virus: Reinventing the Justice meme

David McFadzean (
Sun, 07 Jul 1996 18:36:33 -0600

The concept of justice can be defined in terms of game theory:
at each point in the game a player decides what do based on their
current goals and model of the situation. For instance a bird
might have to decide whether to forage for food, or hang around
and guard the nest. A bear involved in a territorial dispute has
to decide whether to acquiesce or fight on in its wounded state.
A wife has to decide whether to stay in an abusive relationship
or take the children and try to fend for herself with limited

In each of these cases, making a good decision doesn't necessarily
imply that there will be a good outcome. Conversely making a bad
decision doesn't mean a bad outcome either. Maybe the bird leaves
the nest because it has no reason to believe there were predators
nearby, but a raccoon just happens to wander by at the right time
(for the raccoon). Or maybe the bear decides to keep fighting even
though the odds are for the bigger bear, but wins the fight due
to some lucky bite. I claim that these cases are what we call
an injustice. In fact there are four possible outcomes:

Good decision, good outcome: Justice.
Good decision, bad outcome: Injustice (tragic)
Bad decision, bad outcome: Justice (poetic).
Bad decision, good outcome: Injustice (indignant anger)

We have to acknowledge that reality is unjust. It doesn't care
one way or the other what our intentions are. The entire biosphere
of planet Earth could be wiped out by a local supernova through
no fault of our own and the universe wouldn't shed a tear.

Yet we who are infected by the justice meme should behave
to control events such that justice is done to the best of
our abilities. It provides the grounds for morality, and for
choosing our friends and foes. For the purposes of drawing
the lines, it doesn't matter whether the foes are evil,
ignorant, sociopathic or non-sentient, they must all be
treated as unjust. (Of course if they are sentient and
ignorant or sociopathic, you may want to attempt to educate
them or treat them before resorting to incarceration or

Imagine humans encounter an alien civilization. There are going
to be some very tough decisions made in short order: do we
attack first, or try to see if we can be friends and risk
annihilation? If the civilizations share the Justice meme, the
first thing they should do is try to establish that fact.
Sort of like co-operating on the first move of an iterated
Prisoners' Dilemma. If we have good reason to believe that
they don't share the Justice meme, we will have to try to
destroy them or flee because we can't be friends. How could
we accomplish this? First we would have to establish a
common basis for game theory, perhaps building up from logic,
to math, to probability theory, to decision theory. Then we
could set up a situation where a player in a game makes a
clearly good decision, but is destroyed in the end. Now we
ask the aliens how that story makes them feel. If they say
"sad" (and we have good reason to believe they understood
the question and aren't lying, both problematic in their
own rights) then we know they believe in justice and there
is potential for a mutually beneficial friendship. Otherwise,
shields on full and arm photon torpedoes.

The purpose of the alien encounter scenario is to illustrate
how the Justice meme can be used to negotiate between societies
without bringing in the complexities of rival human societies
with their respective histories, past grievances, diverse
membership, etc., etc. (though I suppose there is no reason
why the alien encounter isn't possible). The truth is real
situations are much more complex, societies aren't entirely
Just or Unjust but somewhere in between (fuzzy justice?).
And what constitutes a good or bad decision or outcome depends
on a combination of subjective and objective criteria, making
situations outside of abstract thought experiments very complex.
Nevertheless it is a starting point and, I think, worth pursuing.

[* Thanks to Sean Morgan and Ken Kittlitz for discussions
contributing to the ideas presented in this message.]

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Church of Virus