The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, pt. I

¡Hola! Everybody…
I may not be able to finish the following post today, but I think it addresses some key questions. Questions that many bloggers and would-be pundits treat as an a priori in their rants. As you will see, very little is clearly self-evident… I started this as one post, but it quickly grew too large…

* * *

-=[ The Good: Justice ]=-

“Take, then, your paltry Christ, your gentleman God. We want the carpenter’s son, with his saw and hod.”

— Upton Sinclair, quoted in The Cry for Justice

The idea that justice is more than a virtue that a good government should possess is something most people take for granted. Justice is fundamental to the institutions that transform a mass of individuals into a political community in the first place. Justice binds citizens to one another, and then all of them together to government. Justice, as long-standing tradition has it, is central to the justification of political authority. To paraphrase, what are kingdoms without justice but great gangs of thugs?

Saying that justice is central to good government is one thing; attempting to define justice is quite another, and that is what this post will attempt to address. Also, I will be jumping to social justice rather quickly, and my starting off point will suffer somewhat; but how can I address the whole issue of justice in a one or two-page Word document?

My father used to like to say that Justice was blind, that if you took her blindfold off, you would see she had dollar signs for eyes… LOL

Let’s start with the basics. My father’s characterization notwithstanding, justice, we might all agree, has something to do with punishment and reward, and something to do with equality, but how to define it? Let’s start with an old definition, by the roman Emperor Justinian, who stated that justice “is the constant and perpetual will to render each his due.”

Whoop-dee-doo! LOL

Taken by itself, this definition doesn’t take us very far, but perhaps it points us the right direction. First, it stresses that justice is a matter of each individual person being treated in the right way; it’s not a matter of whether society in general is rich or poor, culturally rich or culturally barren, and so forth. However, this doesn’t mean that the idea of justice for groups can be dismissed — I will look more in depth at that aspect later — but the primary concern of justice is with how individuals are treated (and yes, this is a cultural bias). Secondly, the “constant and perpetual will” part of the definition reminds us that a central idea of justice is that people must be treated in an evenhanded way (“justice is blind”). There must be consistency in how an individual is treated over time, and there must also be consistency between people, so that if my friend and I have the same qualities, we should receive the same benefits, or the same punishment, depending on the situation.

Consistency explains why acting justly is often a matter of following rules or applying laws, since these guarantee consistency. However, consistency alone is not enough for justice: imagine a law that required that all white people be considered three-fifths of a human being, or that all people of color should be put to death. These examples demonstrate that justice also requires relevance; if people are going to be treated differently from one another, it must be predicated on grounds that are relevant to the question of justice. This also shows that where there are no relevant grounds on which to discriminate, justice requires equality: everyone should be treated the same way. This gives us a second requirement beyond mere consistency: justice demands that people should be treated equally unless there are relevant reasons for treating them differently.

One final caveat to a working definition: the idea of proportion. This tells us that when people are treated differently for relevant reasons, the treatment they receive should be proportionate to whatever they have done that justifies the inequality. Many would agree, for example, that if people work hard at their jobs, that is a relevant reason for paying them more. But, for the sake of justice, there must be proportionality: if Yippie works twice as hard as Yappie, he should be paid twice as much, but not ten times as much.

As you see, I have squeezed a fair amount of mileage from the Emperor’s definition, but I have not been able to say what it is that people are owed as a matter of justice, nor on what grounds we are justified in treating them differently. In fact, there are no easy answers to these questions. This is in part because people will disagree about what justice requires and because the answer given will depend largely on who is doing the treating, what treatment is given, and under what circumstances. To a great extent, our ideas of justice are contextual, meaning that before we can decide what is fair we have to know about the situation in which it is being applied. Allow me some room here…

Let’s suppose that I have been given $500 to distribute between five people. What does justice tell me to do? So far, very little. It tells me that I should treat them consistently, that if I treat them differently, that this should be for relevant reasons and that my allocations should be proportionate. Now, let’s fill in some details in different ways and see what distributions suggest themselves. Let’s say the five people are my employees, and the $500 might be the bonus they have earned this week, in which case I should consider each individual’s contribution and reward them proportionately. Alternatively, I might be an aid worker charged with distributing the cash to allow starving people to buy food, in which case I should try to surmise the relative needs of the five and give more to those in greater need. Or perhaps the $500 is a small lottery windfall, and the five people and I are a syndicate, in which case the money should be distributed evenly.

Most here would find my decisions on how to allocate the money under the varying circumstances self-evident, and it shows that, though doing justice is a complicated affair, we already have a grasp of what it involves in practice. Justice is not so much a way to measure than a box of tools. Faced with a decision, we know in most cases which tool to use. What is harder to express is a theory of justice. But we need to create a theory because there are going to be cases in which the decisions will not be so clear-cut. This is more so the case when it involves social justice — justice not only between individuals, but also across a whole society. I shall explore this idea in a later post, but I first need to explore the general principles of justice.

Justice often has as much to do with process than actual treatment. Let’s look at criminal justice before I end this post. It matters, of course, that guilty people are punished in proportion to their crime, and that innocent people go free, but it is also important that proper procedures (process) are followed in arriving at a verdict. For instance, it matters that both sides are allowed to state their case, that the judge has no stake that would impede his impartiality. This process is important not only because it tends to ensure the right verdicts, but because it affords individuals the respect and right to be heard properly. The main dynamic in the OJ Simpson trial fallout wasn’t just that he was black and he allegedly “got away with it,” but that he could afford to rely on resources not often available to the less privileged. For blacks and other people of color, this wasn’t something new: criminal justice has often been a process of injustice. My father’s admonition is relevant here. For whites, who often experience social institutions from a more advantaged or benevolent position, the OJ case was a travesty of justice.

The above is a poor substitute for beginning a substantive discussion on social justice, but I’m already at one page, so I must move on and hope this suffices for the rest of the discussion.




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