What is Justice?

Justice is about the proper balancing of rights. This is best demonstrated in a context in which we find justice at work.

All practical rights arise from agreements. We come to agree to respect and protect certain rights for each other.

“To secure these rights, governments are instituted”, said Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. And we, the people, constituted the United States of America by a written agreement amongst ourselves, a Constitution that we ratified state by state. And each state has its own constitutional agreement as well.

We agreed to create a legislature, consisting of our elected representatives, that acts on our behalf to reach further agreements on the details of specific rights. Behavior that infringes or violates these rights is defined and prohibited by laws. Every law implies one or more rights.

Courts hear cases of illegal acts committed by individuals and, if found guilty, the offender is subject to a penalty, often carried out in a correctional facility.

The point of the penalty is to (a) restore the rights of the victim by repairing the harm done, (b) correct the future behavior of the offender, (c) protect the rights of society against further harm until the offender’s behavior is corrected, and (d) assure the offender’s right to a just penalty by doing no more than is reasonably necessary to restore, correct, and protect.

The rights of the victim, society, and the offender must all be taken into account if the penalty is to be called ‘just’.

Correction, when possible, would ideally result in the offender being returned to the community. Rehabilitation may offer the offender a chance to better themselves by counseling, education or skills training. Post-release follow-up and assistance may also be required. But an incorrigible offender may remain in prison if they refuse to change their behavior and repeatedly break the law. The prison term on subsequent offenses would reasonably be increased to protect the public.

That is justice. And everyone deserves justice. When we speak of someone getting their “just deserts”, well, that’s what it must be if it is to be called “just”.

And if one is actually seeking justice, then that is how it is found.

But if you are seeking something else, like revenge or retribution, then it is unlikely that you will find justice.

The idea of redemption is a key, especially in the context of raising our children. No one would allow for revenge or retribution against a child. We expect to correct children by teaching appropriate choices to replace inappropriate behavior. Correction is only punitive to the mildest degree required to get their attention and to make clear our disapproval of the bad action. The child should never be left uncertain as to the variety of good choices available.

2 thoughts on “What is Justice?

  1. There is another form of “justice”, which lies outside the context of man-made laws and civil society, and exists solely in the realm of nature. Again, this commentary will deal with “natural rights” as conceived by several major thinkers. NOTE: there is no such thing as a “right” of any kind, strictly speaking, as in an intrinsic, real “right”, in nature. “Natural right” refers to the fact that living entities will do whatever they can and must to survive, especially lower animals (we could argue all day about whether apes or cats or even chipmunks are “lower” animals than humans – but I want to avoid that rabbit hole for now since I don’t want to type forever). Even humans, before man-made laws or organized societies began to proliferate, and even in some contexts today, will do whatever they can to survive, regardless of man-made laws, and regardless of the possibility of retribution or incarceration – and I could go on offering a breakdown off various scenarios to explain what I mean, but space is limited.

    As an example of another form of “justice” I refer to above, let’s say a man’s child is raped and killed by someone. Now has choices. He may choose to let the legal system do its function, hoping that the rapist/murderer is caught, tried, sentenced, and punished appropriately. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the police or whatever authorities are involved with any particular instance of such heinous violence will not be able to apprehend the guilty party, or, even if they do, the perpetrator will have a crafty lawyer who may be able to get him a lesser sentence, or even an acquittal. Lord knows there are millions of unscrupulous legal professionals and even judges (not to mention dim-witted or preconditioned, prejudiced members of juries) who can and will work diligently to make sure a wanton rapist, child molester, and murderer, escape “justice” and return to do the very same thing to another innocent child or victim.

    If the man were myself, and I knew who the perpetrator was who raped and killed my child, I would remain reasonably calm and hope to see “justice” done, by appropriate means. BUT – let us say the perpetrator were caught, tried, and wound up getting off on some technicality, or because of the clever work of a smart attorney, a slipshod judge, or a jury filled with addle-brained ideas about rehabilitation and the milk of human kindness. If that happened, then I would take “justice” into my own hands, pursue the perpetrator, and kill him myself. Not injure, but kill.

    I would face whatever “justice” were coming to me from authorities, and even face life in prison or execution, and I would do it gladly and with a pure conscience, knowing that if I had not acted, and allowed the person who raped and killed my own child live free, by doing nothing, then I would be a coward, a rotten parent, and as good as dead anyway.

    Such are the forms of “justice” that serve the individual, and not necessarily the social group; albeit in the case I wrote just now, the greater population would be well-served in having a child molester, rapist, and murderer out of the way and off the streets. My own punishment would be totally acceptable by ME in this situation, and even my death, were that to occur.


    • The notion of “right” refers to “things as they ought to be”. For example, it used to be a common belief that everyone ought to use their “right” hand. The “right” of free speech asserts that everyone ought to be free to express their opinions. And so on.

      People often have different opinions as to how things ought to be. A king dies and his two sons both assert that they ought to be king. How is this matter settled? Well, they could fight to the death, and the one who survived could be king. Or, there could be some law established that would settle the matter of succession peacefully.

      Vengeance can also create unlimited violence. The feud between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s was a war between two families that lasted nearly 30 years, between two families that decided to take the law into their own hands.

      We are a nation of laws, where courts settle matters of justice peacefully, rather than everyone following their own sense of how things ought to be, and how suspects are proved to be guilty, and how criminal offenders will be penalized for their acts.

      Now, you have pointed out that our justice system, like any other system run by mere mortals, is subject to errors. You point out that criminal offenders are sometimes released due to technical issues with the evidence. But we should also remember that many innocent people have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Some innocent men were kept in prison for decades and some innocent men were executed.

      The system can be improved. Perhaps when police collect important evidence without a warrant, the evidence should be allowed, and the policeman should be penalized for his mistake, instead of the victim.

      In any case, taking matters into our own hands, rather than fixing the justice system, should always be considered something that ought not to happen. It is not right.


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