My friend and colleague at GMU, Nathan Goodman, writes the following on Facebook (link added):
"To remain neutral in situations of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice."-Desmond Tutu
Nine years ago today I thought this was correct. Today, I am not so sure. After all, people have limited knowledge and may in many cases be unable to choose an action that is effective at combatting injustice. The unintended consequences of their actions may generate new injustices. Neutrality may therefore often be the best available option in a complex world. See also Michael Huemer's paper "In Praise of Passivity."
That said, I don't reject Tutu's statement here entirely. It is a useful rhetorical device to induce participation in social movements. This is important, given that the end of an injustice is non-excludable and therefore there is an incentive to free ride on the activism of others. Moreover, in some cases, Tutu's comments may be not just useful but true. There may be no option for neutral action. For instance, if the perpetrator of an injustice is a state you live under, then you are financing the injustice by paying your taxes. Absent other choices taken to combat the injustice, your impact on the injustice is not neutral.
I wish to expand on Nathan’s first point regarding the knowledge problem and justice.
Archbishop Tutu’s quote is Ciceroian in its origins. In De Officiis, Marcus Tullius Cicero writes:
But there are also two kinds of injustice: first, the injustice of those who inflict injury; second, those who, although able, do not repel injury from those upon whom it is being inflicted. For he who unjustly attacks another, whether he is incited either by anger or by some other perturbation, that person, as it were, seems to raise his hand against an ally. And he who, although able, neither defends against nor opposes the injury done to another, that person is as vicious as if he had abandoned his parents, friends, or country.
De Officiis 1.23, pg 31 (Newton Translation)
However, to Nathan’s point above, Cicero goes on to say:
[B]ecause we perceive and feel those things that turn out either well or adverse for ourselves more than those for others, we see the latter as if from a far distance, and judge them differently from our own. Consequently, such people advise well who forbid any action in which you may doubt whether it is equitable or inequitable. For equity is conspicuous in itself; doubt signifies the contemplation of injury.
1.30, pg 33
The intervention upon an injustice may, given our self-knowledge, be misguided. The prescription to intervene in the name of justice laid out by Cicero (and perhaps, consequently, by Tutu) is more nuanced and guided by our limited knowledge. Indeed, Cicero seems to urge caution in matters of justice.
Cicero distinguishes between two kinds of justice. While Cicero doesn’t name these two kinds of justice, preferring to simply call them “one kind” or “the other,” they are very similar to the kinds of justice Adam Smith lays out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: communitive justice (simply put, not messing with other people’s stuff) and distributive justice (simply put, making a becoming use of your resources) (see TMS, in particular pages 269-270.10). We cause injustice, according to the Cicero quote above, when we cause harm to another person (violation of communitive justice) or we fail to prevent an injustice from occurring if it is within our power. Cicero seems to treat the rules of this first kind of justice as “precise and accurate” like Smith does and the rules of this second kind as “loose, vague, and indeterminate”, again like Smith. To commit a violation of the first kind of justice is pretty straightforward: inflict injury (or cause “real harm” to use Smith’s phrasing). Violations of the second kind of justice are more vague and depend on one’s knowledge, one’s abilities, one’s personal circumstances, and the good of the community as a whole (see 1.27-33, pgs. 32-35). The Tutu quote that Nathan provides gives the impression that the second form of justice has precision in its rules, which is not necessarily the case (it’s possible, indeed even probable, that Tutu realized this subtlety and, in a greater context, acknowledges and discusses it).
Knowledge, temperance, and propriety do need to play a role in our actions. As with any virtue, it is possible to take it too far and become a vice. Justice burns hotly within the soul of every person; injustice inflames passions and makes us feel that extreme passion known as resentment. Resentment can be strong (how many people call for the head of a murderer?). And it’s all the more reason to intervene in the name of justice carefully. Our own perceptions and world views color our view and what may seem like an injustice may actually be not. Intervention in these grey cases may actually be the injustice.