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Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

6. From Self-Interest to Community



Self-interest: a concern for one’s own interest or advantage, without regard for the impact on others. Self-interest depends on a belief in separation, a dualistic worldview.

Community: a shared sense of connection grounded in the belief that the whole is undivided, that humans share one humanity and all are connected; living out of one’s values as a way of being with others, regardless of the context.

A Note About Separation and Connection

Self-interest and community are dependent on two distinct underlying beliefs: separation and connection—the belief that we are all separate, or alternatively, that we are all connected. Not only are these beliefs mutually exclusive, they are different in another significant way: connection is supported by evidence but separation is easily demonstrated to be untrue.

For example, while U.S. culture is known for its celebration of individualism—a belief that implicitly minimizes our interconnectedness—the functional value of this belief requires that it be a shared belief. For the celebration of individualism to be important, its usefulness depends on connection. Indeed, thinking individualism and separation are real supports the dualistic system only so long as it is one of our most widely shared beliefs—an internal contradiction that demonstrates that our fundamental nature is connection.

“Without the human community, one single human being cannot survive.” Dalai Lama

Punitive Justice and Self-Interest

According to Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christi, in his famous treatise called “Conflicts as Property,” the criminal justice system is an institution designed to serve the self-interest of those who control it. Notably, it is not the self-interest of those involved in or impacted by the crime that it serves. Christie asserts that the criminal law seizes ownership of conflicts from the parties in the conflict and conveys it to the lawyers, judges, criminologists, and others who make a living off of the conflicts of others that they come to own and control.[1]

In Christi’s argument that our criminal courts are set up to serve the interests of the professionals who run them, he describes lawyers as particularly good at stealing conflicts,[2] and criminologists as one of the forces that have reduced the victim to a nonentity and the offender to a thing.[3]

Michel Foucault wrote an assessment of the criminal justice system that is equally disconcerting. In his book, “Discipline and Punishment: the Birth of the Prison,” he states that the criminal system gives free rein to some, puts pressure on others, excludes a particular section, makes another useful, neutralizes certain individuals and profits from others.

He writes: “In short, penality does not simply ‘check’ illegalities; it ‘differentiates’ them, it provides them with a general ‘economy’. And, if one can speak of justice, it is not only because the law itself or the way of applying it serves the interests of a class, it is also because the differential administration of illegalities through the mediation of penality forms part of those mechanisms of domination.”[4]

Foucault, in essence, argues that the punitive justice system is not merely flawed, as many believe, it is inherently corrupt because of the extent to which self-interest prevails. He describes corruption as cleverly making the system work for those in control because the corruption is so integral to the system that it is not seen by those who believe the myth that the law is universal in its application.

Our deference to self-interest has a significant impact on our culture, and our understanding of justice. Rules, hierarchy, judgment, punishment, control, proportional revenge, all of the structures of the punitive system lend themselves well to serving the self-interest of those in control. These structures are so ingrained that self-interest is easily dismissed as “it’s just how it is,” feeding a habit and an apathy that are difficult to escape.

Self-interest is not limited to the criminal justice system; self-interest is the cornerstone of traditional economic theory that guides many in business. In the 18th century Adam Smith’s writings gave rise to the belief that trade and a free market exchange would automatically produce socially desirable results through the force of self-interest. Self-interest would serve as the “invisible hand of the marketplace.” Neither self-interest nor this “invisible hand” constitute a moral compass. Moreover, in Smith’s time the aristocracy lived off the labor of their serfs, for whom the market was far from free.

The “free hand of the marketplace” became a central justification for the laissez-faire economic philosophy that underpins today’s commonly accepted economic theory, capitalism. Yet, self-interest does not produce positive results, in justice or in business. Actions that defy and deny our interconnectedness result in harm and in conflict. On the material level our undivided connection may be invisible to the eye, but it continues to exist.

The western model of justice, the U.S. model of capitalism that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and the celebration of individualism are examples of cultural beliefs and institutional structures that legitimize and sustain self-interest in U.S. culture.

Unitive Justice Embraces Community

Many of us are unengaged witnesses to activities that do not require any type of community effort or responsibility, and therefore are easily ignored. The police arrest wrongdoers; the courts take it from there. If someone is sick, they go to the hospital where the medical staff take over. When people die, someone calls the undertaker to handle the details of what happens next. We can even hire people to tell us how to grieve, all by ourselves.

