Law in Contemporary Society

What does justice mean?

-- By AndrewMcWhorter - 13 Mar 2017

What do we mean when we talk about justice? Merriam-Webster, somewhat unhelpfully, says that justice is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” So what exactly is just? Again, Merriam-Webster says that being just is simply “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good.” The circular path of language begins to emerge, yet we are no closer to knowing what justice is.

Like any word, when we try to decide what justice means we must ultimately resort to its application. Just as the life of the law is experience rather than logic, so too is the meaning of justice derived from its use rather than some external object or a priori knowledge. In other words, if we try to determine the meaning of justice the best we can ask is whether a given action or way of life accords with the application of the word.

For the most part, the contingent meaning of words presents little practical difficulty. Conventions constrain the reasonable boundaries of meaning and people go on living their lives. We might find compelling visions of justice in Plato's argument for order, Aristotle's argument for equity, John Rawls's argument for fairness, or Robert Nozick's argument for individual liberty. But justice is sticky. Each of these visions wraps in the idea of justice a set of values that must be accepted as valid goals. None can genuinely be held to capture the true and universal meaning of justice. We can at least concede that justice is meant to be the abstract principle that guides us towards a state of righteousness and goodness. But the lack of consensus between Plato, Aristotle, Rawls, and Nozick reveals the broader problem: Ideas of what is righteous and good are inconsistent, even between individuals, and certainly between communities. These inconsistencies lead to different visions of what justice means, and from these visions comes division.

Many reporters finally decided that, in wake of the most recent election, it was time to go to “the forgotten places” and make an effort to remember them. From the isolated valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, to the bayous of Louisiana, to the country roads of my own home state, Alabama, these reporters have encountered the hard fact that what looks like justice to people from New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., probably does not look like justice to destitute, drug-addicted white people on the fringes of society.

One allegory came up over and over again in these encounters, and it seems to me very few people are trying to take a hard, honest look at what it means. Poor white people in the United States see a line. The line leads to what has always been the object of the American Dream: a comfortable middle class existence, with a chance to go further. They have been standing in line for a long time, and the line continues to move forward, but its pace has recently slowed considerably. But these people remain hopeful that their turn will come. There are ethnic minorities, immigrants, and women standing in the line as well, some ahead and some behind. Most of the poor white people do not wish ill of these other groups waiting their turn, but neither do they wish to sacrifice their own place in the line. Suddenly they see people cutting in line. It is the minorities, immigrants, and women they have seen standing behind them. Even some of the people in those groups standing ahead of them appear to be getting choicer places in line, and the government is helping them do it. They object to this preferential treatment, but are chastised for even raising the idea of impropriety. They are called racist, xenophobic, and sexist for even daring to make the suggestion. Still the line moves more slowly.

This allegory is a flawed and incomplete picture, but it nonetheless demonstrates a fundamental disagreement about what justice means. To one group of people, the shameful history of racism, bigotry, and sexism justifies putting a thumb on the scales in order to correct for the continuing effects of inequitable social systems. As Ta-Nehasi Coates argues in “The Case for Reparations”, “[a]n America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” To another, punishing and ignoring people who were never the beneficiaries of those social systems simply because they are a member of an ostensibly favored race is unfair.

It is a mistake to view these differences as trivial or somehow illusory. It is a popular conceit to imagine that everyone really shares the same values when sufficient layers of specificity are scraped away, but it is a conceit nonetheless. The meaning of justice comes only from its application, so if one group of people sees redistribution of wealth and calls it justice, and another sees those without talent or skill sink into poverty and calls it justice, we have two different, and largely incompatible, visions. At a certain level of division, no amount of distillation, no more compelling sequence of words, will end in consensus.

So what is to be done? On one hand, it seems that nothing will ever produce a vision of justice that is truly universal. On the other, the very contingency of the meaning of justice offers an opportunity. The underlying values that lend content to justice's application have historically been prone to shifts. Licensed as they are to promote justice and stamp out injustice, lawyers are uniquely equipped to cause such a shift in values and, thereby, create meaning for justice in which more and more people can see themselves and their community. While the task is fundamentally Sisyphean, the prospect of a truly more just world is worth moving the needle even slightly.

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r3 - 01 Jun 2017 - 07:23:10 - AndrewMcWhorter
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