use superior strength to get what they want. Those who cannot resist also cannot persuade these strongmen to stop their coercion. When war comes to their village they can only submit, and pray.