The Feynman book I'm reading right now (well, as a hoarder of books I reread many of my books - my aippakuluk not knowing I already have the book bought me another copy) raises a very interesting question that as a humanist I've thought often about but couldn't quite articulate or formulate into something that I can think about productively: the question of "fairness" or "equality". This is a very important question to be sure but it doesn't seem to go very far because it is an emotional (or political) issue rather than a material one (where I think it rightfully belongs).
In the chapter entitled, Is Electricity Fire?, Feynman talks about having been invited to an "interdisciplinary" conference and not being about to make heads or tails of it, and about his frustration with the self-same problem I speak of above. Feynman talks about the "obsession" of the conference participants with "the ethics of equality", "the fragmentation of knowledge" and the vague emotional terms in which they try and speak of it. In the end he concludes that these people are just pompous fools who play word-games as if they're talking about meaningful stuff when they actually aren't.
The questions of "fairness" and "justice" is that these concepts must apply equally (at least in theory) to everyone, but not "equally" in the way these pompous fools Feynman talks about cannot accept. The "fragmentation of knowledge" and "ethics of equality" are just subjective words and not actual realities - the same way that unicorns and immortality are just words. In fact, though Feynman doesn't actually say it such terms, these words are words of hegemony and mindless abeyance to the law (ie, not people who actually make decisions) when, in fact, no one has been able to legislate morality and political correctness.
I agree with Feynman in many ways but he doesn't get much into why he thinks these people he speaks of as pompous fools.
I read many years ago now Gregory Bateson (a great thinker in my estimation but sadly someone Feynman would have probably classified as a "pompous fool"). Bateson was the husband of Mead, and a cyberneticist. He wrote this book called, The Ecology of the Mind.
Feynman got me thinking about the question of "equality" and "justice" in a new way, but it relates to the concept of "ecology" that Bateson wrote about. I don't think we can really talk about the notions of "fairness" and "justice" (nor can we avoid the "fragmentation of knowledge" problem) without thinking ecologically or socially in which these subjective terms rightly belong.
Let me clarify: our atmosphere is not just oxygen. In fact, it comprises mostly of nitrogen with a smattering of other useful gases including oxygen. Neither is pure, distilled water very healthy for us because we need those minerals and other matter suspended in water that our bodies need. We need nasty things also to survive and thrive in the environment. It is said of the bubble boy that he died because his immune system was never programmed to survive in our environment.
The notions of "fairness" and "justice" cannot be just theoretically derived; they have to exist and work within an imperfect system which necessitate their existence in the first place. The Kabbalah talks about "might" and "mercy" as requisites for "justice" (whether divine or human) - in fact, the long tradition of Jewish learning and the Talmud spend a good deal of time reflecting upon and struggling with these self-same concepts, for thousands of years.
I read a story once where in the concentration camps God was put on trial by a group of rabbis and Talmudic scholars facing their imminent deaths in the gas chambers. I think in the end they vindicate God because what is life but a gift from Him, and that we cannot be selfish in our deliberations of life which is a rich mixture of both good and evil - it is our freewill to interpret and act as if it were so (ie, our interpretations and actions define who and what we are, not what we think "good" and "evil" are). Labels of good and evil, in other words, are incidental features (so vulnerable to abuse); how we choose to live and act are more fundamental.
These people of great humanity in the face of great darkness chose reasoned interpretation and action over visceral reaction to labels of "good" and "evil" (the very labels imposed upon them and that which brought them to their present predicament). They chose an "ecological" interpretation of life rather than a particular instance of life. Such is the potential for greatness; understated, even small but not disengaged.
The rights to life, liberty and happiness (ie, thriving) in the American constitution are not guaranteed to be equally distributed though human life (and right to dignity) is created equal. Society cannot exist as one amorphous, hegemonous blob of physicists (or lawyers, or doctors, or welfare recipients or anything). We need all the strata and mixture to make society work. The question of equality is meaningless without the agglomerated, imperfect society in which it should exist - whether it is a just and enlightened society or one of mindless darwinian vision are human choices made by human minds. A life lived well is a life examined deliberately (ie, not dictated nor imposed upon us). This is the difference between ideals and principles.