Justice – A Philosophical Conundrum

Justice. Sounds so damn easy…

This is going to take a while, so probably best that you go pour yourself a very large container of a favourite beverage – maybe grab a snack or two – and settle down for a while to ponder the idea of Justice. Like Descartes, we are going to start by suspending judgement and simply thinking. Unlike Descartes, we are not attempting to dismiss our preconceptions entirely and start from scratch – trying to determine who the “I” may be. Instead, we will assume that we are already exist, that we think, that we are esconced in our particular society but definintely doing our best to identify those near-invisible strings that move and control we poor marionettes, and consider how they impact on our thinking about Justice.

Justice is not easy. It is a conundrum. If we are in one society and its laws allow a particular activity, how do we consider or react to another society deeming the exact same activity a crime? If another society condemns an action that we consider acceptable, should we provide shelter or support to those oppressed by that society’s version of justice? And so we encounter the role of philosophy in helping us consider the concept of justice. We could approach it from a specific paradigm, at which stage justice is no difficulty at all. If we were to take a religious perspective the conundrum disappears. Justice becomes whatever our particular prophet/saviour/god/priest/holy person declares it to be. However, this does not bring us a universal approach. Such an approach would require that we commit entirely to that one version of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Taking such an approach exposes us to that relativist refrain “it’s just your version – who is to say that it is any better or worse than someone else’s version?” And so we step aside from a singular perspective and seek the aid of philosophical thinking. This style of thinking is the home of Philosophy. Philosophy loves conundrums. In fact, philosophy thrives on them. Like the concept of Good, Justice can appear as a plate of mashed up perspectives that finally resembles little more than a relativists’ dinner.

Mental map of a relativst's dinner

 And so we return to the difficulty of your best interests versus mine versus your family’s or your neighbour’s. Eventually, we begin to wonder whether the idea of universal justice is likely or even possible? Regardless of the difficulty, this is an important objective. If there is no level of justice that is universal then how do we determine our actions amongst oppressive societies? How do we decide on when to agree or disagree with what we see or what is happening to us? This is not some irrelevant conversation over brandy and cigars in a musty colonial Club. It is a fundamental attempt to take control of the decision process, to be in control of why we think what we think. It is a concentrated, forceful investigation into our own thinking and our attitudes to justice. It is the thinking that makes us human and not an embodiment of Descartes’ ‘automatons’, walking the streets under the complete control of some beneficent or benevolent deity. So, conundrum or not, we must embark on this journey as if it were new and unknown and uncertain.

Perhaps Justice is more simple than it looks, and all comes down to laws?  This is part and parcel of existence in a society. By default, the law assumes that you are subject to its codes, limits and restrictions. It also takes for granted its right to limit, compel, injure, hurt, destroy, ruin, alter, incarcerate, mutate, coerce and delineate you in whichever way is required by that version of law. If you break the law, you are exposing yourself to whatever consequences the legal system sets out. Each society imposes its own version of right and wrong, and so we have a relativity that assumes that each individual in each society is condoning the imposition of that law on their selves. Surely that is a reasonable approach to the concept of justice?

Let’s stand back for a moment and ponder what poetic licence has been used in making these statements. Deal with grammar first – you would generally break ‘a law’ or you do something of a broader scope that which is generally unacceptable or illegal and so you are breaking ‘the Law’. We are going to assume that any one edict, section, paragraph or codicil by itself is just a little ‘law’. We are going to further assume that reference to the broad assumption of right and wrong in a society can be expressed as ‘Law’. It is a common condition in human society that lots of little laws exist, and that they continue to do so even if they are contrary to that which is considered ‘Justice’ by the community at large. Those laws will have a history, a tradition that will inevitably be esconced in hierarchial structures of the past. They may or may not reflect the attitudes of the bulk of the people who live under its influence. As societal attitudes and perspectives alter, there will be a hiatus during which the laws reflect an attitude no longer considered appropriate. We could assume that the role of a societal legal system is to test, update and strengthen the laws so that they continue to keep pace with the community they cover. However, we’d be assuming a perfect world here. There is an inevitable result that rules and laws will lag the attitudes of those who they apply to. This creates an environment in which a person can be tried, convicted and punished for an activity that the community considers acceptable. Hence, laws and justice are not necessarily interchangeable. Justice would dictate that the person is not liable for persecution or redress, as they have not transgressed any boundary. Law would require the person to suffer the due process of trial and judgement. Justice would suggest one outcome but Law would suggest another. To say the least, Law and Justice are not interchangeable.

