Considering Justice, Value, and Stewardship

Today is Sunday, February 11, 2024. For those who follow such things, today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes, the day little Bernadette Soubirous first encountered the “little lady” in a grotto at what is now Lourdes, France. Many years later, she would become St. Bernadette. It also happens to be the birthday of Phillip Gerald Berry, himself nowhere near sainthood, but still celebrated at a lovely dinner hosted by his wife and children last night.

What does one ask for on a 55th birthday? For me, I asked each of my children, and their loves, to share a memory from our life together. I did ask for it to be a positive memory but know that, should you choose this path at your own birthday, you are inviting a certain degree of roasting. Fortunately, everyone was quite gentle, and generous, with me. For those parents out there in the “growing” years with young families, please note that none of my children spoke of great gifts or “mountaintop” experiences. Their chosen memories were small, intimate, and heartwarming. I’ll save that notion for another post.

One of my son’s “loves,” a professional photographer, spoke of taking some photos for me many years ago and my reaction to her invoice. “You told me that I needed to charge you more,” she said, “and it completely changed how I saw myself and my business.” Her comment led to a brief discussion on some similar moments with some other individuals our family knew who we had engaged as they were building businesses of their own. Curiously, this theme has come up numerous times over the years and my children have noticed.

What is Justice?

Why would anyone tell someone they aren’t charging enough? A simple answer is to say, “because it’s the right thing to do.” But why? Our American sense of justice is tied-into an incredibly complex legal system that has morphed from the simple cause and effect of choices regulated by the laws we implement to govern them, into a massive net of regulation, precedent, argument, spread across a lumbering state and federal system. To a large degree, current “justice” goes to the best argument.

The simple notion of moral justice is “giving one their due.” Catholic moral teaching recognizes the precious dignity of every individual. In this sense, justice is treating them with such dignity. For our photographer above, justice demanded that she be paid appropriately for the services she rendered. Her “due” is the dignity of earning an appropriate wage for her effort and creativity. But that begs the question: what is “appropriate” or “fair.”

Here, we might be inclined to confuse charity with justice. One might pay more than the appropriate value of a service because they are showing charity, or love, to the other person. We are called to love in this way when there is an opportunity to help where it is needed. However, justice is more concerned with appropriate value – a just price or payment is not charity.

The Value of Things

“Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” he said, without smiling. My career in sales began with that sage advice from my first boss. His colorful analogy spoke to the notion of value and what the market will bear. It also highlights just how relative the notion of value really is. Value is often measured based on a market: what are other people paying for similar products? Our capitalist system is built on markets and the prices paid for all sorts of commodities. Looking at Taylor Swift tickets last week, I experienced the glories of supply and demand at their extremes, quickly determining that the market’s conclusion on the value of her tickets did not align with mine.

To a great degree, value does lie in the eye of the beholder. However sophisticated we get with measuring things, there are certain ways and times that those things mean more or less to each of us as individuals. The beautiful mystery of economics attempts to put science around the complexities of such things in the macro and micro, but the reality of the individual is that we are constantly assessing them in the context of our own desires, resources, needs, and moral compass. In this sense, value is truly fluid.

Of course, some things are more complex than others. Pricing on commodities is different than pricing on items with broader value implications. Branded items command higher relative values than raw materials that have no differentiation. Our markets are perpetually trying to drive items toward commodity status so they can more easily be compared and we can more predictably assess the real value of a thing based on relative price. So the invisible hand of free market economics goes in its own semi-virtuous, and completely necessary way.

Considering Stewardship

Returning to the notion of justice, what is the value of human dignity? Like everything else, human effort also gets put into the market framework and valued economically. We make adjustments for quality, service, artistic craftsmanship, and other difficult to measure intangibles, but we still put a number on it. Human dignity may be priceless, but human effort gets measured and valued like any other commodity.

Sometimes, our market-driven economic frameworks start to break down when they collide with the notion of justice. The break-down ins’t a failure because capitalism and its markets are immoral or inherently lack virtue, our system is actually a great enabler of justice and human dignity. Markets tend to be quite efficient, and even if there is a level of immoral influence based on manipulation, systemic checks and balances generally bring us back to the “golden mean.”

Market-driven valuations can fall short of justice when they don’t factor in the layers of complexity attached to the individual. Here, we may conclude that a certain thing is “worth” a certain price based on its comparison to another thing but what if that price disadvantages the individual or falls short of a potential impact far greater than its price? In this case, we could act justly by paying an individual a fair market price but still fall short because the market undervalues their human effort or misses a broader point of impact through too narrow measurement.

Here, I would insert stewardship as mediator. Good stewardship encompasses both the economic and the moral in measuring value through the eye of justice. in the case of our photographer above, the market may have set a price of $100 for her services, but they were actually worth more than that to me because I saw a broader picture of her effort, her person, and the downstream effects of the “transaction.” In this case, I saw her “due” in a much greater context and invested in her efforts as a photographer but also in her human dignity for the greater purpose of seeing her flourish.

In our market-driven, price obsessed, society, we struggle with stewardship because we get lost in the complexity and want the simplicity of a number. I see this in healthcare all of the time. So many smart people get hung up on the price of a drug or a procedure or a service, because they are unable to grasp its complex, multi-layered, implications spread over extended periods of time. Paying more early-on for a particular drug or procedure often saves bigger money downstream while dramatically impacting the quality of life of the individual. It is good stewardship because it is both economically and justice centered.

Both, And

Earlier in this post, I cautioned against confusing “justice” with “charity.” However, at its heart, justice is a form of charity, of love, because it is willing the good of the other simply because they are a human being and deserve it. Justice is giving one his or her due and we often think of charity as giving when someone hasn’t earned it. Ultimately, good stewardship is both justice and charity. It is recognizing the dignity, the “due,” of the individual as well as willing their good, simply because they are a human being.

Scaling this concept a bit in our roles as leaders isn’t about bleeding our coffers dry by giving everything away, it is recognizing that the very best economics happen when we make smart financial decisions that help others thrive. Here, value grows alongside goodness. The best stewardship is both smart financially and produces the highest impact on human flourishing. It’s really not that complex.

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