The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.
Life is not fair. Not everyone is born with health and beauty. Some amass wealth while others live in poverty. The most fortunate are born into a loving home and yet so many others must get through life with little support from others. There are many reasons why the world is unfair; a few of these are within our power to change (e.g., political corruption), but far too many are outside of our control (e.g., genetics, natural disasters). Intelligence, strength, artistic ability, and valuable resources are certainly not spread evenly across the population and they never will be.
In response to unfairness in this world, humankind has sought justice throughout its history. The call for justice is a righteous one. The ancient Jews, when harmed, cried for a “…life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Confucius said “Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness.” Justice is a virtue and it has been highly valued across cultures and eras.
It is difficult at times to distinguish a virtue like justice from a vice like revenge. In action, they may look identical. Revenge puts a murderer in jail hoping he is tortured. Justice puts a murderer in jail hoping the community is a safer place because of it. It is the intent behind the action that differentiates justice from vengeance.
A bitter heart will seek revenge and call it justice. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that we have masked resentful demands for retribution as cries for justice. Mistaking vengeance for justice feeds bitterness and prevents us from moving past moments when we have been treated unfairly.
The noble pursue justice through considerate, determined, forthright, and loving means. The quest for justice is motivated by a desire to do what is right for others and ourselves. Vengeance is focused on the past, whereas justice is concerned with the present and the future. When we seek justice, we do not look back in anger; we look forward in the hope that our actions will bring more peace and fairness to the world.
Justice is related to fair play and equal opportunity. It is not a synonym for equality. A fair race does not always end in a tie. A just society provides equal protection under the law; it cannot guarantee equal wealth, equal health, and happy lives for all.
Justice is Elusive
If we are going to strive for justice, we need to be patient and determined, even if we never see the fruits of our labor. Tyrants often outlive the people they persecute and corrupt systems can take generations to topple. History is full of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln who were struck down during their campaigns for justice. Not all of those who battle for justice will live to enjoy it, but many of their children do. We should seek justice because it is the right thing to do, not because we are certain to find it for ourselves.
Justice has a Drawback
As wonderful as justice is, we should remember that it is only one of the virtues, and that there would be problems if it alone directed society’s actions. For example, justice leaves no room for mercy. All of us at some point in our lives have wished to be shown mercy. Mercy, though by definition unjust, is nonetheless beautiful. This shows us that even justice shouldn’t stand alone as the virtue that supersedes all others.
Next week I will be writing more about mercy and how it plays an important role in building a better society.