Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.

In order to judge that something is just or unjust, one must possess several imaginary, indirect capacities: mind reading (in order to infer the mental states of others, as when knowledge or intent are relevant to an action, or when trying to figure out how much “utility” a particular state of affairs provides); the traversal of alternate realities (in order to infer the causation of harm); and the perception of pure social constructs (duties, reasonableness) that inform how people are expected to act. In most situations, from rudeness to homicide, the mental state of the alleged perpetrator of harm is relevant to justice or injustice, and must be inferred from words, actions, and circumstances. When making judgments that some behavior or state of affairs caused another, what we are doing is imagining alternate realities where the outcome did not happen, and ascertaining what is different between the two – mentally exploring “many worlds.” And in order to know when an action or state of affairs violates fairness norms, we must be able to perceive and describe the fairness norms of the group in question, even though these have no material form, and are entirely socially constructed. The fairness and equality norms for hunter-gatherers are different from those for employees of a software company. And even individuals within the same society may disagree on what is fair or unfair, just or unjust.

When trying to do justice, the biggest enemy is ignorance. All the information relevant to a decision exists somewhere out there in the world, but much of it is hidden inside people’s heads or not observed at all. If only we had a special sort of camera that could record everyone’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings, as well as surveil their actual behaviors, then we would know what was right in every case. Especially if it were a magical sort of camera that could traverse alternate realities, so that we would know the actual effects of every behavior, intervention, or state of affairs. If only there were someone, some being or entity, who had all this information, with whom we could meaningfully communicate about justice!

Given how nice it would be if someone had this information, it is no surprise that many theories of justice posit such an omniscient being. In some cases, the being is said to actually exist in reality; in other cases, the being is explicitly imaginary. In all cases, contact with this being (in some cases, only in imagination) provides a grounding for the experience of justice. Here I will discuss in turn the various worldviews that involve communication with “higher levels” of being in some way, from supernatural entities to thought experiments, and compare and contrast the nature of the being in each case. God is only the beginning.


Many systems of justice involve actual supernatural beings, who can transcend mind and dimension. All-seeing, all-knowing, and for some reason interested in humans, these special beings can help with the trickier parts of justice. The Christian god is not only all-knowing, but also all-powerful and all-benevolent, which are the three components of the paradox of the Problem of Evil: how could an omniscient, benevolent, omnipotent being allow atrocities and misery to occur? Responses to this paradox make up the branch of theology known as theodicy. As we will see, many of the worldviews described here exhibit elements of theodicy, even if they are not explicitly religious.

Sometimes supernatural entities take a passive role in human justice, merely observing and perhaps remedying wrongs in the hereafter. But gods can also take an active role, as with the institution of trial by ordeal. Rituals are designed to force the hand (so to speak) of the relevant god, creating a situation where supernatural intervention may be necessary to bring about justice. For instance, the hand of the accused may be submerged in boiling water, giving supernatural being the choice to intervene and heal him (if he is innocent) or ignore him and let his burns fester (if he is guilty). If enough of the population believe this is the case, then the ritual will be effective in deterring injustice, strange and barbaric as it may seem. And (imagined) contact with this higher-level entity is what makes the ritual work. Trial by ordeal survives into modernity in practices such as ritual snake handling and poison drinking in some American protestant churches.

All Is One

Theodicies often resort to dualism, positing some adversary or devil who interferes with the benevolent god’s plans. The next worldview I will discuss is monism, or the expended conception of self. Monism, as David Chapman puts it, is the belief that all is one, that there is no distinction between “self” and “universe.” In this worldview, the self, properly conceived, is revealed to be the kind of supernatural being that can transcend identity and do perfect justice:

If All is One, then there is no boundary, and you are really the entire universe. Typically, monists say that the universe is equivalent to God, so you are actually also God. As you realize everything is totally connected, you develop the ability to affect anything you want…. As a social ideology, monism tends toward totalitarian denial of individuality.

Monism is the hippie worldview, perhaps revealed through long meditation or psychedelic experience. It posits that a proper conception of “self” includes not only one’s private, interior self, contained within one’s own skin, but also everything in the universe. Since it’s boring to be one with everything and have no boundaries (as Alan Watts says, there’s no game in that), our transcendental self has divided itself into the ten thousand things, in order to entertain itself. Some entity – a higher-level “self” or “you” – senses all and knows all, and is capable of perfect justice at every moment.

