Of Modern Justice (Part 2: The Modern Errors of Justice)

I’m continuing some thoughts on justice begun here.

Our Discomfort with Justice

Now, my declaration that we don’t want justice anymore isn’t to say that we don’t still use the rhetoric of justice. We still use the term for the emotional weight it conveys. But we usually limit it to its emotional content.

When the majority people talk about some injustice – the Trayvon Martin’s of the world, the latest banker screwing over clients, the failures of insurance companies, school administrations, or the whole political class – they rarely seek to lay out the facts, much less have the patience for a trial. It’s more important for us to hear from grieving mothers, broken families, the dying sick, bullied children, and frustrated citizens.

Our discernment of justice seems to follow two steps: Pull the heartstrings and follow your emotions.

There is no one cause of this situation. We can blame the 24-hours new cycle, the democratic impulse, the methodical-skepticism of authority, the cynicism of modern man, the failures of the prior-generation. As my friends summarize: “Sadly, Sin.” The cause is less important to me to its manifestation.

The Externality of Justice

We’ve forgotten that justice is essentially an external act. This is not to say that that Justice should not involve one’s intentions and one’s emotions – the perfect act of justice involves a man wanting to restore a proper order to things. However, justice in its essence, in what-it-is, does not depend on intentions of emotions.

If a rich man gives money to build an orphanage, he is performing an act of justice. It is justice because most anyone should recognize that these children are properly due, within reason, the aid of the community in being cared for – a restoration of order harmed by sin in any variety of ways. However, this rich man may not be performing this act because of this reason. Perhaps he is in the center of some scandal and this act will help to repair his image. Does this make his act any less an act of justice? No. It is still a just act. We would not call him a just man – his intentions are selfish and impure – but the act itself remains just.

This, by the way, is why the villain being punished by nature is often just as satisfying as being defeated by the hero. All those disney villains falling to their doom, often of their own contrivance? It’s satisfying because they are receiving their just deserts, even if no one had an intention to bring about that end. Justice is satisfied by the external righting of the order, even if nothing interior, like an intention to bring that justice about, occurs.

The Dominance of the Interior

But this goes counter to how we often experience and practice justice. More often than not, we want justice to be founded upon the internal the intentions or emotions. We want justice to be following the heart. We even go so far as to call that which is emotionally painful unjust.

This is what happens in the case of Daenerys’ act of justice. The mob interprets the act through the lens of their emotions. The loss of the freedman advisor, a favorite among the community, is painful; thus Daenerys’ act, to them, is unjust.

It’s a problem outside the fictional world too. We interpret injustices primarily through our emotional lens. This is especially seen in the identity politicking of the day, where one’s attachment to a community will ramp up the emotions and will begin defining the justice of an act. This makes it hard for the many real injustices to be taken seriously by those outside of the identity – they don’t share the same emotions, and if justice is primarily an act of emotion, thus it is not unjust to me. Justice becomes ultimately relative by tying it to emotions.

It also makes it nigh near impossible for those entrusted to carry out justice, like Daenerys, to be at peace with this. It is assumed that justice performed must bring joy, exultation that order is restored. This simply isn’t the case – disorder caused by sin and calling for justice is often so damaging that it involves attachments beyond the act at hand. Should a violent drugdealer with children not be incarcerated because it’ll leave his family without a provider? Should a vigilante murderer be pardoned just because his target was a wicked man and the vigilante is like by the community? These are emotionally painful situations, but justice cannot be ignored because of them.

It is not always the case that justice must be painful (I am no Kantian!), but it often is. The father who must discipline his child for some misdemeanor – denying him videogames because he hit his sister; refusing permission for a her to go the prom for breaking curfew too often; spanking an unruly child – shouldn’t find delight in the act. But he must perform the act because it is just. The attachment to the child means the parent will empathize with the child’s pain, but a well ordered soul will be at peace in knowing justice is restored in this punishment. (One can discuss the variety of ends in punishment, including remediation, but metaphysically this also includes the balancing of the scales of order. This is, I argue, the primary end of punishment.)


About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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