Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A Thought on Justice

The other day I was thinking about justice, which in the Christian theological tradition has historically been contrasted with mercy. On the one hand there is justice, which requires that all people receive what they deserve due to the content of their actions. On the other hand, there is mercy, which requires kindness to those who are suffering. To fully embody these two qualities is our goal, but it is impossible for humans and for human institutions. Only God can do so and God can only do so on, or through, the cross.

What if we have justice wrong? What if it doesn't mean that all people receive what they deserve? (For one thing, I have difficulty explaining this mechanism of "deserving.")

I tried to think of what I mean or imagine when I think of justice. I discounted the first few things I thought of, because those were phrases with the word in them--Justice Department, Justice League--or metonyms--scales, swords, paladins. The best and closest articulation, one which encompasses the realm of justice departments but also social justice issues, was this: justice is the action towards creating and maintaining a fairly ordered world. (This is not "fairly" in the sense of "rather" or "reasonably", but more like "equitably".) This is of course not a perfect definition because we then fall back to what "fair" means--it might evoke deserving again--but I'm going to use it to make a distinction.

This history of ideas is located firmly in the armchair-philosophy position, but in lieu of extensive research I'm going to offer it regardless. I wonder if we have fooled ourselves about justice from quite a long time ago, around the time people developed law. In the pursuit of a fairly ordered society, communities resorted to punishment models of enforcement. That is, in order to deter crime and therefore promote a fairly ordered system, those who committed crime were given predictable punishments so that they would not want crime. Punishing crimes then became an instrument of justice, and the activity of that punishment became an organ of justice. But societies did not have (perhaps, initially, did not need or could not produce) other forms of justice, such as universal health care or financial accountability or anti-heterosexism initiatives. As a result, the law enforcement system became the entirety of the justice system, and humans developed the idea that justice was identical to the punishment of crimes (and perhaps the inverse, the reward of good deeds).

Let's look at the famous introduction to Law and Order: "In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." (Dun dun.) Even noting that this refers specifically to criminal justice, what I notice is that there is no sense whatsoever of reparation to the victim. There is no consolation. No healing. And there is no healing for the offenders, either; there is no concern for rehabilitation. There is also no concern for the prevention of crime. There is only retribution. This is only a small part of the movement towards a fairly ordered society. There is law, yes, and a certain kind of order, but that order seems to only be a legal one.

So I'm wondering if retribution is even a necessary component of justice at all. It has been a part of justice, necessarily, in the past. But is it one necessarily, in the philosophical sense? I don't think so; it seems only to be a component of justice insofar as it is a move towards a more fairly ordered system. If my suspicion is correct, then it seems to me that we need to rethink a lot of our political, legal, moral, and theological formulations.

1 comment:

Louis said...


Another thought to consider is how God's justice relates to His mercy. I've come across this is several places, but right now the only book I can recall is Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed.

The gist is, since God's attributes are infinite they are not distinct from God Himself. Thus we can say God is Love. But we can also say that God is Mercy, God is Justice, etc.. Since none of God's attributes is distinct from God Himself, neither are they distinct from one another. Thus we can say that the infinite love of God is the same as the infinite mercy of God, which is the same as the infinite justice of God, etc..

If I can find or remember where else I've come across this idea I'll try to let you know.


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