Published: November 1, 2013
Author: Ellyse Borghi
Theme: Ethical living
I recently moved to Hong Kong for the semester, so I am frequently introducing myself to people. We go through the standard rounds of introductions:
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a law graduate.’
‘I see… about to sell your soul to the devil then?’
‘I hope not.’
‘So what area of law are you interested in?’
‘I’m not sure. I’ve been involved in women’s and children’s law and social security rights. I’ve done some constitutional work and spent time at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York doing International Human Rights law. But I’m not really sure where I’m going with all of this.’
‘I see. You’re a social justice lawyer.’
Am I? Is that what I am?
My image of a social justice worker is of a sandal-wearing person who walks with a purposeful gait, a placard, and a voice that is hoarse from yelling at authorities. Their wallet is empty save for a picture of themselves and their host family from that working trip to Namibia.
This all-too-frequent conversation has led to some self-reflection. Is social justice work a niche industry within our economy? Are social justice workers exclusively responsible for trading in equity and fairness? Are their careers ‘in rights’ while everybody else’s are ‘in services, production and finance’?
Justice in Tradition
It seems clear to me, from my Jewish education and identity, that this is not an either/or paradigm. While you must not abdicate from your responsibilities to society, committing to it does not equate to a life of narrow interests and career options. Unlike the obligations of temple ritual, reserved only for the kohanim (priests), the Torah doesn’t designate a small sector of the Jewish people to be responsible for charity and good works. Rather, every Jew is obligated to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, whoever that might symbolise today. Beyond that, Jewish law creates a comprehensive framework for integrating fairness and equity into any career. If you are an agriculturalist, you must leave the edges of your fields and any harvest that falls to the ground, to the poor. If you employ staff, you must pay your workers a fair amount and punctually. In that regard, the Babylonian Talmudists remark: ‘Whoever withholds the wages of a worker, it is as if he took his life.’
And within the Jewish worldview, the requirement to do good is not reserved for a niche sector of the Jewish people. Indeed, the obligation to pursue justice isn’t only circumscribed for Jews. From the Seven Noahide Laws we learn that all of humanity is positively obligated to establish courts and fair systems of justice. All of humanity is required to do justice, as individuals and as societies.
I used to work for the Disability Liaison Unit at Monash University, working with university students with special needs. I was lucky enough to assist a student who was studying first-year philosophy. A significant portion of that course was dedicated to Australian philosopher, Peter Singer. Many consider Singer’s views too radical and morally demanding. However, some of his ideas are both practical and achievable. He advocates for individuals to donate more to charity and for charities to be more transparent and efficient. He argues against the consumption of animal products because of the needless suffering inflicted on sentient beings, and the damage the animal industry wreaks on the planet and human communities. He insists that you owe a duty to all people, even if we can’t see them; even if we have never met them. A great project that he recommends hinges on the idea that there are 80,000 Hours in a standard career. How can we use those hours we have efficiently and productively for the betterment of society?
No right path
There are of course some people who have this question answered; they are nurses, teachers and social workers whose every working hour contributes to public health, education and social cohesion. Because I’m feeling generous, I might even add politicians. However, it might come as a surprise that the “80,000 Hours” project doesn’t advocate an immediate career-change in order to take up one of the ‘caring professions.’ Surprisingly, a career with the potential for the greatest social impact is that of the merchant banker. Not only can the merchant banker have a significant hand in an efficient, ethical and sustainable economy, but the more you earn, the more you can give away.
A great example of this is Bill Gates. He has successfully earned and given away enough money to win and subsequently lose the title of Forbes wealthiest man. And his fund has saved 6 million people from Malaria and preventable diseases along the way.
Perhaps we should also consider the first contributor to The Well, Mark Leibler AC. Not only is Leibler an exceptional tax lawyer and senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler but he, together with the team at ABL, has used his legal acumen to defend and secure the land rights of many Indigenous Australians. Indeed, last year I was an intern engaging in family law work with NAAFVLS in remote communities in the Northern Territory. Whenever I mentioned that I was a Melbournian Jew, I was either asked if I knew Mark Leibler or was showered with thanks and praise for the work of ABL.
An inspiring example of how to make a difference is this year’s winner of the Ron Castan Young Humanitarian award, Jacky Lipson. By day Jacky is a physiotherapist at the Monash Medical Centre healing people and improving their mobility. By night Jacky volunteers at the Dandenong Library, teaching English to refugees through the LINKS program that she established, now offering support to approximately thirty-five regular migrants and refugees each week, with the aid of about eight regular volunteers.
Neither Bill Gates, Mark Leibler nor Jacky Lipson carry placards and wear sandals (at least not exclusively). But they are unquestionably social justice workers. They are also computer geeks, lawyers and physiotherapists. Their paths remain a lesson to us all to give what you have: if you have money, give money; if you have time – give that; if you are creative, compassionate or possess any other skill – use them. Choose your work, do it well, even make a small fortune, but know that you can also be a social justice worker.
I guess, then, I am too?