What is the point of a “Justice system” if not to dispense “justice”? What even is “Justice”? Well, let’s define our terms:
Personally, I feel that justice is the authoritative judgement against wrongdoing, which results in correcting that which was “wrong”, to the greatest possible “right”.
Let’s look at an easy example: murder.
When someone is murdered, the greatest “right” to correct that “wrong”, would be to restore the murdered person to life, and prevent the offender from ever being able to murder again.
Unfortunately, that’s not really possible at this time, so we’re left with a bunch of questions about whether the family should be compensated and by whom? (Since one might naturally say the offender should compensate the murdered’s family– but that person may not have anything of value to compensate them with, and may also be unwilling to cooperate by working for that family in lieu of material compensation. Even if that person did have a practically infinite source of funds with which to compensate the family, how much should the offender give? Everything? To whom? The spouse? The children? The parents? The siblings? The Grandparents? The Grandchildren? What if all of those people were a part of the murdered’s life? Should it be divided among them? The questions just keep going from there.)
So what we’ve come up with in North American society is to jail the murderer (or in some States, put that person to death), and the family of the victim simply loses out on everything the murdered member provided, *as well as* having to cover the costs of disposing of the body, which also comes with a costly farewell ritual (funeral). (Funerals, incidentally, are their own entire can of worms to be addressed at another time. To learn more about cost-effective funerals, check out “Deathcaring” Community-Based last rites on FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306940662720202/about/ )
I don’t think this is the best we could be doing, but it does account for some amount of justice, without resorting to murdering the murderer (usually), which violates the murderer’s right to life. Some would argue that the murderer forfeit that right when they murdered someone– to which I don’t have a great argument. My only thoughts on that matter are that occasionally an apparent “murder” takes place out of perceived necessity, which would make it wrong to murder the murderer– and that any time you do harm to anyone, you’re simply creating more harm in the world– even if that someone was harmful to begin with. Sometimes you must create that harm to prevent more harm– but we don’t always know what the greatest amount of harm created will be, and therefore it’s best to simply not create the harm. This is a foggy, grey area of ethics.
That brings us to “right” and “wrong”.
I once listened to Sam Harris talk about morality on a podcast, and his definition (which I’ll recite loosely, as I don’t claim to remember it word-for-word) I thought, was the most well-defined I’d ever heard: When we’re talking about “right or “good” we mean that which bears the most positive outcome for the most people, most of the time. Therefore what’s “wrong” or “bad” bears the worst outcome for the most people, most of the time.
Considering all the variables in life, there isn’t much else one can say on the subject, without falling into a myriad of traps and circumstantial grey areas.
For instance, if we stuck strictly to the letter of that definition, suppose we consider this contrived scenario:
A village of 100 people discovers that one person has found a treasure that everyone else wants. Now 99 people (the majority) are envious of the one (minority). They all unanimously decide to kill the finder of the treasure, so that they can decide who gets it by voting– but they’re all in agreement that the one person who found it, shoudln’t have it.
Asides: You may ask, well what if that one person is a terrible person, and will use the treasure to harm the lives of the rest of the village? Well, that could be the case in some scenarios, but in my scenario, the minority person is simply unliked. He’s a mis-fit in the village. Nobody respects him because he’s not the best at anything, he’s somewhat oafish and clumsy, but he does his part to carry his own weight. He simply isn’t well-liked, and has no real friends.
Obviously, just because the majority agrees that the minority should be destroyed and stolen from, doesn’t make either of those things morally correct– which goes to show that even Sam’s hard-and-fast rule of what’s “right” and “wrong” can’t be relied upon 100% of the time. Therefore, it’s up to us as individuals to rely on our REASON, RATIONALITY, and arguably even our FEELINGS to determine in every individual case, what precisely is “good”, “bad”, “right”, or “wrong”. We should not be lead blindly by the letter of advice, rather to follow our “hearts” to the “spirit” of the advice, to the best of our capability.
From there, let’s look at the textbook definitions of words like “Justice”, “moral”, “right”, and related (which will be useful for my next/follow-up post as well) :
just behavior or treatment.