There is a sort of theodicy going on here, too. Misery, suffering, predation, parasitism, atrocity, etc. are excused, because the “true self” of those involved (the transcendental universe-nature) has freely chosen to play the game. No one is harmed who didn’t sign up for it.

In this worldview, through contact with our transcendental natures, we already do perfect justice, perhaps especially when we are utterly unconscious of trying to do so. “All is one” is approximately the opposite of the “butterfly effect” and Effective Altruism worldviews, in which conscious awareness and analysis of behavior is emphasized, although monism is squirrelly and vague enough to resists things like “opposites.”

The Veil of Ignorance

A surprising innovation by John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) is to use ignorance to do justice, in addition to knowledge. In a thought experiment (distinct from actual belief), Rawls imagines beings in the “original position” who know everything about the world, but are ritually ignorant of what station in life they will occupy within it. They are like people looking down from Heaven waiting to be born; a “veil of ignorance” prevents them from knowing the circumstances of their birth. In Rawls’ model, imagining beings at this higher level helps us resolve questions of fairness.

Ritual ignorance is often used to ensure fairness in games of chance. No one sitting at a poker table knows what his hand will be when he posts his blinds. All players agree on the rules beforehand (if only implicitly); it is procedurally “fair” no matter what hands they end up being dealt. Similarly, beings in the Original Position agree on what is fair before being assigned a place in the world. It’s a similar mechanism to dividing a cake between two people, in which one person divides the cake and the other chooses which half to eat. Since the divider is ritually ignorant of which half he will get, he is incentivized to divide fairly.

While influential, this model still requires supernatural levels of knowledge to be actually useful in the world. For instance, how much inequality should be allowed? Resolving this question requires us to know the outcomes at each level of inequality, and the results of any intervention designed to modify it. However, ritually ignorant supernatural beings could be very useful if they actually existed.


Under communism, the entity responsible for doing justice is the state. The state attempts to become the mechanism for fair distribution, surveilling the needs of people and controlling production. While faith in communism often seems religious in nature, there are no supernatural beings involved. Rather, the communist state must achieve superhuman knowledge through technological means.

As mentioned above, in many biblical religions, the Problem of Evil is resolved in part by the devil: an adversary whose trickery undermines the all-benevolent, all-powerful God. Similarly, in communism, “wreckers” and “kulaks” are posited – evil enemies working to undermine the glorious revolution. Modern socialist equivalents would include evil billionaires, big business, “the 1%,” etc. These evil entities act as gap fillers that explain the failure of the system to achieve just ends.


In democratic forms of government, the will of the people is expressed through voting in elections (and occasionally directly on propositions). No separate, supernatural entity is posited, but the “higher level” of knowledge, power, and caring is thought to be accessed in the aggregate through voting, and perhaps other forms of political participation, such as lobbying. Faith in democracy remains strong, despite evidence that the policies of democracies do not in any meaningful way express the preferences of their people.


Markets are an emergent order; no one being’s knowledge is responsible for the distribution of goods. In this worldview, everyone is made better off by simply allowing consensual exchanges to occur, generally assisted by the technology of money. The “invisible hand” is not posited to be a real entity; rather, it is a personification of the market’s superhuman knowledge, power, and caring. It points to the absence of any particular entity with these powers.

Markets, however, are shaped by fairness norms as much as justice itself. Who may be a market participant? What counts as a promise, and how are promises enforced? What may be bought and sold? In each case the answer is not universal, but negotiated within each society, like every other aspect of justice.

The Butterfly Effect

A nineteenth century theory of radical indeterminacy that was popularized in the middle twentieth century, the “butterfly effect” or “ripple effect” suggests that even the tiniest actions or omissions can have major effects on the world. As with Rawls, ignorance is emphasized, but here it is the impossibility of knowing what outcome a particular action will lead to. While there is no major political or religious movement associated with the butterfly effect, the idea of outsized effects for small actions is prominent in our culture. For instance, California recently contemplated a law that would fine waiters for offering plastic straws that haven’t been requested by diners, on the grounds that plastic straws may end up as litter. Similarly, the theory of microaggressions suggests that even tiny, unconscious actions or words can have major effects on others’ well-being.

Chaos politics is the opposite of monism, I think, because it advocates a position of neurotic overthinking, the opposite of being in flow with the universe. While there is not much evidence that scrupulous attention to plastic straws and greetings improves outcomes, the chaos worldview provides a justification for placing a strong emphasis on seemingly trivial things, allowing symbolism and sacredness free reign.

Effective Altruism

A worldview with some similarities to the chaos underlying the butterfly effect is Effective Altruism. In EA, there is no superhuman being who can advise on justice (at least, not yet). Each individual participant must become the higher level entity, using math and rationality, but also intuition, to do justice. For instance, they may try to discern “low-hanging fruit” (easily solved problems, such as providing mosquito nets to prevent malaria) where their donations will save the most lives.

EA is similar to the butterfly effect worldview, in that particular actions or omissions have high stakes, and evolved human nature on its own, unassisted by conscious rationality, tends to get things wrong. Getting coffee instead of donating the equivalent amount of money to charity may mean that a child somewhere dies. I do not mean to suggest that EAs are neurotic people, any more than that all monist hippies are mellow and one with the universe. This is merely to emphasize the personal cost of the worldview that EAs take on. They must become like gods.


The simulation hypothesis – the idea that we are living in a computer simulation – posits non-supernatural beings on a higher level of reality. They are literally on a higher level looking “down” on us: omniscient in the sense of access to information as the simulation progresses. But no claims are made about their benevolence, power to intervene, or attention. Theoretically, they have all the information the would need to do justice, but they may not be paying attention, and they may not care. This avoids a Problem of Evil, but does not provide much guidance for justice, except perhaps as an intuition pump for thinking about our own simulations and the beings we create.

Social Media

Misha Gurevich acknowledges the way that gods and “higher level” beings support the structures of justice (Gods Actually Exist). And we have a new all-seeing god, he says: we call it the media. If we act unjustly, we may rightly fear being shamed by the all-seeing eye of social media; if we are wronged, social media may help us get revenge or raise funds to become whole again.

But instead of being a centralized entity, it’s a massively distributed network of entities, each with their own values and goals. Punishment is not necessarily proportional to the wrong, nor do remedies necessarily reach the most deserving victims. As with most of the worldviews described here, symbolism often trumps practical justice.

The Justice Mess

I have described some of the ways that people conceive of justice, often using contact with hypothetical beings on a “higher level” to get to the right result. The great diversity of fairness norms among groups and individuals, even in the same culture, complicate the problem of justice beyond its tasks of inferring mental states and predicting alternate universes. A view from above – from a “higher level” outside any particular group’s fairness norms – suggests that justice is a mess, partially and incompletely organized according to conflicting principles.

I think that being able to look down, as if from a higher level, is a large part of the motivation for understanding things, similar to climbing a mountain. It feels powerful and high-status to look down and see others as they can’t see you. But in practice, without supernatural entities, the view from above is necessarily incomplete, messy, and vague.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Hehe you went full political :D Did you see my old post on part of this stuff, The Veil of Scale?

    Did the hippies actually go so far as to concoct a coherent monism out of their dabbling in LSD+Vedanta+Buddhism+native-american-stuff? I am poorly informed on the subject, but I get a sense that the philosophizing part never penetrated very deep, beyond some tendencies to vaguely and whimsically aphorize, like “It’s all connected man”. Perhaps I’m doing them an injustice. I think of them as sort of budget Emersons and Thoreaus.

    I think there’s another aspect to justice fantasies that you touch on with Rawls/veil of ignorance but skip past. You can supernaturalize the *process* itself, rather than the divine *actor* or agency projected onto/behind it. This generally involves attributing divine significance to process elements that confer upon their users an aspect of the divine while in justice roles.

    There is an excellent Hindi short story by Premchand called “God lives in the panch” (panch = panchayat, the five-elders council that traditionally governs an Indian village). Here is a plot summary. In brief, the moral of the story is that god (as in justice) lives in the process and elevates people who occupy judicial roles above any petty personal interests they may have in a case (the story revolves around basically a guy who is appointed to the panch and has to judge a case where he is known to have a conflict of interest but delivers a fair verdict anyway, surprising the defendant who expected to be screwed over).

    I’m guessing things like talking sticks, masks in mask rituals have a similar process-divinity aspect to them. The Huizenga (Homo Ludens) and Johnstone (Impro) accounts of this stuff suggests that in occupying due process roles, an element of solemn play enters both the social situation and the cognition of the formal actors. They act as-if they were gods, to use your terminology, and play-believe it. It’s not a pretense per se but a full inhabiting/channeling effect.

    A good deal of the Meyer/Rowan sense of myth-and-ceremony in orgs is also justice fantasies in this procedural sense.

