Gabriel Marcel on Justice

The volume Searchings (Newman Press, 1967) is a set of essays originally delivered as speeches by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). The first topic deals with justice, in which the author explains the paradox at work in any set of economic demands. It could come straight out of Henry Hazlitt. Although not a libertarian, Marcel is well aware of the nature of trade-offs in social transactions:

[A] group of workers demands higher wages, giving as its reason the higher cost of living. Offhand we would agree that the workers’ demands are justified. Still… granting them would only lead to renewed demands that would eventually damage the general economy of the country…

This is the hazard of special interest group dynamics: “isolated demands are not necessarily prompted by love or concern for genuine justice; they rather arise from a host of assorted interests…. But because everyone judges his own isolated case, there is, in effect, no judgment at all.” So why not defer these issues to some central planning power? That is the answer of socialism. But Marcel admits that even as a young man he developed an “innate horror of… popular uprisings” while studying the French Revolution. As a result, socialism “did not appeal to me” and Communism appeared to be “a form of Neo-Koranism” (e.g., a harshly dogmatic political faith).

All utopian systems “confuse transcendence with humanity in its totality,” when they speak in vague and lofty terms of the “masses,” “humanity” or “the people” as the source of authority. Marcel chides them for invoking mandates based on a social uniformity or perfection that does not exist. So, to return to the question of conflicting notions of “justice,” he discountenances the idea that government officials can do a better job of establishing political equity either.

The Catholic Marcel was an existentialist and indeed one of the first philosophers in that school, even before it became popularized by more famous French thinkers like Sartre and Camus, who were known for their leftist sympathies. What makes the above statements all the more interesting is that Marcel was not a “reactionary” of the European right nor was he quite a conservative in the Burkean free market Anglo-American sense. Yet, like another important French thinker, Raymond Aron (an agnostic existentialist also wary of Marxism), he had a fundamentally empiricist quality that would propound common sense boldly and simply based on life experience.

Marcel is also outspoken in his comments on the idea of “universal suffrage.” He remarks that allowing a drunkard or an illiterate the same right to vote as a doctor or professor is, strictly speaking, unfair. Finally I like his response to advocates of moral equivalency during the Cold War. While admitting that there are evils at work in the West, he points out that at least we are free to expose certain lies in our system with the hope of eventual reform. By contrast “in the East European countries, the lie has become law, [and] all such hope is vain.”

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