Taking the Scales of Justice Seriously as a Model for Sustainable Political Economies

We all take standards of measurement for granted as background assumptions that we never have to think about. But as technical, mundane, and boring as these standards are, they define our systems of fair dealing and just relations. The image of blind justice holding a balance scale is a universal ideal being compromised in multiple ways by chaotic forces in today’s complicated world arena.

Even so, astoundingly little effort is being invested in systematically exploring how the scales of justice might be more meaningfully and resiliently embedded within our social, economic, educational, health care, and political institutions. This well may be because the idea that people’s abilities, behaviors, and knowledge could be precisely weighed on a scale, like fruit in a grocery store, seems outrageously immoral, opening the door to treating people like commodities to be bought and sold. And even if the political will for such measures could be found, the regulatory enforcement of legally binding contracts and accounting standards appears so implausibly complicated as to make the whole matter not worth any serious consideration at all.

On the face of it, a literal application of the scales of justice to human affairs echoes ideas discredited so thoroughly and for so long that bringing them up in the here and now seems utterly ridiculous, at least, and perhaps truly dangerous, with no possible result except the crushing reduction of human beings to cogs in a soulless machine.

But what if there is some basic way in which measurement is misunderstood when it is taken to mean people will be treated like mass produced commodities for sale? What if we could measure, legally own, invest in, and profit from our literacy, health, and trustworthiness, in the same way we do with property and material things? What if precision measurement was not a tool for oppressive manipulation but a means of obtaining, sharing, and communicating valuable information? What if local contextual situations can be allowed a latitude of variation that does not negatively compromise navigable continuity?

Circumstances are conspiring to take humanity in new directions. Complex new necessities are nurturing the conception and birth of new innovations. A wealth of diverse possibilities for adaptive experimentation proposed in the past–sometimes the distant past–are finding new life in today’s technological context. And science has changed a lot in the last 100 years. In fact, the public is largely unaware that the old paradigm of mechanical reduction has been completely demolished and replaced with a new paradigm of organic emergence and complex adaptive systems. Even Newtonian mechanics and the basic number theory of arithmetic have had to be reworked. It is also true that very few experts have thought through what the demise of the mechanical root metaphor, and the birth of an organic ecosystem metaphor, means philosophically, socially, historically, and culturally.

Bottom-up manifestations of repeating patterns that can be scaled, measured, quantified, and explained open up a wide array of new opportunities for learning from shared experiences. And, just as humanity has long understood about music, we know now how to contextualize group and individual assessment and survey response patterns in ways that let everyone be what they are, uniquely improvising playful creative performances expressed using high tech instruments tuned to shared standards. A huge amount of conceptual and practical work needs to be done, but there are multiple historical precedents suggesting that betting against human ingenuity would be a losing wager.

Two new projects I’m involved in concerning sustainability impact investing and a metrology center for categorical measures begin a new exploration of the consequences of this paradigm shift for our image of the scales of justice as representing a moral imperative. These projects ask whether more complex combinations of mathematics, experiment, technology, and theory can be overtly conceived and implemented in terms of participatory and democratic social and cognitive ecosystems. If so, we may then find our way to new standards of measurement, new languages, and new forms of social organization sufficient to redefining what we take for granted as satisfying our shared sense of fair dealing and just relations.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
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