Obviously most philosophers (and lay people) would consider injustice morally wrong^, but does it debase the meaning of everyone's life, just the beneficiary, just those that lose out or no-one's?

I'd guess that those that thrive from injustice (e.g. vastly unfair distributions of wealth, opportunity and happiness, heinous evil that is allowed to go unchecked) have somehow less meaningful and significant lives than we might suspect.

Maybe this is why punishment is not usually thought of as sadistic, though I don't want to mean the will to punish, more like a need for fairness.

^ if you can find any philosopher who argues that injustice is not at least usually wrong, I would be amazed, though of course moral error theorists would claim that every moral claim is just as mistaken and there is nothing that is morally wrong (or right)

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 9, 2023 at 16:38
  • What do you mean by meaningful? And what, for you, would it mean to say Alice’s life is less meaningful today than it was a year ago or Alice’s life is less meaningful than John’s? Sep 10, 2023 at 14:14

4 Answers 4


This is the central topic of Plato's Republic, the frame story of which is when Socrates is challenged to explain why it is better to be an unfortunate good person than a lucky, successful and respected bad person. The upshot of Socrates' argument is that the bad person is tortured by their own vices--they are worse off than the unfortunate good person because they cannot escape slavery to their own worst habits and instincts.

In the Platonic framework, it's possible for an entire society to move away from or towards a better, more meaningful state of being. Life in an unjust society is worse for everyone, even its seeming beneficiaries.

  • yeah i agree, and while moral nihilism is a fun game for some, it is also perverse etc. for many
    – user67675
    Sep 9, 2023 at 14:07

There's a lot of practical research on fairness. There's a good summary review in a recent Economics Cooperation & Inequality episode of the Mindscape podcast.

The research behind Moral Foundations Theory, suggests there is a cross-cultural evolutionary-based drive for fairness, which we can relate to core moral foundations or intuitions which enable us to live cooperatively. That cooperative living has let us create culture, which has many powers, one and f which unfortunately is overiding demans for fairness.

Anthropologist David Graeber makes the case there is a fundamental difference between situations where populations are below ecologucal carrying capacity, vs at or above it, in this lecture: Indigenous Societies' Perspectives on the Modern State.

I'd interpret the emergence of morality as related to game theory, and the development of cultural mechanisms to maintain unstable equilibriums vs a race-to-the-bottom and a stable lose-lose equilibrium, like say a tragedy-of-the-commons. Discussed here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

Our moral reasoning though, our defining of Ought rather than just mutual contention, I argue has to be related to intersubjectivity, in this answer: Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)

I'd argue that really the defining strength of humans, is in our capacity to cooperate, in accumulating and sharing knowledge, and actions (I heard recently there is now more weight of concrete on Earth than the entire biomass... 😅). Unfairness, and people not facing justice, weaken social bobds, and capacity to cooperate. Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Civilisations, makes the case that when these occasions have happened in human history, it's because expanding challenges usually driven or exacerbated by resource depletion, meet weakened or eroding social bonds, that undermine the needed ability to cooperate in facing the challenge. That's the ultimate risk, 'rapid simplification' and dramatic population loss, that we consider to mark civilisational collapse. We certainly know climate change is going to present unprecedented challenges, and I'd say our readiness to meet the challenges is certainly not increasing at a rate to match. It's already inevitable that around a third of Florida including Miami, and large chunks of London and New York will at least temporarily dissappear under floods before the turn of the next century. And regarding the many flooded coastal cities and unlivably hot and humid ones with a continental-climate, we are unlikely to cope even peacefully never mind fairly with the refugees. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as described in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is a clear reminder what can go wrong, and to frustrate our widespread urge to help each other in troubled times.

