Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thoughts on Justice

Are happiness and justice incompatible?  Well, that depends a lot on how you define "happiness" and what kind of "justice" you have in mind. For most Americans, our ideas about justice are rooted in the Old Testament in which every injury or personal insult must be avenged. The idea of revenge was originally tied to the community's belief in divine law. The law which bound the community together came directly from the authority of God. Thus, justice, which is rooted in divine law, required that law breakers be punished. Over time, tribal laws became linked with a conception of justice derived from a belief in natural law. It was natural because it applied to every person in the world which itself was created by God.

In this way, the laws of the city are derived from the laws of the tribe, which were derived, in turn, from God whose laws governed all human behavior. Yet, prior to the growth of cities, the moral code of human behavior was known as the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" school of punishment. Thus, morality became linked to personal injury along with the need for revenge. Over time, the human desire for revenge  became indistinguishable from our idea of justice, which in turn became linked with one's idea of honor. Honor (or respect) is historically a form of public esteem., while the opposite of honor is shame. Shame is analogous to ridicule or loss of social status. Thus, when Job loses all his possessions and children, he becomes a man without honor. Yet his honor is restored when God favors him with new wealth. But a blinded Oedipus is compelled to leave Thebes and live out his days in disgrace.

In almost all ancient societies, cowardice was considered dishonorable, and so was lying and thievery. A man's word was his bond. For the Greeks in Homer, the idea of honor was directly linked to the idea of respect. Honor in battle required that a man be willing to die for his king (or his country). Honor also requires that personal insults be revenged.  Otherwise, one would lose respect. Honor requires that Hector fight Achilles, even though he knows he cannot win. Respect and honor are thus intertwined on the battlefield. In normal life, respect generally takes two forms: self-respect, and public (or social) respect. The difference between self-respect and public honor is tied to the idea of reputation. When Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel, their conflict is over a perceived insult to Burr's honor. Any public display of disrespect will always be perceived as a loss of reputation. This is what justifies revenge, and revenge is the most common means by which one's reputation is restored. Honor compels Orestes to murder Clytemnestra in revenge for his father's death. His duty to his father compels him to act. Yet his revenge against his mother invokes a kind of divine retribution. The Furies descend upon Orestes to avenge his mother's death. So where is justice in this chain of murder and revenge?

At some point in the development of cities, it becomes necessary to ban public dueling.  The idea of honor is now subordinate to the idea of public safety. And so the criminal justice system, with its courts and juries, becomes the arbiter of all personal disputes.
However, when it comes to disputes between nations, war remains the most frequent means of settling these disputes. It is not until the establishment of the United Nations will there be any other means of resolving these kinds of disagreements. After all, diplomacy is a rational enterprise and men rarely act rationally when honor is at stake. Patriotism, which is the form national honor takes, remains a vestige of the classical idea of honor.

With the Nuremberg trials of 1945, the principle of crimes against humanity becomes the moral equivalent to crimes against the state, and the violation of the immutable laws of God. The principles of justice on which the Nuremberg trials were conducted bring us back to the ancient principles which guided men in a tribal culture. Once again, natural law becomes the foundation for our contemporary understanding of justice.  This is what Socrates, in his inquiry into the principles of justice, is trying to establish-- a rational ground for the belief in the idea (and the possibility) of something which lies beyond our reach (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."  In other words, bringing the immutable law of a divine order down to the level of ordinary fallible human beings.

Justice becomes the principle to which we aspire without knowing exactly what it is. We only arrive at it through a process of subtraction, by eliminating all the things which justice is not. Using the form of a dialogue, Plato will attempt to show that justice is the idea upon which all other virtues stand. Each speaker, starting with Cephalus, will try to identify what justice is, and each one, in turn, will be refuted by Socrates. It turns out that justice is not simply paying "what is owed" or "rendering good to your friends and evil to your enemies," or "the will of the stronger" or "avoiding injustice" or "fear of punishment". These are all inadequate explanations for why people desire justice.  It is the purpose of Plato's Republic to give a more adequate answer to this question, one which requires an examination of what "society" means and why justice is a requirement for the establishment and maintenance of a good society. It all starts with a thought experiment about what is the purpose of education. Education will lead to an examination of the best kind of city which can provide the right kind of education. Then will follow a discussion on what people ought to do with their education. All of this theory leads to a larger discussion about the purpose of society, of the state, and of how, as individuals, we ought to behave.


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