Archive | February 27, 2007

Justice vs. Fairness

I’ve seen the following anecdote in a number of versions of Sidney Morgenbesser’s obituary:

He joined his students in an anti-police demonstration during the 1968 student unrest at Columbia. The police broke it up with a baton charge, and Morgenbesser got hit over the head. The experience led to one of his most quoted but least revealing bons mots.

No, this isn't Boris Karloff, it's actually Sidney Morgenbesser He was asked whether the police had treated him unjustly or unfairly. “Unfairly yes, unjustly no,” he said. “It was unfair to be hit over the head but not unjust since they hit everyone else over the head, too.”

This struck me as just the wrong way around. Equal treatment all around might plausibly be considered fair, but if that treatment involves aggression then it’s certainly unjust.

Anyway, I’m pleased to see that Morgenbesser was misquoted; Gil Harman informs us that Morgenbesser really said the reverse of what the obituaries quoted:

He actually said the opposite: “It was unjust but not unfair. It was unjust for them to hit me over the head, but it was not unfair since they hit everybody else over the head.”

Hooray! Morgenbesser’s honour has been saved.

(Of course I still disagree with Morgenbesser; as I’ve argued elsewhere, aggression can never really be equal treatment, and so injustice in fact always involves unfairness though not necessarily vice versa – so the cops were being unfair in addition to being unjust. But this convicts Morgenbesser only of a subtle mistake, not the gross mistake that the obituaries saddled him with.)

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes