Justice: Aspiration, Hubris, and Morality

Preface: The following article is the first in a series of nine articles that together share an overview of several observations and assertions regarding crime and punishment in America. While those who make it their business to study penology will correctly discern that these concepts are not exactly novel in-and-of-themselves, they may find these articles collectively of interest. Regardless, I believe it is our right and responsibility to speak about that which gives rise to our passions, in spite of engaging controversy.

Justice: Aspiration, Hubris, and Morality

Sigmund Freud quipped: “The first requisite of civilization is that of justice.” Albert Einstein was quoted as saying: “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.” One madman named Adolph Hitler said: “As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.” In today’s digital world of information at our fingertips, a Google search of the word ‘justice’ returns over two-hundred-and-eleven million items. The point is, that we all know that justice has been a central topic of theory, debate, and controversy throughout recorded history (and likely since the dawn of humankind). Justice will preoccupy our minds, hearts, and hopes forever. Humans aspire to justice. But is it an arrogant assumption that human beings believe they can understand and deliver justice? Then too, is the profession of justice within our moral ability? Of course there are no universally acceptable answers to such questions, and yet if we are to hold order to civilization, there is no alternative but to attempt justice, as imperfect as it will always be. “A man is a little thing while he works by and for himself; but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice, he is godlike” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Emerson used the words: “…the rules of love and justice…” Perhaps most persons of reason will agree that in a discussion of the virtues ‘love’ and ‘justice’, the most basic of rules that apply must concern that which is right, versus that which is wrong. Further, many might venture to agree that these sentiments are avowed and realized within the heart of goodwill. In each facet and phase of a discussion of justice, relative terms are unavoidably encountered; what is just to one is not to another, as what is right to one is not to another. Even so, we desire knowledge of justice, for it is a virtue to be held precious, securing us insulate from fear and consequence. Justice is the indispensable obligation of a civilization of law and order.

For the purposes of this series of articles, justice is referenced as it relates to crime and punishment in America. For the purpose of this particular article, justice within our nation’s system, is addressed from the point of view that we aspire to justice, knowing full well that the pursuit of justice is in some part hubris – or arrogantly authoritative – to attempt, and unavoidably begs issues of morality application.

Our world is smaller than ever due to the marvels of technology. As we are bombarded daily with media, our lives are touched by stories of justice, crime, and punishment. Many of us are directly and profoundly impacted on a personal level by the trappings of our Criminal Justice System. America has a Justice Department, ostensibly dedicated to the pursuit of justice.

Clearly, we humans seek justice within the context of crime and punishment. So many factors affect our method of justice, altering its intended nature. Many consider that justice can be bought by the hiring of a high-power attorney, or perhaps through bribery. Still others believe that our structure is intrinsically flawed because of human elements, such as mistakes, weakness, mercy, and outright corruption. Then too, many deem that our system works, for the most part, in spite of its inherent flaws. Even so, our practice of justice survives, albeit through an evolution of legislation, amendment, and precedent. We use this organization even without confidence and belief in its integrity, for it is the status quo.

Is it hubris to profess to practice justice? Perhaps. As with the concept itself, it could be argued from numerous perspectives. And, as is true with the concept of justice itself, it becomes a philosophical question, propped upon relative terms, subjective postulates, and eclectic interpretation. The mere existence of juries is evidence of the need to remove any single judgment or analysis, and perhaps objectively bring a measure of democracy to the process. Perhaps it is authoritative arrogance to perform justice in light of the array of factors involved, but it is currently our finest option. Hubris or not, we have no choice.

Regardless of human aspirations and egotism, our methods of justice are arguably a reflection of the moral character of society. Which activities are criminal and to what degree, and how we remedy each offense must necessarily stem from our collective (and at times individual) morals. Einstein said: “…issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.” What does that mean? To me it means that it is people who treat other people, and therefore it’s all the same. People treat other people against or within the fabric of their beliefs, values, and morals. Thomas Jefferson is noted to have said: “I believe that justice is instinct and innate, the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as the threat of feeling, seeing and hearing.” Is it moral to put to death someone convicted of premeditated murder? Of course this is posed as a rhetorical question within the context of this article.

In conclusion, throughout recorded history humans have debated and projected justice as an obligatory function, to achieve law and order in society. Countless people have endured corporal punishment for their crimes, while countless others have been pardoned. What was heinous within the Aztec civilizations of ancient Latin America may not have been so judged in the Egyptian, or American Indian moral structure, etcetera. What is justice on earth is only human justice. Indeed it may be human arrogance to practice justice, but we have no choice but to endeavor, lest we suffer chaos. Because the concept of justice is fundamentally subjective and affected by numerous variables, the very best we can do is keep trying, refining, and evolving. This is ideally why our processes include legislators, appellate courts, remedial actions, and a Supreme Court. Our system of justice is certainly unavoidably flawed, yet we must continue to measure risk, make informed judgments, and ultimately act in accordance with our moral character, within the status quo.

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