Just: a terrible word

Few words are more empty, conniving, and frustrating to a thinking person than “just.”

In principle, there are two forms of the word “just”:

  • “Just” as a measure of limited time: “I just left my house.”
  • And “just” as a measure of limited effort: “Why don’t we just meet at my office?”

The former use (i.e. a measure of time) is fine. But this second use (i.e. a measure of effort) is a problem for ethics and philosophy.

When we speak with another person, whether it’s to make plans, divide up tasks, or examine a difficult problem, we have at our disposal the nasty little word “just.” With this one word, we can effortlessly dismiss the difficulty, effort, and complexity that our talking partner faces. It says to the other person, I don’t feel that I need to give you a good reason. Just do what I say. Think about it...

On making plans
“Let’s just meet at my office.”

Ok. But what you’re not admitting here is that your plan creates a hardship for me. It’s your office, not mine. It’s my drive, my walk, my extra time out of my day for us to talk about something we can probably both benefit from. Generally, when someone says, “let’s just meet at my office,” what they’re really saying is “I’m in charge of this relationship, so we will meet at my convienence — not yours.”

On dividing up tasks
“Why don’t you just take notes while I sort these files.”

Right. So you've demoted me from the very beginning to “notetaker” and made it so that I have to argue my way back up to being an equal partner in the task ahead. Before you spoke, there was no hierarchy. Now, you’ve claimed the title of boss for yourself, shielded by the implication that my task is easier than yours so I shouldn’t complain. Again, “just” is a terrible, nasty little word.

On explaining an idea
“That’s just the way it is."

And there it is. This right here is one of the worst responses a person can give to a question. Like the two responses above, it imposes a power relation. It says to the questioner, “I don’t feel that I have to give you a good reason.” It’s not that there aren’t reasons for things. Clearly everything works from cause and effect and is historically situated. Nothing just happens. But the person saying “just” doesn’t want to admit that. Whether it’s for lack of time, interest, or simply their ego — they’re refusing to respond to you.

That kind of dismissal is a problem for anyone. But it’s especially a problem in philosophy because philosophy is about living beyond mere rhetoric and catchy phrases. Philosophy is about understanding. It’s about diving into a problem and revealing what’s underneath. It’s about finding causes. It’s about finding solutions. In moral philosophy (ethics), we’re aiming for equality and the good. The word “just” undermines all of this. “Just” implies that there are no deeper meanings, nothing underneath, nothing to search for. In ethics, “just” implies that you don’t have to give me a real answer. I just have to do as you say.

In the end, “just” is the verbal crutch of the bully, the usurper, and the ignoramous. 

So, as a philosopher, if you use the word “just” in one of your papers, I’m going to ignore it. Because it’s not doing any work for you. And if you respond to me with the word “just” in conversation, I’m going to take it for what it is: a verbal demand that I do things your way without sufficient reason. In the end, my advice is to jettison the word “just” from your vocabulary. Because if you can say what you mean without using the word “just,” and you actually give good reasons, you will come across as far more considerate and intelligent.

And in the end, that’s what philosophy is aiming for anyway.