It is often said that, “there’s no justice”. Though this is, perhaps, an exaggeration. For everyone, on occasions, encounters what they can readily identify as a kind of justice. When someone that has been treating others badly suffers a pratfall, for example, many people are inclined to laugh, or to say “it serves them right”, rather than to sympathize.
And yet, this little saying, “there’s no justice”, is a symptom of a deeper problem. There is today a deep sense that there is not enough justice in the world. Very many people share this sense, but few have any idea what to do about it, and those who do all disagree with each other.
The politically-correct media spout lots of claptrap about “social justice”, “environmental justice”, “global economic justice” or even “public justice”. Politicians tinker endlessly with “the justice system”. But almost no-one says anything at all about justice itself. And no-one seems able to supply a clear answer to the question, what is justice?
This question – what is justice? – sounds simple. Yet an attempt to apply to it that bluntest of philosophical instruments, the dictionary, rapidly ends up going in circles. Justice, says the dictionary, is just conduct or fairness. Fairness is being fair, or otherwise said, just or equitable. Equitable means – yes, you’ve guessed it, fair or just.
The dictionary has failed us. Nor does that slightly less blunt instrument, the encyclopaedia, give much help either. In Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929 edition), the article on Justice consists of just 13 lines, and says no more about the concept of justice than does the dictionary. In a modern CD edition, there is no article on Justice at all.
If we try to answer the question by looking back at what pundits of the past have said, we find that few seem to have dared to take a deep breath and begin a sentence with, “Justice is…”. The Roman jurist Ulpian, in the 3rd century AD, made a good attempt: “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to allot to everyone his due.” The difficulty, of course, is in determining what is “due” to be rendered, and who decides it. In the 19th century, Disraeli said that justice is “truth in action”. An admirable sentiment, but not of much practical use. And no other definitions of justice seem to have survived the test of time to find their places in the quotation book.
With such questions, when all else fails, we lovers of freedom have to turn to our last resort – common sense. So, what does common sense tell us about justice? Recall the offender, that suffered a pratfall. Think, for example, of a lying or embezzling (or both) politician caught and exposed by the press. Why do many people feel satisfied or even amused by such cases? Because justice, or at least a measure of justice, has been done. Because the biter has been bit. Because people can see those that have treated others badly getting a bit of their own medicine, for once.
Our satisfaction at seeing the guilty punished comes from our sense of the oldest form of justice of all, namely, revenge. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Serves the bastards right.
Yet justice is more than mere revenge, as history shows us. For, in early Roman times, there came a shift in what constituted justice. The negative ideal, of vengeance against the perpetrator of a bad act, gave way to a more positive ideal, of compensation by the perpetrator to the victim. Both parties benefited from having available, as a more civilized alternative to the old “law of retribution”, a newer law, the law of restitution. One benefited through receiving compensation, the other through not being violently attacked.
This ideal of redress for wrongs is still present in systems of justice today, for example in the English law of tort. And few people would object to its validity as a principle of justice.
But these principles, of punishment for bad acts and of compensation to the victims of wrongs, do not fully answer the question “what is justice?” For these two precepts of justice seem to be telling us something deeper. They are telling us something about the relationship between how an individual behaves towards others, and how that individual deserves to be treated in return. The principle of punishment, rooted in the law of retribution, is saying that those that behave badly towards others deserve to be treated badly in return. And its partner, the law of restitution, is telling us that those who do not harm others do not deserve, over the long run at least, to suffer harm.
Here is part of the idea of justice, which our common sense seems to be taking us towards. Those that behave badly, deserve to be treated badly. And those who behave well, deserve not to be treated badly. For example, those who do not rob others, deserve not to be robbed. Those who do not attack others violently, deserve not to be violently attacked. Those who do not defraud others, deserve not to be defrauded. Those who do not obstruct others’ progress, deserve not to have their progress obstructed.
This aspect of justice, the negative aspect, can be seen as the flip side of Confucius’ Golden Rule. That rule, in its original form, tells us not to do to others what we would not like to have done to us. This negative kind of justice, then, is the condition which results when everyone obeys the Golden Rule. Or, at least, if on occasion someone fails to obey it, they provide in due course compensation to the victim.
But we have still not captured the full essence of justice. It is all very well for those, who do not treat others badly, themselves not to be treated badly. But what of those who actively treat others well? What of those thinkers and scientists, who use their talents to add to the store of objective human knowledge? Those engineers and technologists, who help to move human society forward, to make things possible which were not possible before? Those entrepreneurs, who create new products and services to make everyone’s lives better? Those honest working people, who help turn those products and services from dream into reality? Those benevolent people, who give their time and energy to counsel and to help those in trouble? Those educators, who strive to lead out the creativity of those they teach, to help them develop their talents to the full? Don’t these people deserve something more than just “not to be treated badly”? Don’t they deserve to be treated well – in the same measure as they treat others well? Don’t they deserve all the prosperity, all the pleasures, all the thanks and appreciation, which they have honestly earned?
Justice, we can see, has a positive side too. And that is, that each individual, who treats others well, deserves to be treated equally well in return. Putting the positive side together with the negative, we arrive at what seems a decent common-sense definition of justice: Justice is that condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run, as he or she treats others. And, looking back, we can see that Ulpian, all those centuries ago, was not so far from the mark.
If a society existed based on justice – on common-sense justice – then everyone in it would have a positive incentive to behave well towards others. For the way to get more of what you want, the way to get treated better by others, is to treat others better! Imagine what a peaceful, prosperous, happy society that would be.
But that is not the kind of society in which we are living today. I will not repeat here the litany of ever-increasing abuses, which politicians and their cronies are carrying out against us innocent human beings. But it is plain to almost everyone that justice – individual, objective justice – is not being done. Those who treat others well, far from being cherished, are being suffocated and stamped upon.
When individuals feel that they are not being treated justly, they begin to lose their natural benevolence. When injustice continues over a period, there is a kind of snowball effect. People withdraw their goodwill, and start to become touchy or even aggressive. If you wonder why there is so much violent crime and so much strife in the world today, consider lack of justice as a prime candidate to be one of the reasons.
Here is something, with which we lovers of freedom can win good people over. We can promote justice. Not “social justice”. Not “environmental justice”. Not “global economic justice”. Not “public justice”. But justice. Common-sense justice. Individual justice. That condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run, as he or she treats others.
Let us look forward to the next and due step in the development of human society. Let us look forward to the world-wide rule of common-sense justice. Let us look forward to a time – soon – when everyone will have the justice they deserve. When we lovers of freedom will have all the freedom, all the peace, all the prosperity, all the happiness, which we have earned and will continue to earn. And when our rivals, the lovers of tyranny, will have got their come-uppance. It will serve the bastards right.