Barbara Goodwin’s Justice By Lottery

This is the first post in a series dealing with the book Justice by Lottery by Barbara Goodwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery is a classic overview of sortition, covering its practical applications and the many speculative proposals in literature and political theory. The book begins with a headpiece, a quotation from King Lear. Since this play was written while Shakespeare was confined in quarantine, it rings differently now that virtually every nation in the world is in lockdown. King Lear planned for a gradual, honourable retirement, but is rejected and enters into a sudden isolation that dislocates and impoverishes.

The scene in question has the former king, betrayed by two of his daughters, in a homeless state, beginning to perceive what his ascendancy had blinded him to. He asks Gloucester, who recently had been brutally blinded for loyalty to Lear, whether he can see how this world goes? Gloucester ruefully answers that he “sees it feelingly.” That is, he understands by touch, not sight. This cartoon depicts how he “sees feelingly,”

Lear then says (and this is Goodwin’s headpiece),

What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi)

Here, Lear plays upon another meaning of Gloucester’s expression, “to see feelingly.” We grasp the world with emotions as well as reason; the heart grasps what the brain misses. We can easily pick up on it just from the judge’s tone of voice. A powerful, learned judge, full of entitlement, lays down the law on a “simple thief,” an intellectually challenged poor man in the dock. So, if the high and low switched places, would the judge wish to be condemned so severely? This switch, Goodwin explains later in the book, is a variant of the Golden Rule known as the principle of reflexive reciprocity, which stipulates,

“Submit to what you choose and only choose what you would submit to.”

Only the spirit of reciprocity permits us to “seek feelingly” for equality, and to have a hope of finding it. In the natural, chronological order of things, we all start off weak and grow into our full powers, and eventually grow old and die. The elite of one generation becomes the vulnerable outcast of the next. Random selection, or sortition, is a tool designed to overcome the tendency of those in power to hold on to their status indefinitely, and to ignore the needs of the powerless.

To demonstrate this, Goodwin begins “Justice By Lottery” by describing an imaginary dystopia based entirely on the luck of the draw. In this fictional society, known as Aleatoria (derived from the Latin for “gaming house”), everyone undergoes a periodic “handy dandy” displacement in what she calls a “total social lottery.” Wealth is redistributed and jobs shifted randomly after a five-year term. Since randomness is inscrutable and impartial by definition, one would expect Aleatoria to be a utopia.

However, it soon becomes clear that a society where everything is periodically mixed up is more messed up than straightened out. It may give everyone equal chances at a good life but it does so entirely arbitrarily, and a bad life follows just as often. Free speech is suppressed, since dissent would unbalance the hegemony of the lot. Periodic forced replacement becomes displacement, and not knowing what is to come proves to be just as mindless, oppressive and confining as any other unjust rule, such as tyranny, single party rule, or the dominance of bureaucrats or ideologues.

This initial mental experiment of Aleatoria allows Barbara Goodwin to treat the many possible and historical applications of reciprocity through random selection with a flexibility that would not otherwise be possible. In this series, I propose to go over some other high points of her classic book on sortition.

7 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post: I have added her book to my reading list on Goodreads.


  2. Be sure to get the 2nd edition, which came out around 2004. I have the old version but have the second version on order.


  3. The second edition is available from Imprint Academic as part of the Sortition and Public Policy series (Barbara is the series editor):


  4. […] This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here. […]


  5. […] work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here and the second post is […]


  6. […] work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here and the second post is […]


  7. […] Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previously published parts: 1, 2, 3, […]


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