Today I want to talk a little about something closely related to, but different from, fundamental attribution error (FAE). FAE is complicated, but an example will suffice. FAE can be spelled out as “the notion that when I do something bad, it’s because of factors beyond my control, but when you do something bad, it’s because you choose to do so.”
I want to introduce the notion that, when you talk about someone you know, you’re likely to weigh many factors. You’re likely to balance the good, the bad, intentions, outcomes–all of that stuff–and to exercise judgment. If, for example, a friend of mine accidentally injured someone in the course of saving their life (maybe by pushing them out of the way of an oncoming car, but in such a way that their knee was skinned or their clothing torn), I might not even notice the bad aspects. Or I could say, “clearly, he meant well.” Perhaps someone I know has a drug problem, and I excuse it by saying “oh, she’s still dealing with the death of her father.”
Justice, on the other hand, is what we use when we don’t know someone. All we know is what they have done, regardless of circumstances. That’s when we start to armchair quarterback (“he should have pulled her away from the car so that she didn’t hit her head.”) I have a friend with a drug problem, but that guy on the corner? Asshole’s an addict.
Justice and judgment are both ways of making sense of the world, but they proceed very differently.
Today we live in a world where we are constantly exposed to people we don’t know. Social media accelerates this. How many of your “friends” are actually your friends? And so it’s very tempting to pull the justice tool and apply it. And so to hold those we don’t know deeply responsible for their own actions, while those close to us are given a hall pass.
That’s nearly all I have to say, except that justice is a dangerous way to live. If you think you want to live in a society where justice reigns supreme, I suggest that you first visit Shakespeare’s Vienna during the reign of Angelo, in the pages of Measure for Measure.