Happy New Year to all of our Philosophers!
The first general Grimsby PiPs of 2023 is Thursday the 26th January at 7:30pm, and will be held online at https://zoom.us/s/91328331644 (if a password is enforced it is ‘love’). Everybody is welcome, so please come along for a chat, or even just to listen. The following stimulus to discussion is on me…
What is Justice?
Wikipedia tells us that “Justice, in its broadest sense, is the principle that people receive that which they deserve, with the interpretation of what then constitutes “deserving” being impacted upon by numerous fields, with many differing viewpoints and perspectives, including the concepts of moral correctness based on ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity and fairness.” Lots to unpick there! What follows is my summary of an article echoing our question, which covers the three main types of justice and some of the philosophers who developed theories of justice. Read the full article here: https://www.humanrightscareers.com/issues/what-is-justice/ and I suspect this much longer article from the Intenet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the source of much of theirs, if you have time and energy to read it: https://iep.utm.edu/justwest
What are the three main types of justice?
Justice can be boiled down into three types: distributive, retributive, and restorative:
- Distributive justice is about the fair division of resources within a community. “Fair division” means everyone either gets or has access to the same services and physical goods. Why? The basis of distributive justice is that everyone is morally equal. Distributive justice affects areas like income, wealth, opportunities, jobs, welfare, and infrastructure. Principles of distributive justice include equity, need, and proportionality. While the basic definition of distributive justice is simple, how a society should fairly distribute resources is complex.
- Retributive justice, which can also be called criminal justice, focuses on how to punish crime. It’s based on the idea that when wrongdoing is committed, the wrongdoer should get a proportionate punishment. That doesn’t mean the wrongdoer should be subjected to exactly the same ordeal (i.e. if someone hits someone in the face, they don’t need to be hit back as their formal punishment), but it needs to be proportionate. Those who study retributive justice also tend to emphasize the need for indifference, meaning that justice shouldn’t be personal or based on revenge. While many justice systems include some kind of retributive justice, its effectiveness is debatable. Considering the flaws in many criminal justice systems, retributive justice can also end up harming innocent people or unfairly punishing certain groups over others.
- Restorative justice was developed in the 1970s, though many of its tenets come from Indigenous justice practices. Restorative justice focuses on helping victims of crimes, but it also wants to help offenders understand the harm they’ve caused. The goal is repair, not punishment. Engagement, accountability, cooperation, and community are all essential principles. Restorative justice practices have been used in many criminal justice cases, but they’ve also been adopted during conflicts involving families, schools, and workplaces. Unlike retributive justice, restorative justice doesn’t focus on what criminals deserve, but rather on what victims need to heal and what communities can do to prevent re-offending.
How have philosophers defined justice?
- Confucius (551-479 BCE) based everything on the belief that humans were naturally good, which meant they understood the difference between right and wrong and were drawn to doing the right thing. They still needed guidance, however, but instead of specific laws, Confucius advocated for a code of ethics that included Five Constants and Four Virtues. These included Zhong (loyalty) and Yi (justice and righteousness). By following this code of ethics and maintaining a hierarchy of authority (sons obey fathers, younger brothers obey older brothers, and wives obey husbands), Confucius believed strict justice systems wouldn’t be necessary. In Confucius’ view, justice is about ethical behavior (which comes naturally to humans) and maintaining hierarchies.
- Plato (428/7-348/7 BCE) built on his teacher Socrates’ ideas about justice and the belief that absolute truths exist. Because absolute truth exists, Plato believed justice couldn’t be subjective. Balance and control were essential, as well as a hierarchy. Plato’s vision of a “just” society had three classes: craftspeople, auxiliaries, and guardians. The guardians were in charge, but to achieve justice, all classes must embody certain virtues. Craftspeople should be temperate, auxiliaries should be courageous, and guardians should be wise. In Plato’s mind, only guardians – who were led by a philosopher king – could understand what justice looked like. Like Confucius, Plato’s concept of justice depends on groups staying in a hierarchy and living moral lives.
