What Is Justice?

When a tragedy occurs, we often hear pleas for justice for the victims. This raises a difficult question: Just what, exactly, is justice?

Ideally, perhaps, justice should mean the application of the law. We want to see our laws applied evenly to all, regardless of class, race, political party, or income. But what if the law itself is unjust?

More generally, we want people to be held accountable for their actions. But what “accountable” means can vary from person to person. What one person thinks is fair and just, another may think is too harsh, or too lenient.

Does the victim’s opinion on what exactly is considered just for the crime committed against them matter? What if the opinion of the victim does not match what society as a whole believes?

From a legal standpoint, the victim’s opinion might be taken into account, but the victim does not get to make the final decision on what is just. That is up to a jury and a judge. However, if a jury and judge come to a conclusion, but the victim does not feel that justice has been served, has it?

Justice is an important concept in our society. There is even an entire federal organization, the Department of Justice, whose sole job is to see that justice is done. But what recourse is there if people feel that fairness is not being achieved?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? Where does authority come from? How much power does an individual have? When should you not follow the law? What is the purpose of incarceration?

6 thoughts on “What Is Justice?”

  1. What is justice? It is, at minimum, three things:

    1. It is a virtue individually-engaged citizens try to understand and play a part in working toward.
    2. Hopefully, it is the basis of civic movements: seeing injustice in our systems or norms, we demand they be rooted out.
    3. It is, as we perfect law to justice’s demands, the application of the law … evenly applied to all.

    For those who don’t know, two people — Lee and Michael (me) — maintain this blog. We jointly dream up questions. Weekly, we pick a Sunday in-depth question (e.g. “What is justice?), a Tuesday quick reaction question (e.g. “What’s your favorite …?”), and a Thursday Throw Down — a choice between two things, topics, concepts, etc.

    Lee writes a context and posts each question. I usually provide the first response. And then we both hope people will come to read, answer, and, ideally, interact with others who’ve posted.

    I provide this background to say: Wow! This question went in different direction than I thought it would. I thought Lee and I interpreted the question not in its weighing how to properly exact justice, but in its aspirational sense (e.g. the stuff of social movements).

    So, I spent yesterday thinking about responses that were going to comment on injustices. For example:

    • Do you want to know what’s not just? The U.S. having a shortage of roughly 7 million homes affordable and available to our lowest income households while also turning a blind or punitive eye toward a certain number of people/families who, by definition, will become homeless. The federal government must reverse its (at least) 40-year neglect of being a true partner in production of homes that are not profitable for the free market to build.
    • Do you want to know what’s not just? Poisoning the planet to the point that our climate will soon spiral to temperatures unbearable to humans while expressing pride that current younger generations seem to have an indignant attitude needed to fix the problem. Well over a century’s spewing of toxins into our atmosphere must be reversed within roughly a decade even though our current political leaders and economies are in no way oriented to be partners in the younger generations’ quest for humanity’s survival.
    • Do you want to know what’s not just? Treating the law like it’s fair when black parents must teach their sons how not to be shot by the police while white parents teach their kids to seek cops’ help when something goes wrong. Most of society thinks “justice is blind,” when, in fact, some of its institutions are set up to control a portion of our population into unjust, stifling, and fearful submission.

    So, I mistakenly thought Lee would ask how people are to seek justice and correct oppression. But now knowing Lee’s interpretation and drawing some from my final example above, let’s be clear: our justice system has many flaws, especially as it applies to racial impact. I’d recommend this blog’s followers read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander to better understand an example of this. The book provides a short account of our nation’s history of systemic oppression of African-Americans (e.g. slavery, voter suppression, municipal covenants) and an in-depth account of how, beginning with the 1980’s “War on Drugs,” a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately cycles black men through our corrections’ system over and over again.

  2. Michael, you seem to have taken a lot on your shoulders to try and correct the wrongs of society. Specifically, regarding the production of homes not profitable for the free market to build, why did the “projects” inner city homes of the 1960s fail and what do you believe could be done differently to achieve that goal?

