Justice Is Not One-Size-Fits-All


The Merriam-Webster English dictionary has chosen “justice” as its word of the year. This word was chosen both because an extraordinary number of people searched for the definition of the word justice on Merriam-Webster’s website and because the concept of justice has been so central to discussions about politics and culture, especially in the United States, the past year.

The leading American political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls, who was born and raised in Baltimore and published “A Theory of Justice” in 1971, famously wrote, “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems thought.” Rawls would be the first to say that there are many different approaches to the concept of justice; there is no such thing as the concept or the definition of justice.

At the very least, we can count three main ways that justice has been defended in the English-speaking world in the last 100 years. The first way says that a society is just if its institutions maximize happiness. The second way says that a society is just if it enables individuals to express their autonomy, whether that involves a protective laissez-faire state or a welfare state. The third way says that justice is a moral character trait, one among many, that a good society would foster.

These three views, the utilitarian (Jeremy Bentham), deontological (Immanuel Kant) and virtue-based (Aristotle) theories start the discussion about justice in ethics and political philosophy.

To simplify: The deontological conception of justice, which focuses on concepts of autonomy, freedom and rights, is closest to the concept of justice associated with Judaism; and the utilitarian conception of justice, which focuses on eliminating suffering and promoting the good of others (especially their desires or happiness) is closest to the concept of justice associated with Christianity.

In the United States and West more generally today, there is heightened concern about the concept of justice on all sides of the political spectrum. President Trump has generated calls for justice on all sides, last year and the year before.

On the one hand, critics of President Trump believe that his language and policies express forms of injustice toward women, blacks, gays, lesbians and transgender individuals and immigrants. These critics may also be relying on some concept of rights or autonomy when they voice their concerns; some may go further and embrace more socialist concepts of justice that focus heavily on the concept of domination, whether it is class, gender, race or sexual orientation forms of domination. These are basically issues of social and economic justice.

In expressions of justice and injustice, there is no agreed-upon concept of justice that is shared. The challenge is to educate our young, and even our old, when the concept of justice is as protean as it is.

On the other hand, Trump’s followers, including white working class voters in the Rust Belt, believe that they have been treated unjustly in recent decades by unfair trade deals like NAFTA and unfair immigration practices that enable illegal immigrants to steal their jobs and physically harm American citizens. These citizens do not usually say, “We have been treated unjustly,” but the concept is implicit in their point of view.

President Trump has also generated a near onslaught of discussion about topics concerning civil and criminal justice, including topics like violating campaign finance laws with hush money to women with whom he had affairs. There is also the constitutional matter of obstruction of justice, which can lead to impeachment.

In all of these expressions of justice and injustice, there is no agreed-upon concept of justice that is shared. In some cases, no systematic, clear concept of justice is being voiced at all; in others, a mixture of concepts is being voiced. The challenge is to figure out a way to educate our young, and even our old, when the concept of justice is as protean a concept as it is.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, all teachers, from elementary school through high school and into college, should make it clear to students that there are rival concepts of justice. The practice of telling students that justice has one meaning is to be avoided at all costs.

Second, our politicians and pundits and the media should learn from our educators and define their terms, recognizing that there are rival concepts of justice.

Third, we should have a national contest, maybe for high school juniors and seniors, to figure out how to resolve the very problem of understanding a concept as complex as justice. Some of our leading civic organizations should organize the contest, say for the best 1,500 word essay in each state. A group of distinguished thinkers and practitioners in each state can be the judges.

It’s great that justice won this year’s prize as word of the year for Merriam-Webster, but let’s not rush to agreeing to a simple definition when none exists.

Dave Anderson has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University. He is a member of Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda.

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