Why should justice be the foundation of a society, and why not something else, say, honour or valour or wealth? What do we mean when we say justice? Do you mean the same thing as me? Dating myself to be sure, but would a Klingon from the Star Trek universe share your definition? So what is justice anyway?
‘Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of divine and human affairs and knowledge of what is just and what is unjust’, or so writes Justinian in Institutes 1.1 in 533 CE.
“Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens. Iuris prudentia est divinarum atque humanarum rerum notitia, iusti atque iniusti scientia.”
This is Justinian’s answer to the question: What is justice? In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss relates that ‘justice is the constant and unflagging will to render to each person what is due to him’ (or perhaps ‘what he’s entitled to’), and therein lies the rub: what exactly is one entitled to?
Geuss goes on to point out that entitlement was contingent to one’s place in society. Citizens were entitled to some things, resident aliens another, and slaves, pretty much nothing at all. In fact, giving a slave more than s/he was entitled to would be considered unjust, as it would be considered to be undeserved. As Geuss writes, ‘that to treat a slave as if he or she had any entitlements would be a gross violation of the basic principles of justice’. Of course, you are thinking, post-Enlightenment ‘all men are created equal’, or so the saying goes.
In practice, it’s been easy to sidestep the application of justice by redefining a certain group to be outside of some protected group. During the illegal aggression by the United States against Middle Eastern countries that resulted in extraordinary rendition of civilians spirited off to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, off the coast of the United States and outside of their jurisdiction, their acting regime declared that the detainees were not people, strictly speaking, and as such were not subject to the protections afforded to people, therefore they had no access to justice.
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
— John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
The ancient Greeks had a different idea of justice, so perhaps we just need to break out our trusty time turner to see what Aristotle had to say about it.
Here Aristotle rather equates the notion of justice to that of equality, but that begs the question: what equality? as we understand that equality comes in a variety of colours, so I won’t belabour the point any further here.
Instead of asking about justice, why don’t we focus on the root of the word, just? This yields the following definition:
Just: (adj) based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair
This brings us into the normative domain of morality, fairness, and reason, so it’s not much to work with—basically, we are in the realm of opinion defended by rhetoric.
For ‘all’ intents and purposes, we’ve got four forms of justice. We’ve been focused on the distributive type, but there are also procedural, restorative, and retributive varieties. In many cases, not just one form of justice is satisfying and so multiple varieties are deemed, well, just.
- Distributive or economic justice is about fairness in how things are distributed, about getting a fair share.
- Procedural justice is also about fairness, but it’s more about fair play, an even playing field.
- Restorative justice is about compensating for an injustice, about restoring some perceived balance.
- Retributive justice is about punishment—retribution.
A problem arises when we try to quantify and measure justice. Consider distributive justice: If two people work in a field and each cultivates 50% of the crop, are each entitled to 50% of the yield? If the cultivated land was the ‘property’ of some other landowner, what portion would s/he be entitled to? All of it? Some of it? None of it?
What about the court system? Procedural justice comes into play here. Should a wealthy person have access to better attorneys than a poor person? Is this just? The poor person may argue no, but the wealthy person may argue that s/he earned the ability to pay for a better lawyer, so s/he is entitled to this benefit.
Restorative justice sounds simple at the surface. If I steal a loaf of bread, wouldn’t returning the loaf (or, at least, a similar loaf) be restorative—no harm, no foul? Many people will argue that this is not good enough. Balance has not been restored.
This is where retributive justice comes into play. Retributive justice is a poorly veiled euphemism for vengeance. This is where Hammurabi‘s code (or Leviticus‘) eye for an eye—but not Matthew‘s turn the other cheek rendition—comes in. Let’s not get into Nietzsche’s take on forgiveness as being unjust and part of slave morality.
Keep in mind that in Hammurabi’s code, as with Roman law, justice was relative: Given eyes, (Nº 196) ‘If a man put out the eye of a nobleman (amelu), his eye shall be put out’, yet (Nº 198) ‘If he puts out the eye of a freedman or breaks the bone of a freedman, he shall pay one gold mina’.
Through all of this, we are still left wondering: just what is justice besides some vague notion constructed solely to preserve the status quo.