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) centered his ideas about justice on freedom. In his view, freedom is what gives human beings our dignity; it’s our only innate right. All laws must be created through the lens of freedom, bearing in mind that people don’t have the right to infringe on the freedom of others. For Kant, the only moral laws were laws that saw people as free, equal, and independent. What about crime and punishment? Kant believed in retributive justice and lex talonis, which is the theory that punishments need to inflict similar harm as the wrong done. If someone commits murder, death is the only equivalent punishment. Kant does also advocate for forgiveness, however, saying that repaying a wrong out of revenge or hatred is not virtuous. Kant devoted a good deal of his work to justice, applying his theories to private, private, and international law.
- In 1971, John Rawls (1921-2002) published A Theory of Justice, which is one of the 20th century’s most important books. In this book, Rawls sought to define what a just society looks like. He performed a thought experiment where a group of people live behind “a veil of ignorance.” The veil hides the differences between the individuals, such as their social, economic, gendered, racial, and historical differences. With no outside influences, people wouldn’t try to benefit one group over another. Eventually, the group would settle on two principles. The first states that everyone has the same basic liberties that can’t be taken away, but that may be limited only if someone’s liberties are infringing on those of another person. Rawls’ second principle focuses on equality, including equal opportunities to hold private and public offices, as well as equal (or as close to equal as possible) wealth distribution. To be just, a society must reduce inequalities as best as it can. Rawls called his theory “justice as fairness.” His ideas have been very influential in academic discussions about social justice and human rights, as well as policy-making.
Justice from within Capitalism and Empire?
The following embedded podcast (listen here or find it in your own podcatcher if you search ‘what is justice?’ and/or ‘sarah langford’) is a kind and considered view of (criminal and family) justice from within the UK criminal justice system. Do you think it’s an accurate account of justice?
Contrast this with a Marxist view which might posit the idea that capitalist criminal justice wrongly punishes people because their acts are caused by socially conditioned antagonism to their fellows – in conjunction with limited and unstable opportunities to satisfy their needs and desires. Second, that these people do not even deserve punishment because their apparent crimes are reactions against conditions which are, morally speaking, criminal. As capitalism emerged, from 1688 to 1815, law makers in England introduced the death penalty for a myriad of offences in a bid to deter property loss. Poaching of deer, stealing of rabbits, looting from shipwrecks, pickpocketing… every page of the statue book dripped with the threat of the hanging noose. By 1800, there were over 220 property-related crimes in the English criminal law that were punishable by death. Times have, of course, changed – however, I wonder how much of our criminal law system – police, courts, prison – is focused on protection of property and who is it that owns the lion’s share of that property?
And how much does the following trouble that view from within the system – this time from an anarchist perspective (From Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York, Vanguard Press, 1929. Retrieved on 23rd December 2022 from the Anarchist Library):
Justice means that each gets his due. Can the worker get his due or have justice in capitalist society?
If he did, capitalism could not exist: because then your employer could not make any profits out of your work. If the worker would get his due — that is, the things he produces or their equivalent — where would the profits of the capitalist come from? If labor owned the wealth it produces, there would be no capitalism.
It means that the worker cannot get what he produces, cannot get what is due to him, and therefore cannot get justice under wage slavery.
‘If that is the case,’ you remark, ‘he can appeal to the law, to the courts.’
What are the courts? What purpose do they serve? They exist to uphold the law. If someone has stolen your overcoat and you can prove it, the courts would decide in your favor. If the accused is rich or has a clever lawyer, the chances are that the verdict will be to the effect that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, or that it was an act of aberration, and the man will most likely go free.
But if you accuse your employer of robbing you of the greater part of your labor, of exploiting you for his personal benefit and profit, can you get your due in the courts? The judge will dismiss the case, because it is not against the law for your boss to make profits out of your work. There is no law to forbid it. You will get no justice that way.Alexander Berkman, Justice
And then, there’s this. After just seven years of encounter with justice…