The Search for Justice

How do we define justice?  How, given the hundreds of unique cultures in our world, can we claim that any one system is both fair and just?  Mankind has grappled with this concept since the dawn of time, and the great sages of our world have found more questions than answers to this great debate.  Every step towards an equitable society highlights more issues to be overcome.  This project tracks the evolution of conceptual justice across the centuries, from corporal punishment to divine retribution, and the hurdles society has overcome along the way.

“Justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies.” ~Plato; The Republic, Book I Many cultural concepts of equity stem from the idea of divine justice and retribution. Here, an agent of the Judeo-Christian god is seen ascending to Heaven as a reward for his great acts. Because of inherent unknowns in the world around us, the idea of a just and fair universe rewarding the good and punishing the wicked is prevalent in cultures both ancient and modern. Karma is a great leveling agent in many Eastern cultures, while the Ancient Greeks believed physical Beauty was a mark of divine benefaction. As a universal truth, good will come to friends and benefactors, while enemies will find their road riddled with hardships. This is the backbone of our belief system, that wrongs will be righted.
"But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you?" ~Plato; The Republic, Book 1 The terms revolution and rebellion conjure two opposing images for what is essentially the same act. To rebel is to rage against authority, with all the anger and wrath of raging bull. A revolution is a new beginning, often built on the ashes of the empire that came before. Both actions, however, are expressed in violence against others, often in the name of justice for one party or another. In both cases calm discussion and dispassionate reasoning could often temper the storm. The argument, then, is that anger will often win out over rational thought, causing both sides of a disagreement to further embed themselves within their own viewpoint.
"And must not that be a blameless study which he only can pursue who has the gift of a good memory, and is quick to learn, --noble, gracious, the friend of truth, justice, courage, temperance, who are his kindred?" ~Plato; The Republic, Book VI Much as the title of this work suggests, a friend to justice must be pure of heart and clear of mind. Bitterness breeds contempt, and true to the Socratic method, reason and logic must win out. Most perversions of justice come from those who cannot handle their power. Philosophers from Rousseau to Wollstonecraft agree with Plato, here, that absolute power corrupts, absolutely.
"And so from every point of view, whether of pleasure, honour, or advantage, the approver of justice is right and speaks the truth, and the disapprover is wrong and false and ignorant." ~Plato; The Republic, Book IX True justice is noble, but also blind. While platonic systems will examine shades of grey, they have little use for anything but the final sharp division between black and white. There is either a crime or not, and in the end the rationale very rarely matters. Our culture has inherited this system, and for all the good it has done, there are still victims punished for crimes they did not commit and individuals punished far out of proportion to their offense. Here is system of laws is in place to protect the bulk of society, but what works for most cannot work for everyone.
“Give civilized man but time to gather about him all his machines, and no doubt he will be an overmatch for the savage: but if you have a mind to see a contest still more unequal, place them naked and unarmed one opposite to the other; and you will soon discover the advantage there is in perpetually having all our forces at our disposal.” -Rousseau, Discourse on Inequity, Part I Our blind faith in systems of government and justice are not universal to modern society. Even the savage, whom Rousseau championed, lived within a system of rules to govern his or her social interactions. Such blind faith is opposed by the rational thinking so loved by Plato, so perhaps while primitive man may be closer to nature, modern man has more tools to overcome social constraints. Savage man may have been free of the numerous cultural curbs against which Rousseau railed, but they were not wholly innocent. That being said, they were and are much more adaptable to life without the tools and systems which pervade our culture. Although they may be closer to our animalistic roots, human society has followed the same rules for millennia, and even the savage is slave to some system of law.
“We need only call to mind the good constitution of savages, of those at least whom we have not destroyed by our strong liquors; we need only reflect, that they are strangers to almost every disease, except those occasioned by wounds and old age, to be in a manner convinced that the history of human diseases might be easily composed by pursuing that of civil societies.” ~Rousseau; Discourse on Inequity, Part I Two of the great plagues of the 20'th century, Smallpox devastated early industrial society while HIV is currently ravaging impoverished communities across the globe. In many primitive cultures, disease is seen as retribution for wicked acts, and the infected are stigmatized accordingly. Fear of the unknown is a powerful motivation, and even so-called enlightened society is not immune from such stigma. The more developed and industrialized society becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to once unheard of diseases. Only recently have efforts to cure HIV become widespread, as the disease was primarily limited to an historically undesirable subset of the population. Vocal opponents of homosexuality can still be seen labeling the disease as retribution from a vengeful god.
