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.