06/10/2010 06:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fairness and Justice in a Religiously Pluralistic Society

A government group recruited a number of religious leaders from different traditions to discuss a new area of policy under consideration. In the morning session, the religious leaders had marked differences in their views on what the policy should be, according to their different religious views. Nothing was agreed on, much less decided. In the afternoon session, the facilitator took a different approach. She put forward a number of specific situations and asked each leader what, according to his or her tradition, should happen. Amazingly, there was now a high degree of agreement on what should happen, but each tradition arrived there by a different route based on a different worldview and a different cultural context.

In a society such as ours, in which there is not one overarching worldview but a multiplicity of perspectives and worldviews, fairness and justice are often seen as functions of power and different views compete for dominance.

Even in societies in which there is only one overarching worldview, fairness and justice are complex issues. Interpretations of the law in Judaism, for instance, always include the minority opinion, a way of saying that fairness and justice are contingent, not absolute, principles.

Spiritual practice goes nowhere if it is on the path of competition and dominance. Everything gets lost in interpretation, conceptual thinking, unacknowledged prejudice and bias, etc.

In spiritual practice, we have to dispense completely with appeals to justice and fairness, precisely because they are open to interpretation and dependent on position. And if we claim access to a higher truth, we are, in effect, claiming the power and the right to decide for others.

(Aside: I dislike and avoid the notion that spiritual truth is a higher truth, in terms of society and the world, etc. Spiritual practice is based on principles that run counter to many principles of society. To claim that spiritual practice is a "higher truth" is another form of prejudice. Instead, I have to acknowledge that the principles on which I base my decisions are different from the principles that a person in a social context may base his or her decisions.)

I now rarely try to persuade people to adopt a specific perspective, Buddhist or otherwise. Rather, I seek to help them find what is true for them in the world they experience. As we explore this together, appeals to justice or fairness are almost always stories that hide or protect unacknowledged hurts or pains. As they open to those pains, people frequently find clarity on their own and know what to do, not because it is "fair" or "just" or "right" (these are, in the end, somewhat childish motivations), but because, when everything, inside and out, is considered, often only one course of action is indicated, as the government panel discovered when they presented specific situations to the religious leaders.