Here are a few quick examples which illustrate the difficult interplay of laws and justice (we are going to use justice and Justice a little loosely).

  • The Greek Government is currently attempting to absolve itself from years of poor accounting by actually acting on the laws currently in place. The idea is to actually collect the taxes that are supposed to be levied on incomes or wealth or gain. The hope is that this will help balance out the overall societal burden by placing more cost on those who have greater capacity to wear that cost. However, taxing those who either have or are making lots of money is proving difficult. The suggestion is that the Greek government will have to change the national outlook, and somehow convince a doubtful populace that paying taxes is now the right thing to do, and avoiding taxes doesn’t give you social kudos anymore. A quick look at the article will give you some idea of the task in front of whoever has to drive these changes. We have here a failure of Justice.
  • The Russian legal system appears to be dispensing with jurors because people who are not part of the judicial system seem to have a predeliction for coming up with independent views – and sometimes even go as far as to disagree with the government Prosecutor… This article from the New York Times highlights a few examples that suggest that “invisible hands” are guiding the application of justice in the legal system (to steal a phrase from Adam Smith’s economic treatise “An enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”).

A Side Note to that article helps to illustrate how justice in one area can be declining or lost, while justice may be developing or even delivered in another.  The Russian Parliament is often considered by Western observers to be a little more than a veneer of democracy over a continuing authoritarian or criminal state. However, parliament was able to argue and tussle through a bill that accepts Russian/Soviet culpability for the murder of 22,000+ Polish Army Officers and citizens in the 1940’s. This is interesting, as the murders were carried out on the specific orders of the Georgian hero/dictator/mass murderer known as Joseph Stalin, and had to be passed in the face of heated disagreement from the communist representatives. Perhaps Western ideas of justice are a poor eyeglass to consider developments in Russian justice? (a thought echoed through the centuries by many observers, and given forceful backing by authors such as Lesley Blanch, in her book on the grinding Russian war for control of Dagestan, “The Sabres of Paradise”)

  • At what stage is a punishment worse than a crime, and when do we consider justice undone by such actions? This is a very disturbing video from Sudan, which shows the whipping of a woman in front of a group of onlookers.

Choose whether you will watch this video - it is disturbing.

The link is here – Sudanese Justice . The comments on the video site highlight the divergent views on what may or may not constitute justice in this situation. Few of these people take the time to consider that they know so little about the facts of the situation that their comments illustrate more about their own entrenched thought processes than any erudite dissection of what may or may not be happening in the video. The scene filmed presents either a display of – or a travesty of – justice. Some of the commentary certainly displays a lack of thought, and a complete lack of the basics underlying the term ‘irony’.

  • The massive loss of life from drug conflict in Mexico must surely represent a failure of justice? The claimed death toll of 30,000 dwarfs that of the combined Iraq/Afghanistan wars, yet the resources allocated to dealing with this extreme level of violence is minimal by comparison.
  • If you steal property, at what stage can it be legitimately claimed as being owned? What if you did not steal it but cannot prove legitimate purchase or production? Here is an example of an individual coming forward with millions of dollars worth of work by Picasso. Was the portfolio stolen or given as a gift? Is this yet another agrument against the injustice of property? How will the law be interpreted? Will it result in justice?

At any given point in time there will be many, many examples that can be pulled out of the news to illustrate the failure or shortcomings of laws. Sometimes these focus on the ridiculous – like centuries old statutes that have somehow remained law and would result in outcomes considered so foolish by modern society that they could never be successfully enforced. However, this is like attempting to nullify the Bible by pointing to long-abandoned social punishments, codes or customs and ridiculing contradictions inherent in the text. All such finger-pointing fails to address the core questions of faith and interpretation. Similarly, pointing at obviously flawed laws does not necessarily imply a flawed legal system.

Is Justice simply a word for what we think is right? If it is then aren’t we just back on the relativists slippery slope down to the oblivion of inane self-reference? If you doubt this, maybe spend a moment looking through this site dedicated to the Torah – it has a fascinating page suggesting that slavery is not just acceptable – it IS justice. Forgive me while i prick myself to see if i’m still a living thinking human being.

