The Justice-Morality Matrix

There’s a lot of discussion about whether particular policies or outcomes are just or moral.  Often the terms are used synonymously or never really defined or distinguished.

I have written about what I see as crucial and fundamental differences between justice and morality in this post.  I claim that justice is public and subjective – an emergent phenomena to deal with conflict and coordinate peace – while morality is private and objective – and internal compass to deal with self-regulation and coordinate peace of mind.

“Justice is about living with other people, while morality is about living with yourself.  Justice is about right relation to others as measured against the mores of society, while morality is about right relation to right itself, as measured against your own beliefs”

To further illustrate what I mean by this, here’s a matrix showing four actions and where they might stand in relation to justice and morality:

Justice-Morality Matrix (1)

Just-Moral is pretty easy to accept and needs little clarification.  No parties are harmed and the actor feels no guilt.  We’re assuming this action was not in violation to any belief or commitment to abstain from boat-buying on the part of the buyer.

Just-Immoral depends more on your own beliefs about right and wrong, but regardless of belief systems or acceptance/rejection of any divine or natural morality, all humans have a sense of guilt.  The just-immoral quadrant is for those actions that cause no one else any harm, but harm the actor by giving him/her a sense of guilt and wrongdoing, regardless of its origin.  The point is that the act feels wrong to the actor, and they in fact believe it to be wrong.

Moral-Unjust is when an act clearly causes harm to someone even though the actor feels complete confidence it was the right thing to do.  Justice, in service to maintaining cooperation and peace, might demand recompense, but no guilty feelings are associated with the action.  Third parties observing may be inspired by the morality of the action, but to conflate that with justice is unfair to the harmed party.

Immoral-Unjust is pretty easy as well.  A party was wronged and the actor violated conscience or belief in right/wrong.

These examples may be flawed, but I think the fact that justice and morality are not the same thing is incredibly important.  When they become conflated, and far worse when either become conflated with government edict, moral atrocities and grave injustices unfold on small and large scales.

The key for both is an open, spontaneous, evolving system of give and take – a market for norms and institutions – rather than a tightly defined universal and centralized enforcement.  Common law and basic manners are good examples of this, whereas criminal law and legislation are the opposite.

A Few Insights on Institutions and Sports

One of the reasons I love sports is the opportunity they provide to see how formal and informal institutions and norms interact to create outcomes, often surprising.  When athletics and economic thinking intersect, I’m a happy man.

An excellent article on Grantland by Brian Phillips got me thinking again about the incentives in college basketball.  Small changes in formal rules and small changes in the informal enforcement of those rules can lead to pretty big consequences.  In the case of college basketball it’s resulted in a far more painful viewing experience.  Watch some of the tournament games this year and you’ll see what I mean.  Basketball is a game of runs and big emotional momentum swings over a series of plays.  Yet instead of fast paced scoring streaks I’ve mostly witnessed a baseball-like process of a play or two followed by long pauses for TV or coaches timeouts or free-throws, followed by another play or two.

There are several possible changes that could improve the experience.  Economists Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton in their phenomenal book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers discuss the origin of the shot clock.  The game was in a similar place.  The best teams were known to get a small lead and then pass the ball for several minutes at a time to run out the clock.  A sensible strategy but a horrible spectator sport.  The introduction of the shot clock dramatically improved the experience.

The shot clock is an example of a new formal rule.  Mike Munger and Russ Roberts talk about not just formal but informal rules and norms in sports in one of my favorite EconTalk episodes.  We tend to assume the order around us, in the world as in sports, is the result of formal rules and enforcement, but more often there is a far more powerful substrate of informal norms and expectations with their own unique enforcement mechanisms.  Fights in hockey, or fake fights in baseball are great examples, as is the social approbation faced by teams who run up the score at the end of an inevitable victory in football, or those who continue to foul the opposing team when trailing by double-digits in the waning seconds of a basketball game.

What I like about the Grantland article is that it touches on formal and informal institutions in its analysis of what’s happening to college basketball.  It’s not only the number of timeouts allowed and the defensive rules (formal), it’s also the way refs choose to call fouls and coaches choose to reign in improvisation by players (informal).  The article went further than this.  It had some profound insight into something even more fundamental than formal and informal institutions.  It touched on the beliefs of fans, players, coaches, officials, and everyone involved.  It’s not only the rules written on paper, or the unwritten rules in our heads that create these outcomes.  The beliefs we have about the game and the rules create the context within which all these institutions must operate.  Beliefs are the ultimate binding constraint on what kind of institutions can exist.

In the case of college basketball, Phillips argues that we all know deep down it’s a professional affair the goal of which is entertainment, yet none of us wants to admit this to ourselves or publicly.  We wrap it in the cloak of character building, preparation for life, team-work, and a lot of old-timey notions about young men getting exercise for their bodies to compliment the mental exercise of a college education.  It’s not that sports don’t do these things or offer no life lessons.  Far from it.  It’s that the primary goal of sports is to make money like any other enterprise, and in our society the great lie we all pretend to believe is that self-interest is inferior to altruism as a motive (even though the beneficial outcomes of self-interested behavior far exceed all the altruism in human history).  We have to keep up the fiction that college athletics is not primarily a moneymaking entertainment enterprise.

Lots to think about on this topic, but I think the insights about the role of our beliefs (and the contradictory nature of our stated vs. revealed preferences) in shaping institutions which shape incentives which result in outcomes is powerful.  For the future of sports and society as a whole.