Democracy or tyranny?
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?
Have you had any notable interaction with someone from the police department? Do you have direct experience with law enforcement?
Share why if you wish.
When someone commits a crime and they are convicted, they may be put in prison. What do we hope to achieve through this incarceration?
Incarcerating criminals, particularly violent criminals, might make our society safer. If you remove the dangerous individuals from the general population, so the theory goes, those that remain are the law abiding ones.
(This, by the way, is one of the reasons some people support the death penalty. If the most dangerous criminals are put to death, they will not be able to re-offend, and we are therefore a safer society.)
A second possibility is one of reformation. If someone who has committed a crime is isolated until they experience and show remorse, that person can be rehabilitated. They can then be reintroduced to society.
Yet another is putative. If someone has wronged us individually or as a society, that person needs to be punished. That punishment can take on different forms: removal from society at large; kept in confining or restricting quarters; forced labor; removal from any human contact; etc.
Incarceration can also be seen as a potential deterrent to others. If you break the law, this will happen to you. So you’d better not break the law!
There may be other possible reasons as well. Each one of these has merits and flaws. However, to answer this question we need to answer a different question first: what are we trying to achieve? What is the outcome we want, and what is the best way to get that outcome? Do we want punishment? Do we want rehabilitation?
In other words, what is the purpose of incarceration?
A system of laws, or rules that we all must follow, is one of the crowning achievements of our society. The law makes civilization possible, so that different people can work together to do more than any individual could manage on their own.
At the same time, there have been, and will continue to be, bad laws that have been enacted. Laws can be unfair, either intentionally or unintentionally. And if there is a bad law, good people cannot be expected to follow it.
Sometimes, even good laws are broken. It is a rare individual indeed who has not jaywalked at least once in their life, but the existence of crosswalks increase public safety. Speeding on the road is common, even though speed limits are in place for a very good reason — they save lives.
But how does someone determine which laws should and should not be followed? The law itself allows our civilization to function, and any sort of mass, consistent breaking of the law by a significant portion of the populace would cause society to break down. Conversely, blindly following unjust laws could also lead to to an unjust society.
As individuals, we have a duty to follow the laws that our peers have agreed upon. However, we also have a duty to stand up to injustice, even if that means breaking the law.
How can we determine which is which? When should you not follow the law? What should the consequences be for someone who breaks an unjust or unfair law? Should we only try and amend unfair laws, or is it important to break them when necessary? When is it necessary?