Justice is much deeper than the rights and wrongs of activities and actions. Justice can represent the approach taken to the allocation of resources in a community. At this juncture, we are moving into the staid realm of economics – money in the form of capital, labour and physical resources. Put another way, no matter how large a community or system of communities may be, the resources available to it are finite. The number of people available to fulfil all of the tasks that enable the communities to function is finite. There are a certain number of women of child-bearing age, a certain number of babies and children, a certain number of aged, infirm, invalids and a portion of the population who have the ability to perform manual or mental work. Given the desire of every individual to obtain what is best for them, how do you allow or limit the activities and functions of each individual to achieve that which they consider best for them, while still ensuring the smooth delivery of basic services in the community? In a primitive society such outcomes are achieved by The Alexander Method… that is, you allocate to the strongest. Whoever can take the most, gets the most. Survival of the fittest. Alpha Male paradise. Very good if you are the Alpha Male or his mate but not so good for the rest of society. The real world has a habit of imposing chaos into any such system. In the case of Alexander the Great, it was in the form of a group of incredibly talented, ambitious, ruthless and, to all intents and purposes – equal, generals. No one was strong enough to keep the empire together, and so the result was continuous conflict. Whether you allow Alpha Males to compete for dominance or work on the basis of majority rule, there will continue to be issues relating to the access to and exploitation of communal resources – such as fish stocks, clean water, clean air, minerals and vegetation. If access is not restricted or moderated then the time will eventually come when the resources are reduced or depleted at an unsustainable rate, leading to decline and decimation. This is the classic problem of Tragedy of the Commons (covered in an earlier post – “What is the “cost” of maintaining a society?”). Jared Diamond covers this in some detail in his books “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. The distribution of resources is thus fertile ground for a war on defining justice.

Justice could be seen from an “Anarchistic” view. The common usage of the word anarchy is to define a time of chaos, lawlessness and indescriminate violence (consider the anarchist bombing of a bank and the subsequent public anger at the death of 3 bank workers in a Greek protest). However, anarchy is much more than that. It is an area of politics with a long history of deep intellectual thought and consideration. Crudely put, anarchy seeks to minimise the impact of governments, oligarchies and rulers and maximising the “freedom” of the individual. If we consider this approach it is clear that justice is going to be that which allows the greater individual freedom. Politics in the United States is often polarised as a battle between freedom for the individual and the impacts of a socialist state. Even the most complex social decisions are seen as a simple choice between Republican libertarianism and Democratic Party socialism. Balancing the rights of the individual against the needs of a society is an ongoing tussle, and in the light of this struggle, we could consider justice to be the ability of the individual to live the life that they consider best.

Is justice in this sense the right of self-determination? Tribes, communities and nations argue for autonomy or independence but where does justice lay when we look at who is to be in control of who? Do we look at the historical precedents for ‘ownership’ of the land or pre-existence in an area? If my family occupied this territory before you came along, does that give my desires and wishes precedence over yours? Deciding on the right form and substance of government from this point of view failed in the Balkans as surely as it has been a continuous failure in the Middle East. Whose memory goes back furtherest, and who has the greater claim? Anarchists would point out that all forms of government are merely different expressions of the same idea – oppression and suppression of part of society by another part of society. The dichotomy of rich/poor, aristocrat/peasant, commissariat/worker, strong/weak will continue forever. So where does justice lay when we look at the rights and wrongs of who is to govern who and how? The difficulty of giving rights over your conduct was covered in a previous post on the Absurdity of Representational Government.

Justice in any grouping of individuals is made all the more difficult because of the intrinsic complexity of the human individual. If we humans were to simply sprout out of the sea, like Aphrodite – fully formed and delineated in our thought – then all would be relatively simple. Each of us would have a clear and concise version of justice and with a bit of effort it would be possible to find a workable definition. But we aren’t and so we can’t. Not only do we need to develop our own sense of justice, right, wrong and fair – we are also subject to continuous additional information, experiences and stimuli that can cause us to change our views of what justice may be. Even if one individual has acheived a certainty of definition, there will be others who have not or who are unsure or even disinterested. There will be those who cannot think for themselves, such as the physically or mentally disadvantaged. Two people can each have the best interests of the disadvantaged at heart and yet come out with diametrically opposed views of rights and obligations that should apply or be imposed.

Again we must ask ourselves whether it is possible to achieve a universal idea of justice? The United Nations has taken the time to work through a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Is this a form of common justice. It is certainly a good starting point but take the time to spend a moment reading it and contemplating the member states of the United Nations and its various committees, what they say and what their societies stand for and allow or disallow.

Are we now embarking on yet another slippery slope, when we consider the application of justice – and the imposition of that common justice expressed in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Who will implement it? What are the penalties on groups, individuals or nations that fail to live up to it?

If we were to argue for human society as a progressive line of developments then the lack of common understanding of justice is a very large obstacle. Until that obstacle is dealt with coherently and competently on a global level, it is hard to argue that our current world order is any more advanced than those of earliest history.


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