Stephen Fry Narrates 4 Philosophy Animations On the Question: How to Create a Just Society?

How do we cre­ate a just soci­ety? 50,000 years or so at it and human­i­ty still has a long way to go before fig­ur­ing that out, though not for lack of try­ing. The four ani­mat­ed videos of “What Is Jus­tice?”—a minis­eries with­in BBC Radio 4 and the Open Uni­ver­si­ty’s larg­er project of ani­mat­ing the ideas of philoso­phers through­out his­to­ry and explain­ing them in the voic­es of var­i­ous famous nar­ra­tors—tell us what John Rawls, Hen­ry David Thore­au, and the Bible, among oth­er sources, have to say on the sub­ject of jus­tice. Stephen Fry pro­vides the voice this time as the videos illus­trate the nature of these ideas, as well as their com­pli­ca­tions, before our eyes.

Imag­ine you had to cre­ate a just soci­ety your­self, but “you won’t know what kind of a per­son you’ll be in the soci­ety you design.” This thought exper­i­ment, first described by Rawls in his 1971 book A The­o­ry of Jus­tice as the “veil of igno­rance,” sup­pos­ed­ly encour­ages the cre­ation of “a much fair­er soci­ety than we now have. There would be exten­sive free­dom and equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty. But there would­n’t be extremes of high pay, unless it could be shown that the poor­est in soci­ety direct­ly ben­e­fit­ed as a result.” An intrigu­ing idea, but one eas­i­er artic­u­lat­ed than agreed upon, let alone real­ized.

Much ear­li­er in his­to­ry, you find the sim­pler prin­ci­ple of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” an “ancient form of pun­ish­ment known as lex tal­io­n­is, or the law of retal­i­a­tion.” Any read­er of the Bible will have a strong sense of this idea’s impor­tance in the ancient world, though we’d do well to remem­ber that back then, it “was a way of encour­ag­ing a sense of pro­por­tion — not wip­ing out a whole com­mu­ni­ty in retal­i­a­tion for the killing of one man, for exam­ple.” While harsh pun­ish­ment could, in the­o­ry, deter poten­tial crim­i­nals, “severe legal vio­lence can cre­ate mar­tyrs and increase soci­ety’s prob­lems.” The rule of law, nat­u­ral­ly, has every­thing to do with the cre­ation and main­te­nance of a just soci­ety, though not every law fur­thers the cause.

But you’ve no doubt heard of one that has: habeas cor­pus, the legal prin­ci­ple man­dat­ing that “no one, not even the pres­i­dent, monarch, or any­one else in pow­er, can detain some­one ille­gal­ly.” Instead, “they need to bring the detainee in ques­tion before a court and allow that court to deter­mine whether or not this per­son can legal­ly be held.” Yet not every author­i­ty has con­sis­tent­ly imple­ment­ed or upheld habeas cor­pus or oth­er jus­tice-ensur­ing laws. At times like those, accord­ing to Thore­au, you must engage in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence: “fol­low your con­science and break the law on moral grounds rather than be a cog in an unjust sys­tem.” It’s a dirty job, cre­at­ing a just soci­ety, and will remain so for the fore­see­able future. And though we may not all have giv­en it as much thought as a Rawls or a Thore­au, we’ve all got a role to play in it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A The­o­ry of Jus­tice, the Musi­cal Imag­ines Philoso­pher John Rawls as a Time-Trav­el­ing Adven­tur­er

Jus­tice: Putting a Price Tag on Life & How to Mea­sure Plea­sure

Free: Lis­ten to John Rawls’ Course on “Mod­ern Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy” (Record­ed at Har­vard, 1984)

47 Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the His­to­ry of Ideas: From Aris­to­tle to Sartre

What is the Self? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry on Sartre, Descartes & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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