The interaction between specific instances of people getting away with grievous immorality or injustie, and the undermining of social norms, is complex. I got thinking hiw the story of Sisyphus, and Midas, among others in Ancient Greek Mythology, seem to be about these absolute monarchs committing crimes and 'getting away with it', but having that turned into a story of after-life or cosmic justice. The process of hunting down Nazi leaders that escaped after WW2, and the story-telling trope of that, bears comparison. Donald Hoffman argues in Do We See Reality As It Is, that we can expect some systemic distortions in our perceptions, because they serve our wellbeing. I suggest a sense that there is cosmic justice is one such, and that's why we find it in almost every culture in the world. The greatest injustice a violator can perpetrate, is to make us stop believing in justice. It is not just a hope, it is a need, with social cohesion at risk if we lose it. There's a quote out there that societies rapidly fall apart when there's no food, and when there's no trust, but the loss of trust is worse.

Foucault is very interesting on the morality of punishment, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. It' s a shirt, very readable, thought provoking book, that I heartily recommend.


An old Poet around the 13th century wrote a long poem about human cognitive dissonance, and attempted to display a sense of unity for his readers. He elaborated with a sense of distinction that allows even a toddler to understand that subjectivity of this topic. (At least in the surface level of the poem.) There plenty of critics that can break it down further in a spiritual and theological sense. This is clearly not answer I came up with. I am referencing a famous poet as I find his explanation to be poetic.(Pun intended)

I am displaying a portion of the poem that is transferable as answer.

 Human beings are members of a whole,
 In creation of one essence and soul.
 If one member is afflicted with pain,
 Other members uneasy will remain.
 If you've no sympathy for human pain,
 The name of human you cannot retain!

-- Saadi Shirazi

Sense you have a empathy for animals, this should not be hard to grasp.

P.S> If requested i can go in some depth of the poem.

-to break down at least one word out of this piece, "member" can be interpreted as a "limb of body".


There is nothing to suggest that a person who profits from injustice has any less meaning in their life than someone who does not profit from injustice.

The proposition that someone who profits from injustice has a less meaningful life requires that some correlation is drawn from such profit and from lack of meaning. But - if it is agreed that meaning is subjective - it is clear that a person's sense of meaning need not correspond to one's source of profit at all.

Millions if not billions of people profit from injustice via the relatively luxurious lifestyles that is afforded by the ability to purchase cheap items produced by those working for inadequate wages in bad conditions. Yet to suggest that these beneficiaries have a less meaningful life is to claim some insight into their sense of meaning which is at the least unobvious and unsubstantiated.

A person who works for a charity, for example; a person who works for minimum wage for a 'worthy' cause, may still benefit from the economic injustices which allow that person to buy good quality five-dollar tee-shirts at the expense of factory workers who rarely see the light of day. Such a person may derive significant meaning from the nature of their work and give little if any thought to the injustice enabling their purchase of clothing.

Regardless of whether or not a person works for what some might deem a 'worthy' cause, meaning can be derived from any manner of activity, much of which is not anchored in any morally relevant purpose. The person who runs a sweatshop might derive immense meaning from watching their football team play each week. Whether or not this injustice is offensive according to some moral frameworks does not alter that fact that such meaning exists.

Also, there is of course meaning to be derived from injustice itself. Injustice is ripe with 'meaning'. A person who acknowledges the privileges they reap at the expense of others is deriving meaning from such injustice. It imbues their life with a sense of the very injustice that this question suggests might be absent because of such injustice.

  • what do you mean by subjective, anything goes? i absolutely disagree with that.
    – user67675
    Sep 9, 2023 at 16:14
  • I don't understand your question. Sep 9, 2023 at 16:14
  • "if it is agreed that meaning is subjective" what do you mean by 'subjective' here, that if i take meaning from torturing animals (or owning slaves), and do so a lot, my life is extremely meaningful?
    – user67675
    Sep 9, 2023 at 16:15
  • It may be, depending upon what you find meaningful. If you are a sadist for example, you might derive great meaning from causing others to suffer. If you are a pacifist, and you eat meat when you can afford vegetarian/vegan alternatives you may suffer from the meaning caused by this cognitive dissonance. Sep 9, 2023 at 16:18
  • 1
    No nuisance :). Sep 9, 2023 at 16:40

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