Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity.
Anywhere on this planet if there is a living being, one determinant of life is justice. Nature itself functions on the principle of justice of. From evolution to survival there is order in chaos in way of life exists because to quote Einstein, “God does not play dice.” There is some natural justice in the way we are able to share this planet with disparate people, plants and animals. Or for that matter how the cosmos itself functions. Over millennia the concept of justice has evolved. Every civilisation has defined it in a different way. It is important to understand the different connotations of how individuals, communities, nations and the world at large look at justice. Is there something called natural justice? Have religions and faiths conditioned human minds so much that a rational common understanding of justice is still elusive? How much of how we define justice is based on political ideology and dogmas? How much of justice is an atavistic inheritance of social conduct? Let’s examine this in this article.
The word comes from the Latin jus, meaning right or law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ‘just’ person as one who typically ‘does what is morally right’ and is disposed to ‘giving everyone his or her due’, offering the word ‘fair’ as a synonym. However we interpret the word in a way it suits us at a particular time in a particular context. Every religion, mythology, folklore has various fables and stories which deal with the notion of justice. In fact in a way justice is a common leitmotif in all literature, legends and fables. Every faith talks about ‘divine justice’. While Semitic religions have a notion of heaven and hell, others like Hinduism and Buddhism talk of karma and rebirth. However, even a cursory glance at any faith or doctrine tells us that ultimately even natural justice is contextual. Did the creation of the universe follow a law of physics or was it some divine justice for a previous life form? Why is life hierarchical? Are destruction and death just? Somewhere between the metaphysical and the mundane justice begs a definition.
In India for 5,000 years justice has been governed by dharma which loosely defined means the eternal and inherent nature of reality, a cosmic law underlying right behaviour and social order. In a way dharma embodies righteousness. It also is a manifestation of social behaviour and an individual’s duty to the community. In Hindu scriptures dharma seamlessly transits from truth and reality to social ethics. Of course there is a religious connotation of good and evil which engulfs a larger moral code. In the Vedas for example the concept of dharma vacillates between a moral perspective and social order. On the other hand, the Upanishads it seems revolve around righteous truth. In the Bhagwat Gita it is dharma which envelops both state and individual conduct in pursuit of dharma
Jainism is about the search of social and cosmic harmony. Through righteous conduct of the individual. In Buddhism karma is justice. Good deeds lead to positive consequences. Cause and effect. Of all religions Buddhism reconciles the spiritual and the temporal seamlessly. Interestingly the fountainhead of both Buddhism and Jainism lies in the original sanatan (eternal) concept of Hindu Brahman or ultimate reality. Justice happens in the penumbra of the beyond—afterlife.
In Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, it is said that justice is a present, real, right and specifically and ordained in ‘the book’. Mercy forms an integral part of all the Semitic faiths, though each faith has its own notion of retributive justice. In the Islamic worldview, justice denotes placing things in their rightful place. It also means giving others equal treatment. In Islam, justice is also a moral virtue and an attribute of human personality, as it is in the Western tradition. The Quran considers justice to be a supreme virtue. ‘We sent our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the Measure in order to establish justice among the people’ (57:25). Justice is an obligation of Islam and injustice is forbidden .Christians think of justice as a principle of righteousness and equity, controlling our conduct and securing a due regard to all the rights of others—their persons, property, character and interests. The Bible for example says in Psalm 146:7-9: ‘[The Lord is] who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.’ So the ultimate justice is redemption by the Lord God. End is either heaven or hell. Interestingly Taoism doesn’t specifically deal with justice at all. It focusses instead on its three fundamental principles—of kindness, simplicity and humility; and as Confucius says, justice for all.
On the other hand philosophers want to go beyond etymology, even morphology. Thinkers have for centuries examined the nature of justice as both a moral virtue and the manner in which societies, communities and nations function. Justice is both a concept of moral correctness based on ethics, rationality, natural law, fairness, religion, equity and law and order. So for Socrates, justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects. For his disciple Plato, justice lies in the harmonious, hierarchal order of society. The Platonic concept of justice is not based on equality of humankind but just the opposite of it. For Rousseau, justice is a function of the general will, which he defines as the society’s common interests as democratically decided by society itself. Kant’s views on ethics are radically different than either Rousseau or Hume, as they are centred round a categorical imperative that defines ethics independent of societal norms or social contracts. Though, like Rousseau, Kant emphasises the importance of individual rights, as they form the basis of his conception of the categorical imperative. Hume’s conception of justice is more utilitarian than the other two in that it emphasises the aggregate well-being of society over all other considerations. Rousseau contends that ‘man is born free’ and that ‘his first law is to attend to his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself’. In a way this amounts to complete freedom. John Stuart Mill says in his utilitarian theory that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. Yet almost all thinkers, saints and gurus arrive at the same fundamental truth of justice.
