Critical Analysis Of Yuval Noah Harari’s Idea Of Justice

By Sourav Jha


Based on Harari's Idea of Justice in his book 21 lessons for the 21st century (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018), this essay has analysed the concept of Justice and its relevancy on an individual level. This article argues that even if somehow every individual understands Justice, it hardly matters because the present structure of Justice cannot be served without an agent. Every individual cannot be that agent, so the opportunity cost to understand Justice and know everything is very high. According to Harari, our Idea of Justice might be outdated however, it is implementable in the material world.

Keywords: Justice, Yuval Noah Harari, Modern Justice.

Justice: Our Sense of Justice might be Out of Date

Justice in this complex world is hard to grasp because it is very difficult to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between our deeds and their consequences. Be that any environmental or socio-political issue, it is very difficult to know everything in an overpopulated world. Harari points out that the most important imperative in the world is the imperative to know. The most heinous of the crimes are not committed out of hatred and greed but out of ignorance and indifference (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018, p. 199). English ladies financed the slave trade just by buying shares and bonds in the London stock exchange. Think about the Nazi postman who was very punctual. He used to deliver all the letters in time but knowingly or unknowingly helped the Nazis to spread their vicious propaganda. Can he be considered liable?

Harari further explains the complexities of the world by explaining various scenarios: the shoes I am wearing may be made by employing child labour, or the regime I voted for is supplying arms to a dictator in the neighbourhood, or the company I am investing in is harming the environment in order to make more profit a part of which I am to receive (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018, p. 198). The global economic system is already stealing on my behalf. Am I guilty of these injustices?

There are many problems and intersecting viewpoints. There are many stakeholders, and questions as to how we can consider the issues presented by them and include them in our discourse surrounding justice. Harari himself is guilty of denying the existence of Tasmanians. European settlers wiped those out, he believes. He then talks about the varied experience of the people born and brought up in different areas. For instance, an African American will never be able to understand what a Chinese lesbian undergoes and vice versa (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018, p. 200).

After explaining the complexities of the world, Harari points out how our hunter-gatherer's brain tries to process these issues and how humans are ill-equipped to understand the complex relationships between thousands of heterogeneous peoples living in contemporary times (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018, p. 201). Often the forager's brain is trained to judge the moral dilemma involving a small number of people. Our brains downsize or deny the issue at hand to make it easier for our forager’s brain to comprehend the situation. Modern humans are also not unfamiliar with downsizing and denying an issue as a way of dealing with it.

Analysis of the Issue pointed by Harari in his book This issue can answer the question as to when humans cannot understand Justice. We try to downsize and deny issues so that they can fit into our forager brain’s calibrations. For this, as Harari suggests, we use four ways:

Firstly, Downsizing the issue. Humans bifurcate issues. Hence the complex issue of the Syrian civil war between several factions with different interests, gets reduced to who is right or wrong, or good or bad.

To tackle this, we need to understand the real size of the issue. There are many problems in Syria, and wars seldom happen for one single reason. There are various socio-political as well as socio-economical issues in Syria, to know all of them is, again, not practical. A lawyer cannot also be a nuclear scientist. Similarly, common people engaging in their day-to-day life do not need to understand the actual situation, so they make hasty conclusions and create binaries of good and bad in order to choose a side to provide their moral support. For example, a follower of Saddam Hussein will seldom accept the US version of the problems in Syria and their justification to invade his land. Is truth multifaceted? It seldom matters because we as humans will often pursue our desires and motivation regardless of the truth. In this manner, we downsize issues and calibrate them with our moral compass, which suits us the best.

Secondly, triggering an emotional response. People cannot be moved with data and statistics, but when they are shown a visual sob story of a child, they open their purses and donate more readily. Humans, in general, are emotional beings. Statistics seldom appeal to emotions, but as soon as we are shown something visually intriguing, it immediately hits our emotions. Since emotion is a great motivating factor, we take actions based on them. For example, think of donation platforms like Ketto and Donatekart which give visual ads on YouTube. If you click on one of those links, you will find people donating quite generously.

Thirdly, People tend to create some conspiracy theories. (Harari Y. N., 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, 2018, pp. 201-202)The study of economics analyses the working of a financial system around the world, but the study is complex and hard, Economists need evidence and statistics to support their claims behind the cause of a particular economic event. To solve or rather say to avoid this complexity altogether, the normal person builds up conspiracy theories such as: The billionaires are the ones behind certain economic situations such as any financial crisis.

