Of late, your esteemed author has spent quite some time filling out forms to get one of his fellow (and incomparably more meritorious) Amsterdam monument caretakers most deservedly decorated by the King. What a hassle: one really needs more than a bit of oversight, administrative skill and stamina to get things done the right way, complex uploading of forms and documents to official websites included. Actually, the good work was started by a faraway friend now living in the Unites States. She later abandoned the whole thing “because in all probability the king would not do anything on the basis of a stateside recommendation”. True or not, this is how the dossier landed on this writer’s desk.
One not so welcome feeling aroused by this whole process is a kind of background jealousy blocking immediate action on behalf of the person deserving such a distinction. Actually, the thought of having this man decorated had not occurred at all before this faraway friend started discussing it. Why? How strong are the all too human forces of envy, consciously and/or subconsciously so? Think here of Ronald Dworkin’s sensible distinction of first and second-order desires: sometimes desires concerning what befalls others (second order) may be rather stronger than first-order desires concerning what happens to ourselves. Its effects are everywhere and are not always for the better. But then nobody really gains anything by belittling others, by withholding promotion or other good things in life from them.
So let’s get over this and return to the decoration thing and finish the good work, to be handed over to the royal administration. Then what kind of justice is to govern and determine our King’s mindful ratiocination in distributing his royal ribbons? Another philosopher of law makes the presence of his work felt here: Aristotle of course. He famously distinguished between distributive (“geometrical” or “relative”) and retributive (“arithmetical” or “exact”) justice. Distributive justice requires the allotment of goods in relation to factors like need, desert and merit, without implying an exact equality in the worth of the allotment and factors concerned. Retributive justice, on the other hand, is exact equality in value, e.g. fair contract commitment or simply fair payment, or damages exactly equivalent, in principle, to the damage itself.
What then is justice in royal decoration, related to so many different merits? It seems, in principle, not to be retributive justice, if only because the value or worth of any merit cannot be sensibly weighed against the value of any decoration’s prerogative. On the other hand, it seems odd to reduce the whole issue to distributive justice, as a royal decoration – or any other official distinction for that matter – may be regarded as retribution (literally meaning ‘payment’ or ‘compensation’ in Latin) as well.
The real world of the sometimes rightful, sometimes seemingly random and sometimes patently wrong distribution of royal decorations paints a rather different picture. There is no great need for any philosophy of law to gather too many incongruities here. Highly meritorious individuals (and other bodies) doing much good work without drawing any public attention are often overlooked (in part because they don’t go in for any kind of decoration themselves). Whereas vainglorious figures fighting for public recognition too often collect their undeserved ribbons of narcissism. “The higher you rose already, the greater your chance of still rising higher in official esteem” holds true here as well. It is hard to quantify these phenomena of course, but it remains the same old and all too human story, that started even before Aristotle’s times of course.
Still, publicly honouring and decorating people who deserve it remains as important as letting them pay in some way or other for what they have done wrong. Punishment seems more popular than praise in populist times. Wrongly so, as the realisation of distributive and/or retributive justice, both in meting out punishment and offering reward, is a cement of society. So be less punitive – in so easily degrading others below your own “level”. Better, praise your fellow human beings for good reasons. Pay more attention to official elevation of the really meritorious, unhindered by vain sentiments against elevation – in a sense – of others above yourself.
And if ever you may be rewarded with such a royal ribbon yourself: wear it only if you ought to. Think of all those really meritorious people who have staunchly refused any kind of official decoration. Keeping up the good work without any thoughts of personal reward may be still more important after all.