I once tried a writing project in which I would take on a range of systemic issues that I labelled the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The first part, The Good, would be an attempt to address the issue of justice. The Bad was meant to address moral reasoning, and The Ugly an attempt to address aesthetics. Today it’s about Justice.
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.
— John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
The idea that justice is more than a virtue good government should possess is something most people take for granted. Justice is fundamental factor in transforming a simple mass of individuals into a political community. 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 am 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 two-page MS Word document?
My father used to like to say that yes, Justice was blind, but 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.”
I know: Whoop-dee-doo! Taken by itself, this definition doesn’t take us very far, but perhaps it points us the right direction — a good place to start. 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. This doesn’t mean that the idea of justice for groups can be dismissed — I will look more in depth at that aspect in a later post — 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 show 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. Essentially, justice demands 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 my definition: the idea of proportion. This guides a society 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 harder 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 Justinian’s take, 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 applying the treatment, what treatment is prescribed, 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, it 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. The five people might be 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. Or, I might be I might be an aid worker charged with distributing the cash to allow 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 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 it is 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 our intuitions will conflict, situations 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 more to do with process than actual treatment. Let’s look at criminal justice before I end this post. The current status quo, dominated as it is by the retributivist school, asserts that guilty people should be 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 so much that he was black (though race certainly was a factor in how people reacted to his case), but that he could afford to rely on resources not often available to those less privileged. For blacks and other people of color, this wasn’t something new: criminal justice has often been an 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.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…