The relationship between human happiness and community was affirmed by a study that produced unexpected results. One might assume that lawyers, whose work is often hyper adversarial, are people who find happiness in individualism, money or prestige, but this is not the case. For many, they find happiness in community, just like the rest of us.

In 2015, law professor Lawrence S. Krieger and social scientist Ken Sheldon reported on their extensive study of several thousand lawyers in four states, to determine how those in the legal profession measure happiness. The research showed that it is not the extrinsic measures —prestige, status, money or even becoming a partner in the firm—that bring the most happiness.[5]

The study found that it is the intrinsic values of self-improvement, intimacy, and altruism/

community that predict happiness.[6] It also found that lawyers who experience a sense of well-being are also likely to produce more, remain longer, and raise the morale of others.[7]

Krieger’s study found three indicators that most strongly correlate with long-term well-being: 1. autonomy (i.e., the freedom to be authentically oneself with others) and authenticity, 2. mastery and 3. relatedness. All three are directly related to the need for community.[8]

Community is signified in the unitive system in several ways. The punitive system sees a harmful event as a problem “out there,” something for the state to handle. In contrast, Unitive Justice sees it as a breach of our values and our interconnectedness—a violation of community. The punitive system looks at the harmful event at close range and sees only a few actors: the offender, the victim, the state whose law was broken. But Unitive Justice expands the lens, where we eventually see patterns that involve all of us.

The accountability of the one who directly caused the harm is definitely considered in the unitive system, but we also have an opportunity to examine the societal conditions that the rest of us buy into, or perhaps ignore or feel helpless to change, that shape the world we live in. It is out of the context that individual acts arise. This broadens the question of accountability.

What impact do our individual choices, including our apathy, have on the greater whole? If we do nothing to change the societal conditions that fuel crime, should we be held accountable for our inaction? How do the ways in which we use our own power, or let it languish, contribute to the underlying brokenness? Can we fairly assess accountability for that?

Many of us help hold intact the culture, the beliefs systems, the institutional conditions that provide a stimulus for many harmful acts. Only when we see the connection between larger societal conditions and what we do locally, as individuals, do we recognize the power we have to shape our lives and to contribute to systemic change. While U.S. culture supports acting out of self-interest and disregarding the impact that has on the greater whole, we can choose, instead, to be guided by a sense of community.

What might the legal system be like if, instead of self-interest, it embraced the interest of community? Linda Alvarez,[9] a lawyer in the Integrative Law movement, describes her approach as follows:

"I see my role as serving a human life within the context of a community of inter-dependent beings. It is my experience that there is no such thing as a discrete, finite response to conflict. Every word and deed generates some response because all of us are in relationship with one another—and our lives together are ongoing conversations. Integrative practice, for me, is acting with conscious awareness about what sort of conversations, what types of “cycles of response” I’d like to see grow in this world we share."[10]


We do not control our own fate independent from the fate of others. Nor can we deal with systemic brokenness as individuals. Our nature is to live in community. We may build walls to separate us but communication between what cannot be divided is always available. The gift of connection awaits where separation ends. Only truth is true.

* * * * *

Suggested viewing: Oprah Winfrey’s interview of Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh about peace, suffering and nonviolence. He discusses how we may move toward connection and community. Available below and at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ9UtuWfs3U&t=918s. (23 min.)

[1] Nils Christie, “Conflicts as Property,” The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 17, Issue 1, (Jan. 1977), 4-5, http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/17/1/1.abstract.

[2] Id, 4.

[3] Id, 5.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977) 272.

[5] Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, “What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success,” Vol. 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015). Available at: http://ir.law.fsu.edu/articles/94.

[6] Id., 607.

[7] Id., 585.

[8] The study found that men tended more towards lucrative “prestige” positions. Women, in contrast, were stronger in the kinds of salutary psychological variables predicted, showing more intrinsic values, greater relatedness satisfaction, and more affinity for service-oriented positions. In the end, however, other factors balanced out the factors and well-being for men and women. Id., 601-602.

[9] Author of “Discovering Agreement: Contracts That Turn Conflict Into Creativity,” (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2016). More information at www.discoveringagreement.com.

[10] Email from Linda Alvarez (Sept. 27. 2016) (on file with author).