72. Wondering about Justice while Walking the Camino

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My sabbatical is about moral responsibility. While walking the Camino, I think about numerous traits related to the morally responsible person, simplicity, perseverance, hospitality all connect to being responsible. Yet, I find that it is somewhat difficult, but not impossible, to thinking about justice and a just person while on the Camino.

One experience relevant to justice pertains to four peregrinos (pilgrims) on the Camino. Meeting my wife in Leon, I went to breakfast early at a monastery which had converted two floors to a nice, relaxing, and small hotel. While this hotel “space” was separate from its larger and less-expensive albergue for cost-conscious peregrinos, there was only a small courtyard with doors opening onto each section of the monastery from the courtyard. The arrangement might be considered confusing except that my experience of sleeping at other albergues usually included becoming very familiar quickly with where I could and could not eat.

One particular morning, I observed that eager and not- so eager peregrinos from the hotel entered the dining area. One large group divided itself, men sitting at one table and women sitting at another. A few minutes after they began eating, a middle-aged woman entered from the albergue. I overheard this woman ask if she could join the men already seated. Surprised, but not wanting to be unfriendly, the men responded “Si.” I thought “Strange, but interesting.” Minutes later two men also came through the courtyard door from the albergue. Like the woman, they immediately set their backpacks down and helped themselves to the nice breakfast buffet. No peregrino albergue included a breakfast with meat, cheese, yogurt, numerous breads, orange juice, and coffee.

Half-way through the meal, the receptionist and only staff person working came into the dining area. Looking around, she ignored the woman sitting with the men but she walked to the two men and asked their room number. They pointed to the albergue. While she spoke Spanish, she made it clear through her words and gestures that they were not supposed to be eating in the dining area since the breakfast buffet was for hotel guests only. Before she left though, she indicated that they could finish their food. It was clear that the two men understood what she had said. She left to return to the front desk.

So, what did the two men do after she left? They smiled to each other in that conspiratorial smile that says “We got away with something just now!” They then twice proceeded to go back to the breakfast buffet and fill their dishes with large helpings of food. Shortly later they left and returned to the albergue without paying anything. What did the woman do? She had remained seated, quickly finished her plate, and returned to the albergue.


Another day, and two hundred miles later, I met a fascinating man from southern Germany also at a monastery. We thoroughly enjoyed talking about our lives. “I had the first vegetarian restaurant in Berlin!” he exclaimed. Although he had walked the Camino four times, he laughingly said the last time was the most important. “I met Eleanor so that the Camino became the Camino El Amour.” However, he tarnished himself a bit when we looked over at some laundry drying in the sunshine. I said: “I’m lucky that I haven’t forgotten any laundry yet.” He replied: “I’m lucky too. I started the Camino with only two shirts and now I have five. Late in the day, I simply go and pick up some shirts that people have forgotten.”

Why do I remember these incidents? I felt that something was wrong. The three people at the breakfast buffet acted from very self-serving interests; they wanted food and didn’t want to pay for it. The man at the monastery also had self-serving interests; he wanted some fresh shirts free-of-charge. These individuals knew that they were getting by with something. They knew that they were doing something wrong, that they were “gaming” the situation.

A basic interpretation of justice links justice to fairness. One way to define fairness is by claiming that fairness involves merit, that people merit certain goods because of their own actions. In these situations, the persons did nothing to merit the food or the clothing. There was no “fairness.” Though not deserving, not paying, they took. They did not seem to calculate the cost to those who provided that food or who had originally bought those shirts. Others might define fairness by claiming that fairness relates to need, that certain people have just claims on certain goods because of their need. In these two situations, the persons did not appear to be in desperate need. The two men seemed to have relatively expensive backpacks; the other peregrino did not have great financial need if the stories he told me earlier were truthful. I felt that something was wrong in these mens’ actions.

I also thought about other situations, less inspired by immediate senses of “this is wrong” and more inspired by the social and political realities of contemporary Spain. From my limited knowledge of Spanish society and economy, I could not help but notice the contrasts between various villages and towns along the Camino. On the one hand, some villages were almost deserted with no albergues, no hotels, no restaurants. They were picturesque. They displayed a centuries-old way of life. However, many of the homes and other buildings were in various stages of collapsing. I saw nobody. On the other hand, other villages and towns showed vitality and life. These villages and towns had numerous competing albergues, hotels, and restaurants. I could tell that some of these hotels and restaurants involved expensive remodeling of older buildings. These towns were full of people, both locals and peregrinos.

Why the difference between these two types of villages and towns? Obviously, some villages had individuals who were successful entrepreneurs. These individuals had spent money and energy to renovate old buildings and to maintain those “atmospheric” hotels and restaurants. Their hard work brought apparent financial success. Did that explain everything though? Some of the newer hotels and restaurants must have been very costly. Like entrepreneurs around the world, I assumed that these individuals often borrowed money to finance building or remodeling a structure into a hotel or restaurant. Who received those loans? Who were denied loans? Maybe very promising and enterprising individuals were denied loans because those making the loans felt as though the borrowers “lacked proper connections,” or maybe those loaning the money felt that “those we favor would be hurt by this new competition.”  Or, given Europe’s complicated financial interconnections, maybe bankers in Berlin and London who would make the loans did not care about various village and town and simply cared about obtaining the greatest profit for their euros. Because of suspicions from the 2008 financial crises, I have “red flags” when I think of large financial institutions and their


Unlike the first set of situations where I observed injustice committed by individual peregrinates, I can only speculate about the latter possible injustice. Questions remain though. Concerning the first situation: When does moral outrage at others’ unjust acts require a response from an observer when the victim is some large organization such as the monastery? Concerning the second situation: how do we make sense of the vast economic differences within a society? It is clear that not everybody gets an equal amount of a societies’ “goodies.” As a chastened capitalist though, I have to ask when do some benefit in ways that are unfair because the same opportunity has not been made available to others.

Other moral traits are obvious on the Camino, common sense, simplicity, hospitality, kindness. While a sense of justice or injustice is not so common, I am sure that it also can be cultivated even along the Camino.


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