As you prepare to exit the elevator on the Ninth floor of the County-City Building, a pleasant automated voice announces that you have arrived at the office of the County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Sure enough, straight down the short hallway to the left is the appropriately labeled door emblazoned with the words “Core Values.”
There’s only one Core Value listed.
There are the other standard Core Values of course on their job applications – Excellence, Teamwork, Accountability, Integrity, Respect – but the fact that only ‘Justice’ is stenciled on the door is perhaps less likely due to the work of an unfinished artist as it is more indicative that without ‘Justice’ the other Core Values don’t matter.
The expectation is that when you open that door and cross the threshold, it is because you want justice served, something reprehensible has shattered your life, a moral outrage seethes within your spirit like a steaming kettle on the stove, a wrong needs to be made right.
But what is justice, and why does it matter?
Whereas ‘Whatever’ was judged – speaking of justice – as the most annoying word of the year for 2016, ‘Justice’ was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the year for 2018 as determined by which word was most frequently looked up at Merriam-Webster.com, with the additional criteria that the word must show a significant increase in lookups over the previous year.
What was going on in 2018 that people cared so much about justice?
“Heavy lookup traffic,” according to Meriam-Webster, included everything from “the story about the arrest of a Nazi prison guard, described in headlines as having had a ‘long flight from justice,’ to when Madonna said that she ‘couldn’t do justice’ to Aretha Franklin in the brief time allotted to her during an awards show shortly after the Queen of Soul had died.”
Is ‘justice’ so relative a term, so ambiguous a concept that social consensus determines its definition and thus its application?
But not on the Ninth floor.
In an article entitled “Where Our Ethics Come From”, George L. Head writes, “Unless we have strong personal reasons or other commitments to believe otherwise, most of us tend to ‘go along’ with the opinions of those around us, rather than ‘bucking the tide’ by independently evaluating the ethical aspects of others’ actions. Thus, often almost automatically, the social consensus can become the approved, although unexamined, ethical standard.”
At risk of hyperbole, that last is so important, of such gi-hugic significance, a Mt. Everest-worthy planting of the flag, that here it is again:
“Often almost automatically, the social consensus can become the approved, although unexamined, ethical standard.”
But not on the Ninth Floor.
Maybe at street level, but not on the Ninth Floor.
When I gave my fifth grade mentee a six-inch paper ruler that I had purposefully altered – unbeknownst to him – by shortening it a mere three-eighths of an inch, I asked him to measure, on his hands and knees, the length of the sidewalk that led to the front door of his elementary school.
He dutifully set about the task.
Right alongside him that warm spring day as students were dismissed and had to walk around us some stopping to wonder how it was that we had ‘flipped out’, I flipped my unaltered ruler end for end as he flipped his.
“Count to 48. Be careful, and be accurate,” I instructed him. “Don’t just willy nilly flip over your ruler. This is important.”
Twenty-four feet later he had fallen behind.
“I’m at 48,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Then, why are you back there?”
Very sharp and smart fifth grader he was.
He said, “Let me see your ruler.”
He compared the two, discovered the rather miniscule problem, complained about the injustice of it all – how could I, his trusted mentor, deceive him like that – and, perceptively, arrived at what amounted to a Ninth-Floor resolution.
“Do you have a real ruler?”
If what we do, anything we do; if what we accept, anything we accept; if our decisions are made, any decisions as they are all incremental; are done, accepted, decided without a no-stone-unturned investigation and evaluation and careful consideration (and extrapolate that through the course of an entire life) then yes, ‘whatever’ will suffice.
But not on the Ninth Floor.
Credit for the six-inch ruler exercise: “Right from Wrong” by Josh McDowell, subtitled “What You Need to Know to Help Youth Make Right Choices.”
Stephen W. Mosier says
Superbly done, Mr. Anderson. Thank you for your effort to shed some light of reason into the darkness of rationalism and relativistic values. Surely we must have some standard of absolute values by which to be able to claim equal justice for all. If we each have our own standards there will be no justice much less equal justice.
Equally important is the point of the quote from Dr. Head illuminating the process by which “the social consensus can become the approved, although unexamined, ethical standard.” I would like to share another quote bearing on the same matter to illustrate how strong that group-think peer pressure can be. “For years I had adopted without bothering to think, the attitude common among secular, affluent, university-educated people who took the propriety of abortion for granted even when it was illegal..most of us had a vague and unexamined notion that while the fetus wasn’t nothing, it also was not fully human. The slightest reflection would have suggested that non-human or semi-human blobs of tissue do not magically turn into human beings.” This was written by Judge Robert Borg describing his views on abortion during the time that he was a Law Professor at Yale in the early years of the abortion debates.
When I first read that (after Borg had become very pro-life) I was alarmed at the ease with which even highly educated and brilliant minds could be so easily given over to flawed ideas by no greater force of persuasion than the group-think mindset of those around them. As Borg himself confessed, the slightest reflection would have exposed the flaws in their thinking–but no such reflection was necessary because no one among his peers challenged the consensus opinion.
Surely, we need to instill in the minds of the younger generation the vital importance of critical thinking and the recognition of the need of permanent standards by which to discern right from wrong. Your lesson of the non-standard ruler is a fine example of that point.
[Borg quoted from “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”, ch. 10, Robert H. Borg, 1996]