The Shape of Reality: What Is Justice?

Anthony Weber —  July 6, 2013 — 2 Comments
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“Your worldview has to have the same shape that reality does.”  – J. Budziszewski

 

As noted in the opening post in this series,  I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. The language of morality only makes sense if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil, so my third post addressed the issue of whether or not we are really free.

The concepts of freedom and moral obligation brings with them the idea of justice. If right and wrong are objectively real, and we are people deserving of praise and culpability based on how our choices align with moral goodness, then part of the morally obligatory good would be to treat people justly. So, what is justice?

Wikipedia defines justice as, “A concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, natural law, religion, equity or fairness, …taking into taking into account the inalienable and inborn rights of all human beings…”  As C.S. Lewis noted,1 certain standard ideas of justice seem to permeate all cultures. It’s the “inalienable and inborn” that creates the controversy.

In spite of standards that permeate cultures, some cultures implement legal codes or approve of social norms that allow for activities that others generally perceive as unjust. Is justice of such a nature that we can genuinely judge the justice of particular situations, or are we simply talking about an concept that seems really good but has no foundation on which to take an objective stand? Is there a criteria that grounds our recognition of  and longing for justice?

Justice has at various times been seen as that which brings harmony or order to society, that which God commands, or that which naturally arises from consequentialist ethics. Philosophers have broken it into categories such as retributive justice (justice in which the punishment fits the crime), restorative justice (justice that brings healing to the situation), and distributive justice (justice in which there is equal allocation of resources and opportunities).

Cicero once wrote that “Law is the highest reason, implanted in nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. …law is intelligence, whose natural function is to command right conduct and forbid wrongdoing.” The theories of Plato, Aristotle, Ambrose, and Augustine can be summarized in the phrase suum cuique, “to each his own” – that is, everyone should be rewarded appropriately for his or her actions.  This summation is built on the foundational belief that the concept of justice has been placed into the consciousness of everyone by a transcendent power.2

The bottom line? Justice is giving people what they deserve. But figuring out what people deserve can be difficult when there is no clear concept of what it means to be human, or to be a person.

  • Daniel Dennett says people are “moist robots” whose sense of free will and objective morality is an illusion.
  • Richard Dawkins asked Stephen Pinker in an interview,  “Am I right to think that the feeling that I have that I’m a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things, that this is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a kind of society of mind?” Pinker responded that science cannot explain consciousness and identity and went on to note:

“There may be a sense of free will that we need as a construct, or an idealization in our system of moral reasoning, to get the answers to come out right. We may want to distinguish between people who are literally in a fugue state and hallucinating, and people who are compos mentis and who can be held responsible for their actions in the mundane sense that punishment may deter them and others. It may be that free will is the most convenient way of summarizing that difference.”

  • Perhaps that is why Dawkins has said elsewhere,Doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment.”
  • William Provine pulls no punches. He has written that “Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society…freedom to make uncoerced unprincipled choices simply does not exist.”

If this is true, what foundational standard enables us to hold people accountable for their decisions and actions?  We are just machines; we are some sort of zombie minus the cannibalism and appalling personal hygiene. Nobody expects the law in The Walking Dead to bring the Walkers to justice because the undead are not morally culpable. They just are. The survivors may try to stop them or cure them, but not because the Walkers are doing something unjust or wrong. They are just…walking…in a way the rest of society does not prefer.

If we are no different, then rapists, murderers, thieves, and abusers just are. They can’t morally improve if there is no standard with which to gauge morality or improvement. They can only conform (or not conform) to the subjective societal norm. There is no satisfaction to be found in justice being served on those who do evil, because they committed no moral wrong; the victim was a moist robot attacked by a zombie. Yawn. Justice has no meaning in a world in which there is no good,evil, freedom or choice.

In order to believe that justice can be served, we need several other components to be in place:

  • We need people to be significantly free moral agents who are blameworthy or praiseworthy
  • We need right and wrong to be objective and sufficiently knowable so that we can act
  • We need to believe that those who do wrong things deserve punishment (retributive justice) but also deserve the hope of restoration (restorative justice).

It’s hard to see how all three of these claims can be made apart from a theistic point of reference. The biblical concept of God has certainly fielded some criticism over the years,3  but even atheist Yale law professor Arthur Leff has written, “The so-called death of God…seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more than momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system.”

And yet, we all long for justice. We have ingrained within us the need to see wrong situations made right. N.T. Wright has noted:4

 “Has the child been to a seminar on modern theories of justice?  No, he hasn’t. The child just knows that there is such a thing as fairness and that this child who is beating him up or who has just stolen his ball is not obedient to this thing called justice, or fairness.  But, of course, we adults do exactly the same thing; and so do nations and countries and societies.  We all know there should be such a thing as putting things right: doing justice, getting it all sorted out.” 

Either we long for an illusion, or we seek the real thing. 

John Warwick Montgomery uses an interesting analogy: “Water doesn’t rise above its own level; that is, we can’t get absolute principles from a non-absolute source.”5 Archimedes claimed that given a long enough fulcrum, he could move the world. That’s true, but the fulcrum has to be outside the world, not in it. In order for justice to move the moral world, it must be grounded in a source other than the people who are moved.  Even Rousseau noted in his Social Contract that “it would take gods to give men laws.”

Christianity recognizes that a God of justice requires justice now and in the future. This means we are capable of knowing it and obligated to implement it. At the same time, justice is meant to be intertwined with mercy (Micah 6:8). Holding people accountable is one way to be merciful; it can be a wake-up call to the perpetrator and a blessing to the victims. Granting the repentant is another way in which mercy is seen, but even in that case true repentance requires a genuine acknowledgment of wrongdoing.  Mercy without justice is spineless and blind, but justice without mercy is cruel and indifferent.

According to the Bible – and our legal system – we are a people who make significantly moral choices. “My past life/ community/gene pool made me do it” is not a defense that (at least up to this point) has carried any kind of significant weight in the search for justice. What we do is not merely society’s fault. It’s not only the fault of our DNA. We are clearly influenced by these factors, but when we do bad things we deserve genuine blame, and when we do good things we deserve genuine praise. Only within the framework of this worldview can we have assurance that justice can be sought and found.

Recommended Resources:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia “Justice”

Leadership Journal, “What Is Biblical Justice?”

Relevant Magazine, “What is Biblical Justice?

Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

Norman Geisler’s Christian Ethics

____________________________________________________________________

  1. The Abolition of Man []
  2. “The Meaning of Justice,” by Russell Kirk []
  3. I address the question of God as he appears in the Old Testament in two series of posts. The first is entitled God of War; the second Old Testament Law. Click on the links for the first in the series. []
  4. In Socrates In The City []
  5. “Why Human Rights Are Impossible Without Religion,” in A Place For Truth []

Anthony Weber

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Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.
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  • Steve Ruble

    You mentioned three different categories of justice: retributive, restorative, and distributive, but I don’t think you give those distinctions enough consideration in the rest of the post. Restorative and distributive justice are both easy to make sense of even when applied to amoral agents: for example, I would feel bad if I watered all of my plants except one (a violation of distributive justice) and I would then make sure that I watered the missed plant (restorative justice). However, I don’t think I would punish a plant for shading out another plant; I would just try to remedy the situation. It’s retributive justice which runs into problems when you take into consideration moral agency. Honestly, I’m OK with that; I’m uncomfortable around people who get really enthusiastic about retributive justice, and I wouldn’t mind at all if we started reconceptualizing justice around pragmatic restorative and distributive lines.

    There’s another kind of justice you didn’t spend much time on: the kind of justice where it doesn’t matter who committed the crime, so long as somebody gets punished for it. I’m not sure what that kind of justice is called, but since that’s the kind of justice at the heart of Christianity, I would have thought that you would spend some time talking about it.