A principle of righteousness and equity, controlling our conduct and securing a due regard to all the rights of others—their persons, property, character, and interests. It has to do, not with pecuniary transactions alone. However for a layman justice is what you get from courts enforcing laws of the land. However what is the relation between law and justice? Actually law is what is in the statute books, or has been enacted or decreed by a competent authority—legislature or ruler, whatever the case may be in a particular country. In a particular context or time various people may deem a particular law is unjust which ultimately gets decided in a court or gets amended by lawmakers. While ideally justice should be impartial and objective. Yet, in reality this is impossible. When humans administer justice interpreting a statuette personal bias, understanding and context does come into play. Sometimes abstruse concepts create an inherent conflict. Hate is amoral concept and unless it impinges on another’s liberty or amounts to slander it may be perfectly legal. Slavery, apartheid, casteism etcetera have been legal over time but were never morally just. Merit or otherwise human thought has given varying connotation to justice both moral and empirical.
In a world of changing geopolitics amid huge technology driven socio-economic upheaval justice is at a premium. The only problem is the clamour for my kind of justice. Natural justice, moral justice, religious justice, social justice and legal justice are often at conflict among themselves. ‘Justice delayed’ is justice denied is an old adage whose relevance is most acute in thee turbulent times. An overwrought legal system and outdated jurisprudence system creaks under its own weight. While democratic governments largely follow a common law which is bereft of retributive justice. Islamic nations in varying degrees have either sharia law or at least sharia (Islamic religious law that governs not only religious affairs but governance and life itself). Of course there are religion-specific provisos in law in other countries as well (like abortion and divorce laws in Catholic states or the ban on cow slaughter in India) but not as absolute in many Islamic countries. In monarchies and quasi-dictatorships it is the state which decides on the legal framework of justice.
Another contentious issue is the confusion of morality with ideology. Often conflicts between the social and the legal arise out of a rejection of a particular act or law on ideological grounds. Here the not only the moral code is interpreted differently, even dispensation of justice itself is questioned or accused of partisanship. Whatever the case may be one cannot take away the bias and subjectivity out of individual jurists in a court of law. One hears and reads about human rights a lot. Who decided on these rights? Obviously not nature. Some of these principles would actually go against natural justice or the law of karma. Like Nietzsche says, it’s the power elite which decides what justice is. In the postmodern world a human code of conduct based on the foundation of equality and freedom justice is distributive and reformative. It is also adaptive.
The problem of fundamental rights and freedoms of individual in a free world requires the judiciary to exercise the role of arbitrator in disputes between legislators and the administration and consequently citizens. In the modern civil society, it is law and justice (via the courts) that to maintain order and equanimity. From the family court to the village panchayat (village elders). The final judgment, like the establishment of harmony, the balance of norm and value, means to grant a particular significance to certain social phenomena in terms of the possibility of obtaining a positive result in the context human interactions in the society. This balance of norm and value testifies to the specific nature of the justification of the right to a court in a certain cultural and historical environment. In establishing a balance of norm and value, the concepts of justice and legality, formal and informal legitimacy take place.
As far as legal justice is concerned, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ still holds true. Billions of people across the world have neither the means nor access to any law enforcer or adjudicator. Most countries except the few wealthy nations face acute shortage of police, lawyers and judges. A large number of the bar and judiciary are poorly trained. Political interference, corruption and prejudice are perennial barriers in dispensation of justice to the ordinary person.
What justice is, how we reach it and what it means to both us and the state are questions which have plagued the world for the last few thousand years. As we have seen, the answers that societies have settled on have changed dramatically in that time. While ideas of what justice is continue to evolve, justice in every sense is and will always be subjective. Justice after all strives for universal acceptance of a code, physical and metaphysical. A respect for other perspectives in the way it is administered will ensure search for ultimate justice continues.