"The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, "This is mine," and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society” ~Rousseau; Discourse on Inequity, Part II Ultimately, many of mankind’s problems are created by themselves. As a species, we justify our actions to make ourselves feel better; this is a tenant of cognitive dissonance theory. Colonial era slavers decreed that their subjects were less than human to justify extortion, soldiers routinely dehumanize their enemies to lessen the impact of killing, all while placebos are used to treat actual physical ailments. The human mind is a complex creation, and by and large what any one person believes shapes their reality. As Rousseau questions, how many millions of lives would have been spared if the founder of civil society had never decided on the concept of ownership? The justice system is rife with cases deciding the actual ownership of one item or another, while most of the world’s population works in order to own one thing or another. Conflicts, from ancient to modern, primarily stem from the idea that one party wants to possess something owned by another, and their justifications for that idea.
“Men no sooner began to set a value upon each other, and know what esteem was, than each laid claim to it, and it was no longer safe for any man to refuse it to another.” ~Rousseau; Discourse on Inequity, Part II Here, according to Rousseau’s timeline, is the beginning of law and a system of justice based on those laws. This is the establishment of civil edict, outside of the system of natural cosmic justice in which humans had previously acted. Morality bloomed from this moment, as “do unto others” became a way of life. Courts of law became necessary to resolve conflicts of ownership and action, while the first cultural wars were soon to follow. Us-versus-them is a product of this change, as humans naturally assign greater value to the ideas that they covet than those of their adversaries.
"Every class struggle is a political struggle." ~Marx; Communist Manifesto, Part I The third-class cabin is a recurring artistic motif of the industrial era. It’s little surprise, given the social systems of the time, that the bulk of casualties on the Titanic were third class passengers. These people were crammed like so many sardines into filthy cabins under the ballrooms of the wealthy. With the explosion of densely packed cities and increasingly squalid conditions, Socialist thinkers were quick to highlight this plight. Only recently have regulations been put in place to protect the working class, due in large part to Union struggles and centuries of activism. Events like the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh do serve to point out, however, that these social changes haven’t even begun to branch out from the first world countries where they were established.
“The abolition of existing property relations is not at all a distinctive feature of Communism. All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.” ~Marx; Communist Manifesto, Part II As Rousseau argued, burden of countless injustices are on the head of the first person to claim ownership any given piece of land. Here is the wellspring of modern culture: possession of natural resources. Communist ideas, as noted above, suggest that such ownership is more a problem than a goal, and that land should belong to all. A fitting example of this concept is public parkland, as seen here in this early rendition of Cape Schanack, Victoria, AUS. This view no longer exists, as the colonial interests of the time declared the continent the possession of the British Crown, not that of nature, and certainly not that of the natives. In a nod to Marxist ideals, states and countries have to remove possession of green spaces from private interests in order to order to preserve the dwindling natural heritage of the planet.
“When people speak of ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express the fact, that within the old society, the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence” ~Marx; Communist Manifesto, Part II Revolution is never truly revolutionary, because the tides of change begin within an existing system. Any radical is working to correct the injustices within his own society, and generally builds a new system based on the ruins of the former. Our own civilization is built on the ashes of countless societies, from republic to tribal, that each grew and died just as an organism would. Change is a gradual force, despite the sudden upheavals a revolt can bring.
"… men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives.” ~Wollstonecraft; Vindication of the Rights of Women, Introduction The social order is very often a system put in place by a few in power to protect their interests against the masses. In the case of enlightenment era Europe, this system favored men against women, very often objectifying them as property to be obtained. As condemned by Wollstonecraft at length, this presents a problem for any women who would dare attempt to survive without a husband or benefactor to lean on. This is a self-perpetuating cycle, where a woman cannot take ownership of herself or her actions, resultant from a centuries long shift to a male dominated society. It has taken nearly as long to move away from such ideals, and even then our culture has not fully shed the stigma of this era.
“Every profession, in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power, is highly injurious to morality.” ~Wollstonecraft; Vindication of the Rights of Women, Chapter 1 Weak-willed rulers are the most easily abused. While King Lear, seen here, is a literary construct, he is based on a well-known trope. Countless sovereigns of his kind were deposed in bloody rebellions over the course of European history, thanks in large part to a system of government intended to maintain dynastic power rather than support the populace. It is little wonder that writers such as Wollstonecraft found social issues as a result of these men, in her case finding many similarities between these men of power and the callous, weak-willed women of her generation. In a world where birth rank and appearance takes precedence over rational thought, social justice is impossible to attain.
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” ~Wollstonecraft; Vindication of the Rights of Women, Introduction Until one has full and complete ownership of oneself, one cannot attempt to survive in the world. The women of this period, subjugated and subordinated under men, had little choice but to act as farcical puppets. Blake’s Songs of Innocence highlight this idea, where a young girl is not an active force in her namesake poem, but rather acted upon by both a young man and her father. She is wholly passive, first to the young man’s lust, and later to the father’s protective instincts. This personal sense of ownership is twofold, it must be held by the individual in question and society at large. It is also, as noted by writers from Rousseau to Marx, a tenant of free society and the liberty that system holds dear.