    1. Producing and maintaining housing — affordable or not — costs a lot of money. In higher market housing, the costs of both plus a profit are covered by rents.

      In much of the public housing in 1960’s, affordable rents, of course, were never going to cover ongoing maintenance. And government failed to fully cover the difference. And then, even worse, HUD’s budget was slashed from $81 billion to $18 billion from the very late 1970s to early 1980s, HUD never recovered. Very little new investment happened for a long time.

      Homelessness popped up everywhere and just kept growing. And with it, not only did we see the costs of buildings, but the costs of services some in the system needed were rarely adequately addressed.

      The public saw homelessness — saw people experiencing homelessness — and mistakenly believed personal defects as the reason this was all happening. But remember, we are now short seven million units of housing affordable and available to those with the lowest incomes. People are forced to double-up, triple-up, or more just to have a place to live — understandably violating lease terms. But some will still find their only home is the streets, an emergency shelter, or housing built solely to serve those experiencing “long-term” homelessness. With no options to get out of the system, the system is stuck and at times grows worse.

      Now, I don’t despair. Why? Because I know there is enough money put into the system overall to make housing affordable.

      What? What could be the answer? Tell me why for decades we invested four times more in direct tax deductions and exemptions to middle- and higher-income people and the one (or two) homes they had a mortgage on?

      I look at my neighborhood, and I see many well-kept up homes. In just one neighborhood, hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives: the mortgage interest deduction, capital gains exclusions, property tax write-offs, etc. In fact, most of the subsidization of housing happens — to this day — in the highest cost housing with the largest mortgages.

      We wonder why my neighborhood looks better than a neighborhood with primarily low-income rental units? I don’t. The answer to homelessness is in front of our very eyes.

      Now, why me? Why do I do this? First, I believe justice can prevail when enough people demand it. I also believe government can play a positive role in people’s lives and in incentivizing the right things. But lastly, I have known people who’ve been homeless or were on its very cusp. We simply cannot let it continue — especially when we do have the answers and the money to solve the problem.

      Thanks for asking, Ruby.

  3. Too often, as a society we seem to behave as though “justice” is the same as “punishment”. If someone commits a crime, justice is done if they are sentenced, or punished, appropriately. Sometimes that may mean a stay in jail; other times some community service. Or maybe a financial penalty.

    But there isn’t anything particularly “just” about punishment.

    Often, victims feel that punishment to an offender doesn’t help them achieve closure. For example, if someone’s house is robbed, if the perpetrator is sent to jail, that doesn’t return the items that were taken, or restore the sense of security that was lost.

    Many people seem to think punishment is a deterrent, and so, in theory, that would further prevent additional crimes in the future. But that doesn’t seem to actually hold true in reality.

    “Crime” in this context doesn’t have to be a violation of the law. It can be as simple as a personal slight, or a violation of manners. If someone says something rude to you, having that person punished (say, being socially excluded) doesn’t really fix the transgression. It would be better to have that person truly understand why being rude was hurtful, and not do it again. That outcome is not often achieved through punishment.

    I’ve been impressed with what I have seen regarding the notion of “restorative justice”. The notion is that the person who has committed a crime is responsible for “restoring”, or making right, the wrong thing that they did. Restorative justice is quite labor intensive, and it is difficult to generalize, because each infraction must be treated on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t scale well.

    But it involves empathy, understanding, and remorse, and these are all things that sadly seem to be in short supply in our current society.

    1. I would argue that empathy, understanding and remorse are not in short supply, but are in fact commonplace. Perfect empathy, deep understanding, and perfect remorse, on the other hand, are rare.

  4. I recently stumbled on this formulation, which apparently originated in a blog comment by a composer named Frank Wilhoit:

    “ Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

    There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

    * * *

    So this tells us what anti-conservatism must be: the proposition that the law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone, and cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone.”

    Wilhoit’s anti-conservatism seems like a concise working definition of justice.

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