Fourthly, create a dogma of the safe heaven. In this scientific age, religious dogmas are still attractive as they offer a safe metaphysical heaven from the world's complexities. It tells us to invest our belief into one institution, or one know-it-all supreme entity. Heavens are the last resort of the suppressed. If someone is not on the top of the structural hierarchy of the society, the dependence on the higher conscience and cosmic Justice serves them well. As Voltaire wrote “Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” which means If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him (Voltaire, 1877-1885, pp. 402-405). The idea is that the perpetrator will be punished in the afterlife. This particular concept regarding safe heaven is constant in books such as Sapiens (Harari Y. n., 2014, p. 171) and Deus (Harari Y. N., Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2015, p. 51) written by Harari. We have a problem at the global level without having a global community to tackle it. However, we do not need a global community to tackle Global Injustices. We need a collaborative effort of every community to set up global institutions to tackle global injustices.

Analysis of Justice: the Concept and the Text

Whenever we look at Justice, we relate it to Righteousness. Aristotle identified Universal Justice as Virtue, as a whole and different from particular Justice. (Aristotle, 2000) Particular Justice often requires a narrower approach than Global Justice. Some philosophers say Justice is to render what is due to each other. Hume points out that if there were a hypothetical state of abundance where everyone has got everything they want, there would not be a place for a concept of Justice (Hume, 1978). Now, we know that we are not in a state of abundance and unlimited resources, so there will be people who will be making their claims on those resources. As a result, some will be rightfully claiming them and some will not be. But who is going to decide that? For that, we need an institution. This institution might be anything: an organisation or a state that will act as an agent of Justice.

When we (as individuals) state that something is just and unjust, we seldom judge that by the yardstick of the law of the land. Rather, we do it through our own moral laws and agree on what we deem as fit. This individualist approach towards Justice hardly serves any significant purpose unless it is done on a mass level. When we do something on a mass level, it gradually becomes a part of the collective consciousness of society. I feel that when it comes to Justice, it cannot be served without an agent. And every individual cannot be that agent. Nonetheless, it does not mean that there are no individual duties. Some duties are not sanctioned by law but should be included in the scope of Justice, as simple as keeping your roads clean and not mishandling public property.

Harari Points that the most important imperative for anyone in today's world is the imperative to know. However, I think the most important imperative is to know 'what to know.' If I spend my time knowing that my government is supplying arms to a shady dictator, I might miss the chance to write an excellent philosophy article. In this digital world, we can access a large amount of data by a single google search and an attempt to know everything’s cause might be necessary but not prudent.

Harari’s sense of justice is not enforceable from a practical point of view. Although I agree with what he says on a metaphysical level, his ideal is incompatible with the current idea of justice, which is largely procedural than substantial. Procedural justice (Rawls, 1999) is, for example, deciding who will have the batting first in the cricket match or who will have the power to decide what they want to choose: batting or bowling. For this purpose, we use a coin toss. In this, none of the sides has an advantage. It is this procedure that gives fair chance to both of the teams and the result that will be produced through this procedure is intrinsically just and will definitely produce substantial justice. This process is known as pure procedural justice. However, if by following a particular procedure, it is not guaranteed that it will produce only just result, it is known as impure procedural justice. A good example can be our present system of justice delivery: the trial courts. We follow all the procedures but it is not guaranteed in any way that if we follow the due process of law, Justice is guaranteed.

So this is why I differ from Harari, as a student of law. The Justice that Harari advocates is more cosmic in nature. We all are connected and every cause and effect is very difficult to understand. What should we do if someone kills a person for milk on the street? Shall we say that the killer was wronged because he didn’t have the chance to buy the milk? Or should we punish the killer who killed for whatever purpose? As a law student, I would not care as to why the killer did not have the opportunity to get milk for himself, I will see his act as a crime that he committed to get the milk.


Should we reject the individualistic approach to Justice? According to me, even if we indulge in the individual approach, it would be futile due to the present form of the justice system around the world, which is largely served by an agent. In the global world, the cause and effect relationship is very complex for an Individual to understand and to control. I am not denying the concept which is advocated by Harari, my contention is the kind of Justice that Harari is advocating, is only valid on a metaphysical level, but will hold no ground in its practicality and implementation.


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Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. McClelland & Stewart.

Harari, Y. N. (2015). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Signal, McClelland & Stewart.

Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Canada: McClelland & Stewart.

Hume, D. (1978). A Treatise of Human Nature. Clarendon Press.

Miller, D. (2017). Justice. Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

Voltaire. (1877-1885). Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire,. Paris: Garnier.