But someone has to be, to some extent, and it throws up one of the biggest philosophical dilemmas of our society. We don’t see it very clearly because it’s hard to question something so fundamental. Especially when it doesn’t look fundamental, it almost just looks ‘natural’. It makes sense until you question it, but if you look directly at it, it withers in front of you.
What is justice?
Let’s look on a personal level first. I think it’s very difficult not to judge people. An instinctive and intellectual process takes place every time you see or meet someone. You look, you listen, you learn, and you guess at what somebody is like. If you’re nice, you try to avoid making assumptions, and avoid the worst judgements. If not, you can instantly write someone off on the basis of not much information.
But either way, you’re still building a picture, and that’s essentially a judgement.
The same happens when looking at actions, hearing reports of actions. Reading the news, looking out the window. We see someone, we can’t see their side of the story, we judge.
It’s a rapid process, even though it’s prone to enormous inaccuracies.
It’s impossible to see someone elses world in entirety. It is impossible to know enough to say with certainty what is right and not.
But we have to. To some extent. We can’t offer the benefit of the doubt indefinitely.
Let’s get back to civilisation. Look at the basic concept of justice and jurisprudence.
In order to keep a world functioning, from the level of a family or tribe right up to a nation or whole civilisation, there needs to be some kind of acknowledgement of right and wrong and consequence. No matter how tight knit a community, people will always be different enough to disagree. In any system, you need some way for decisions to be settled.
The natural conclusion of not having something in place is that eventually, someone will kill somebody.
And how do you deal with that. Kick them out of the tribe? Kill them back? Lock them in a building far away?
This seems monstrous, but what gives you the right to do that? Yes, they’ve killed someone, but where does the authority to punish someone for that come from.
Presumably, some mutual agreement of right and wrong. A legal system. A justice system. Something that legitimises judgement.
It’s a hugely important thing in any societal structure, it’s pretty foundational. All sharing, owning and living is somewhat based on it.
It’s the only way to make crimes something real. You have to agree a system of ethics (or at least agree a system for agreeing the moral results of a situation) and then you have to decide where individual cases fall on that spectrum.
That’s justice, and its based on an assumption. It assumes we can know right and wrong, and we can know truth.
Our best guesses become judgements.
It’s all we’ve got.
Illustration by Jaime