  2. Great article, especially enjoyed the implications that even without religion humans engage in secular forms of theodicy. I’ve thought a lot about this myself, Zapffe may also have talked about it?

    I think any human equipped with empathy needs to acquire a means of assuaging fears that they live in a world that could be horrifying for others.

    [Also, minor correction: maybe specify the type of communism. I’m no communist but anarcho-communism is a pretty big strain (thus there is no state to guarantee justice, only a community spirit perhaps). It hasn’t been tried as much but it has been tried.]

  3. Justice is a very basic and primitive concept, found in primates and young children who are presumably not guilty of any of these large-scale metaphysical systems of thought. The systems seem like they were invented to try to scale this immediate family-sized sense of fairness and unfairness to larger populations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690609/

    One of the more striking passages in the Genesis is when Abraham calls upon Yahweh to have a sense of justice equal to his status: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (and then bargains with him in very concrete numbers). Now that I think about it, it’s very parallel to a physically weak child using fairness as a tool to manipulate a stronger parent.

  4. Great article!

    When you said “justice is a mess” I got it right away because I am a regular here, but a link back to your earlier article on messes might be good for people who are new.

  5. Weltanschauungskrieg says

    Charles Upton has plenty to say about the flawed metaphysics of the New Age and postmodernity in general in his ‘The System of the AntiChrist’. You guys are way smarter than me so i would love to know what you think about it .

  6. Ravi Daithankar says

    When it comes to justice/injustice, it helps to frame the subject as a Venn diagram and section off the universe of disputes into (at least) 2 sets: One where there the dispute arises out of a relatively narrow objective interest and the other where there is a clash of ideological interests. Justice looks very different between these two sets. Objective interest would be the Judge Judy kind of universe where the ‘facts’ and ‘information’ that has already occurred determine the verdict, which once arrived at, can be ritually dispensed with relative confidence and a bang of the fist. The ideological interest bucket on the other hand contains debates that have devolved into disputes and is therefore infinitely more painful for everyone involved. A decision, if it ever gets to that, is more tentative chin-scratchy than gavel-thumpy.

    The nuance you have presented, while applicable to both sets, is more useful for the ideological/belief-based disputes. The “what should Elon Musk do with his money?” or “where must a nuclear power plant be located?” type of questions.

    One helpful tenet I fall back on when I come across these disputes or debates, is to consider if that dispute (or a suitably-altered equivalent) would occur in the animal kingdom. If it doesn’t, it is a good indication that a ‘real’ resolution is not a possibility at all and you just need to solve for who you’d rather piss off. You can argue this is the Veil of Ignorance approach spun a different way where I put myself in the Original Position, except that it is a corollary of that approach where the Original Position can abundantly see that there is no real just resolution at all. Also, note that this not a cop-out either. It amounts to being able to dispassionately see that there is no justice possible in these situations. It is the ability to distance yourself from the situation (and arguably the physical universe itself) till you see that justice itself is a notion, not an undebunkable fact. If you are trying to resolve something that does not equivalently happen in the non-human animal kingdom, you could basically do nothing at all, and the cumulative amount of grief in the system would still remain the same as it would if you put in the most earnest, justice-seeking shift anyone ever has. That’s my assertion anyway. And which does not in any way mean that we don’t try.

    On first reading, you may be tempted to think this is just another flavor of nihilism and brush it off. But there are subtle yet fundamental differences. The approach may well be rooted in nihilism, but it is self-aware about it and therefore attempts to contain the blind-spots of that worldview systematically. So in the case of a dispute between two positions A and B, where you have 3 outcomes possible, pro A, pro B, and neither A nor B, the nihilistic first principles of the approach only serve to state choice 3 as an acceptable potential outcome, and further tag it as the fallback or the default feasible outcome, in the (likely) event that neither of the first two outcomes can be arrived at without having the losing side incur an authentic sense of ‘grave injustice’.

    In a way, it is the man-in-a-natural-state heuristic applied to ideological standoffs. It is an interesting way to approach a dispute, if you can open your mind to the idea that a resolution does not always have to be a possibility.

    I increasingly think if ‘Shit Happens’ were accepted as an official judicial verdict, we would have found far more peace than we have by now, as a species.

  7. There are two justice”s” I know of.
    One is the jungle’s law — whose theme human societal relations are an extravagant variation on — where might right and truth all are one.

    The other is the Golden Rule.

    The latter classes in the imagined justice group (for people who see many kinds of justice, real or imagined).