“a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people”
synonyms: fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, evenhandedness, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness, honesty, righteousness, morals, morality
“I appealed to his sense of justice”
based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
“a just and democratic society”
synonyms: fair, fair-minded, equitable, even-handed, impartial, unbiased, objective, neutral, disinterested, unprejudiced, open-minded, nonpartisan
concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.
“the moral dimensions of medical intervention”
synonyms: virtuous, good, righteous, upright, upstanding, high-minded, principled, honorable, honest, just, noble, incorruptible, scrupulous, respectable, decent, clean-living, law-abiding
in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate.
“the group has achieved fair and equal representation for all its members”
synonyms: just, equitable, honest, upright, honorable, trustworthy; More
without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.
“no one could say he played fair”
that which is morally right; righteousness.
“a mysterious balance of good and evil”
synonyms: virtue, righteousness, goodness, morality, integrity, rectitude
the quality of being morally right or justifiable.
synonyms: fairness, goodness, rectitude, respectability, honor, justness, uprightness, virtue
able to be shown to be right or reasonable; defensible.
synonyms: valid, legitimate, warranted, well founded, justified, just, reasonable;
(of a person) having sound judgment; fair and sensible.
“no reasonable person could have objected”
synonyms: sensible, rational, logical, fair, fair-minded, just, equitable
as much as is appropriate or fair; moderate.
“a police officer may use reasonable force to gain entry”
synonyms: within reason, practicable, sensible
And since this word comes up a LOT in multiple contexts:
morally good, justified, or acceptable.
“I hope we’re doing the right thing”
synonyms: just, fair, proper, good, upright, righteous, virtuous, moral, ethical, honorable, honest; More
true or correct as a fact.
“I’m not sure I know the right answer”
synonyms: correct, accurate, exact, precise; More
to the furthest or most complete extent or degree (used for emphasis).
“the car spun right off the track”
synonyms: completely, fully, totally, absolutely, utterly, thoroughly, quite
“she was right at the limit of her patience”
“he had guessed right”
synonyms: correctly, accurately, properly, precisely, aright, rightly, perfectly
“I think I heard right”
that which is morally correct, just, or honorable.
“she doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong”
synonyms: goodness, righteousness, virtue, integrity, rectitude, propriety, morality, truth, honesty, honor, justice, fairness, equity
a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.
“she had every right to be angry”
synonyms: entitlement, prerogative, privilege, advantage, due, birthright, liberty, authority, power, license, permission, dispensation, leave, sanction, freedom
This post actually started out with a different point that I was getting to, but just unpacking the meaning of “Justice” is so important and merits so much clarification, that I’ll have to address the original point in a follow-up post. The point of that post was regarding the notion of keeping prisoners in prison for crimes committed, even after that crime has been considered no longer “criminal” by the populace– especially regarding non-violent, and specifically marijuana-related laws and charges.
The first and most obvious response to that notion is that if the action in question was considered criminal at the time it was committed, and the person performing said action knew it was a criminal offense, then that person has committed a crime regardless of whether the action is later considered non-criminal, and should therefore “do the time”– i.e. serve the sentence– mandated at the time of the offense.
I would generally agree with that response, but there are several cases (including the one I meant to make this post about, specifically) in which this general rule-of-thumb can’t, shouldn’t, or should maybe not apply.
For instance, suppose the crime is being tried by jury, and they can’t decide whether or not the offender is guilty, so the trial gets carried over an additional day while they deliberate.
Meanwhile, the law regarding the offense changes while the jury is still hung, deeming the offense to no longer be criminal. The jury then returns and decides the alleged offender is guilty. Should the offender still be punished, since technically he committed the crime while it was still criminal– or should he be set free since he wasn’t rendered a verdict until after it was legally decided the action was never criminal to begin with?
The bigger question to me is: if we’re talking about an issue upon which people can flip-flop back and forth as to whether it’s a criminal act, should anyone ever be jailed for that issue?
That notion, and more is what I explore in the next entry: