John Dewey wrote, “We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, Justice, or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, unique.”
Alexander Saxton wrote, “To move from the particular to the general is an exercise in humility because it forces one to recognize the particulars – even those privileged details one’s own individual existence – remain meaningless and essentially useless to other people unless they can be shown to typify, or illuminate larger streams of human experience.”
For a word that has been chiseled into stone monuments for centuries we could reasonably hope society would by now have the practice and understanding of Justice down cold. However, more often than not, as Justice is experienced personally but spoken of generally we struggle to find understanding in the “larger stream”. Justice is variously defined as being fair and being fair defined as being just and just as being fair and so on. For centuries thinkers and doers have tried to grasp and define Justice in all of its manifestations concretely. This philosophic and semantic project has haunted virtually all societies throughout history. Almost every philosopher from Plato’s argument via Socrates about just persons and a just state to Aristotle and onwards across centuries to John Dewey and Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Alexander Saxton among recent others, has given us a take on Justice.
If, over so many centuries, so many brilliant people have struggled for so long and so hard to arrive at a definitive exegesis of Justice what they have been seeking may not exist, at least not in a form they were hoping for. Justice in all its manifestations seems to be like beauty, living in the hearts and minds of the observers be they beneficiaries or victims. Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just? Only in the eyes of the perpetrators. It seems to me there is no such thing as Justice except as an everlasting quest for justification. In that case, Justice will remain always a fluid and beautiful idea, an aspiration at that, but in the end, there will be no absolute, it will always be, “ … specific, concrete, unique” to the moment.
First and foremost it is necessary, I believe, to acknowledge that Justice is a construct – a moveable definition which, not unlike a sheen of oil on water, changes century to century, culture to culture, moment to moment, observer to observer. Like belief systems, Justice is fluid, always in motion. There exists no concrete, immutable, definition of Justice – no demonstration you can point to, take to the bank, or teach the young. What is Justice for you can be injustice to your neighbors. It remains, however, the most appealing and elusive of ideas and much like quicksilver, “Liberty and Justice for all … ” slips away at the touch.
A few quick police pistol shots and an unarmed 12-year-old named Tamir Rice received an instant irreversible summary Justice not found in a court of law but in a public park. By late 2015, police in the US had summarily shot and executed 1103 “suspects” of whom 161 were unarmed. In the US, police summarily execute people, generally people of color, nearly on a daily basis. Once dead the “suspects” no longer have access to any semblance of Justice. Why then do we pretend Justice for all exists? Because we must. Like Equality, Justice is an essential myth an illusion without which our social contract would be impossible.
Injustice is not only the taking of lives but the diminishing of lives as well given an economic system that systematically concentrates wealth to a very few and harms many. Throughout the United States economic injustice manifests concretely in hunger, access to medical care, education, legal representation, and opportunity often determined by the color of one’s skin. Like any manifestation of inequality, lack of Economic Justice is corrosive disease and eats at the heart and soul of society. In Louisianna the Governor recently removed 31,000 jobless people from receiving food stamps, in Wisconsin that Governor removed 15,000, in Indiana 50,000, and in Maine 40,000. Whose definition of Economic Justice is this? Whose definition of morality, humanity, and common sense? Adults, and even more, children who are not well fed and well housed cannot possibly thrive and succeed are thus condemned to a diminished existence and, as a consequence, with what kind of commitment to a social contract?
In courts of law Justice has fast become the last thing sought – winning is the goal. Prosecutors, with a firm thumb on the scales of Justice, are especially fond of, ex parte proceedings in police shooting cases where no contrary testimony is permitted. I once surveyed a fairly disparate group of lawyers with the question: “At trial what is most important to you – winning or Justice?” Needless to say, I suppose, winning was the winner. So much for Justice. How is this? Well, if you are a lawyer who works for insurance companies, for example, you make your living and your reputation defeating liability claims. It’s a no-brainer. Also, keep in mind that at trial the only participants who do not swear to tell the truth are the lawyers. It’s all about winning not about Truth and certainly not about Justice. It’s about profit.
We live in a time when sociopathy permeates society. The question is not how much worse can it get but how much longer can it go on without a total breakdown of civility and order? There are, after all, consequences. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, put it this way: In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good for man, there can no longer either be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.” The possibility of a civil society is foreclosed.