Rights & Wrongs

Do you think you’ve been wronged? Is justice necessary?

Many people think this about themselves. Over their entire lives, nearly everyone will think it at least once; for some, it may be close to their most common thought. And for some people, it will be true some of those times!

But the feeling of having been wronged is not the same as having actually been wronged.

Here are some simple steps to take if you feel you’ve been wronged, but you want to check that feeling against the cold light of reality:

  1. Can you point to a single person or allied group of people who have wronged you? If you feel that you’ve been wronged by “society” or by some sub-group of society, such as all those of a particular political persuasion, creed, race, nationality, gender, religion, or sub-cultural group, then just remember – you haven’t! You aren’t that important. Whole swaths of humanity are not arrayed against you. You may not have exactly the life you want and some part of that may be because of those groups, but that’s not the same as them doing you wrong.

    Here’s an example: I could be a rich & famous athlete if it weren’t for… all the people on Earth with more athletic ability than me. If all those people weren’t out there being all athletic and such, then I could be the Olympic Gold Medalist slash Super Bowl MVP that I always dreamed of! But does that mean that the combined group of “good athletes” have somehow wronged me? Of course not. And if there’s no wrong done, then no justice is required. It would be patently absurd for me to say “I deserve to be compensated for my athletic dreams being quashed.” Sometimes the natural flow of how humans behave and interact with each other will have consequences that are less than ideal for me specifically. That’s just life.

    However, if you can point to a specific person or small group, then you at least have the potential of being right about being wronged. So if you can point to a more specific villain, move on.
  2. Okay, so you’ve got a specific person or small group in mind, and you feel as though they’ve wronged you with their actions. Here’s a simple (if not completely flawless) test to do to see if you may be right. Consider the actions taken that wronged you and the timeline over which they happened. Now, pretend that you never existed at all – imagine an alternate world where you simply do not exist and never did. Are the actions of the supposed villain exactly the same? If they are, then you probably weren’t wronged.

    For example: let’s say I’m not mad at “athletes.” I’m mad a specific athlete, who did slightly better than me on some pivotal qualifying event in my youth, knocking me out of the running for a scholarship to an athletic training program that may have been my ticket to stardom. As a result, I feel like this person has wronged me, because they are solely responsible for me not getting that scholarship. But if I apply the “What If I Never Existed” test, I realize… that athlete would have done everything exactly the same. They didn’t gain their good fortune at the expense of mine.

    You can see how the opposite would work: a thief that steals my car would fail this test. If I had never existed, I’d have no car to steal, so the thief’s timeline of actions is altered.

    The long and short is: it’s not impossible, but it’s pretty hard to wrong someone if you never actually interact. But if you have interacted, now you’re getting closer to the possibility that you’ve been wronged. Move on to the next step!
  3. Ask yourself what would your life be like if they never existed. Let’s imagine that the person or group actually did have their events altered if you never existed, meaning we’ve satisfied a few criteria: A.) you’ve interacted with each other enough to have had an effect on outcomes, and B.) your outcome is bad, and likely theirs is good. But is that enough to say you’ve been wronged?

    What if they never existed? How is your life altered? In the case of the athlete, I clearly have a better outcome if they never existed – but since that example didn’t make it past step 2, there’s no wrongdoing to check here in step 3, as much as I might like there to be. What about the car thief, though? If they never existed, I still have a car. So a car thief is a specific person, they clearly had an effect on their outcome because of me, and their effect on my outcome was negative. Strong case for wrongdoing!

    What about a business partner that betrays a handshake deal? Let’s say we enter into an agreement that allows us to each make $10,000/month in a shared venture. After 2 years, he cashes out without telling me, ending our enterprise and making off with $100,000. Has he wronged me?

    Passes Test #1 easily. Passes Test #2 as well – their actions would be different in the timeline where I never existed. But Test #3 is trickier. I don’t want our arrangement to end, because I’m making $10k a month. But I’ve already made $240k that I wouldn’t have! The breach of trust stings (and certainly I’d never do business with this guy again), but if I apply Test #3 and say “where would I be if he never existed,” the answer is that I would be nearly a quarter of a million dollars poorer.

    So let’s say you have a specific person who has negatively affected your outcomes overall, and has done so in a way that wasn’t just a byproduct of their own life, but rather came from them directly interacting with you. Have you been wronged? Do you deserve justice?
  4. Test #4 is the last one. Would preventing what happened to you have required violating important rights – rights that, if violated, would pass tests 1-3?

    You can prevent a thief from stealing a car without restricting any of their rights. They don’t have the right to another person’s stuff, so preventing them from stealing it can be done without violating their own rights. But you can’t prevent a better athlete from beating me in a contest without restricting their right to live their life. You can’t prevent me from being annoyed at the color of my neighbor’s fence without restricting their right to live their life. You can’t even prevent a business partner from doing something you don’t want him to do (by force, that is – it’s perfectly fine to have good contracts) just because you don’t like it.

This series of tests isn’t perfect. There are wrongs that might slip through the cracks here, and there are valid actions that may get caught in them. I am not in any way trying to present some new or even novel way of interpreting natural rights or redesigning a justice system. I am not a great philosopher.

But I do want to make a point. The point is this – probably 99.99% of people who feel wronged have not thought this hard about it.

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