Last week we looked at two questions: 1) Why have standards? and 2) What are standards? We discovered that we have standards so that everybody knows what everybody else is talking about or dealing with, and a standard is something established or correct, a way of determining if something measures up (or down) to a pre-determined, objective amount, quantity, degree . . . whatever — it’s something that’s the same for everyone, and it stays that way. Establishing and maintaining standards is so important that most nations delegate the power to set and enforce standards to the State.
Standards are so important that sometimes they are enforced rather . . . harshly. Take, for instance, Henry I who during Christmas of 1124 called all the “moneyers” (mint masters) in England to court at Winchester for “the trial of the pyx,” i.e., for an audit to see if the coins they were issuing were of full weight. For a first offense in issuing underweight coin the culprit had his right hand cut off. For a second offense, he was hanged.
From ancient times the State sent inspectors to market to ensure that customers were getting full weight and measure. The “baker’s dozen” of thirteen was a way bakers had of ensuring that they gave full weight. A customer ordered twelve, but the baker would throw in one extra to be absolutely certain the customer wasn’t given short weight.
Establishing and maintaining standards involves all three primary forms of justice: 1) distributive, 2) commutative, and 3) social.
Distributive justice is the justice that regulates relations of the whole and the parts. In legalese, distributive justice observes a just proportion and comparison.
With respect to standards, that means that whatever the standard is, the basic unit is the same for everyone in the group — otherwise, determining a just proportion or comparison would be impossible. If A has 10 units of something, and B has 5 units of the same thing, does B really have half of what A has if they are not using the same standard unit? Of course not.
With respect to an actual distribution, if A is due 10 units, and B is due 5 units, is it truly just if when the distribution is made to B the units are worth two or three times what they were when A got his 10? Of course not.
Commutative justice is also called “strict justice,” the justice that governs contracts. In legalese, commutative justice “consists in rendering to every man the exact measure of his dues.”
Thus, in a sense, commutative justice reiterates the demand under distributive justice for a standard. Where distributive justice compares A and B, and determines that A is due 10 where B is due 5, commutative justice says that A is due 10 and gets 10 that are worth 10, while B is due 5 and gets 5 that are worth 5.
In a simpler transaction, where A is buying something from B, distributive justice determines what the price of that something is through the working of the market. Commutative justice makes certain that if the price is 10, A hands over 10 to B — and that the 10 units A hands over are to the same standard under which the price B charged was determined. You don’t buy something priced as $10 U.S. for $10 Hong Kong.
What happens, however, if distributive justice, commutative justice, or both, aren’t working? For example, if A is due 10, but gets 5, or buys something from B priced in U.S. dollars, but pays in Hong Kong dollars? In other words, what is the proper course of action when individual justice isn’t working?
Some people say that social justice consists of forcing people to do what’s right, or otherwise making up for the failure of individual justice. That isn’t even close.
Social justice says that when institutions — such as standards — are flawed, then people get organized and restructure the institution so that standards are once again in place.
For example, if there are people who pay for goods priced in U.S. dollars with Hong Kong dollars, people organize and refuse as a group to accept Hong Kong dollars. If some people try to use 18-inch yards, people organize and agree only to use 36-inch yards.