Justice is a complex topic that has been debated for centuries — to no avail.
Throughout history, most people have been treated unequally, unless born to privilege. If there is no equality, there can be no justice.
Democracy’s bulwark is equality. “All men are created equal,” states the constitution of what is considered the greatest democracy on earth. The US constitution is generally accepted as a superior piece of literature composed by mankind for mankind.
Having borrowed the best in both British and French ideals it is excessively superior in thought, compassion, and humaneness. The focus on equality, the pursuit of happiness and “Justice for all” is not only admirable but unprecedented. Yet it was authored by men who owned slaves as they wrote it and well after. This already indicates that it is too idealistic to be practical.
Equal treatment before the law is essential to democracy but is seldom practised. Laws are written by men/women, administered by men and like it or not, men have their biases. Our similarities and differences impact our judgement, mistakes occur, and there goes equality. Democracy and justice disappear — except for some.
Power and privilege destroy absolute justice.
If Lady Justice is blindfolded, her scale wobbles then dips towards the powerful. She is not altogether that blind.
The United Nations works to promote “justice and human rights” around the world. It has been in existence since 1945, yet for eight decades it stopped no wars, nor defended human rights. Where was it when the Rwanda massacre occurred? Justice and human rights have been ill-served by the UN.
With a drop of ink and the point of a pen, the president of the greatest democracy toppled the whole world’s economy. Two hours after taking the oath, Joe Biden prohibited oil drilling in the US, which was not only self-sufficient but exported oil to Europe and elsewhere. This created a shortage for Americans, Europeans and others driving prices sky-high, not only of oil but of every other commodity known to man. The rich became poor; the poor became poorer. Simultaneously it supported Ukraine in its war with Russia which cost $112 billion in 2022 alone as well as 8,000 lives. Who in his right mind would cause such an economic crisis?
It is the American middle-class taxpayer who pays for this. How just is this government to its people?
Two wrongs do not make a right.
Were we to look around the world through a Google lens we would be sorely disappointed. The repeated images of injustice is rampant. Is there no justice anywhere? No.
Ancient Greek philosophers were deeply involved in the principles of Justice, including Plato, Socrates, and others who believed justice is related to happiness and the effective harmony of the whole. Epicurus said there is no such thing as justice.
It seems the one who got it right was the sophist Thrasymachus (c 459-c 400 BC). He boldly declared that justice favours the strongest. He is sure to get what he wants. In other words, “might is right”. Justice is in the hands of the ruling group who also make the laws in its own interest. This is what is glaringly true to this day.
Over the centuries Justice has been always considered a central value to both the moral and political dimensions of societies.
By the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679) defined justice as an “artificial virtue”. Humans have no moral compass! Like other animals they are motivated by survival instincts and ultimately driven by self-interest. There is no morality in the state of nature.
If that does not speak well of man, it is nonetheless mostly true.
Consider the state of Palestine. Do you perceive justice?
Israel’s continued oppression and discrimination system of governing Palestinians and inhabitants of the Occupied Territories was once called apartheid under international law. Does Israel care? Does anyone care?
Justice demands a consequence equal to the action committed. It never happens. How did the British immigrants to the US reward the native population?
No wonder modern philosophers like John Rawls (1971-2002) reject the idea of justice as a natural, moral and political absolute value.
A week or so ago we watched the pomp and pageantry of the royal coronation of King Charles III of Britain. His brother and grandson were banished from the ceremony because of wrongdoing. Was Charles himself not guilty of acting against the laws of Church and Monarchy which he now heads? The Guardian published an article by royal author Anthony Holden stating that the coronation could be invalidated, because both king and queen “copped to adultery”.
Punishment is meted to the weak, not the powerful.
Lawyers run the spectacle of justice or injustice. What is there that has not already been said about lawyers? Do they ever consider guilt as a deterrent in order to serve justice? Their only aim is to convince judge and jury not to convict.
If you can afford a good lawyer you will get justice. How unfair is life. We hear that phrase daily from every corner, from all walks of life, and the sooner we realise the reality of it, the better off we shall be.
If justice were merely the application of laws, why a machine can do that, more efficiently than humans.
Seeking Justice in an unjust world is futile, yet can you imagine a world where social justice is not practised?
“Justice? You get justice in the next world — in this world you have the law.”
William Gaddis (1922-1998)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly