Justice – Week 11

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due.

This week, I reflected on the conditions that allow for the manifestation of justice.

“Plus on juge, moins on aime,” writes French moralist Chamfort. There is a tension between the virtues of justice and charity. Our duty to pursue neighbourly love could easily be replaced with harsh righteousness and acrimonious litigation. From another perspective, however, both virtues align. Whenever we pursue justice, we relieve others of the duty to forgive – nay, we create a more harmonious world for them – and could think of this as a form of charity. Yet, this holds only to the extent that the pursuit of justice leaves room in us for charity. Here again, though, we should be wary: when others fail to follow justice, and ask instead for charitable forgiveness, is it a matter of human frailty, or plain complacency?

Is it part of justice to promote emotional conditions conducive to its own manifestation? On Sunday night, I attended a concert by The Songkeepers, a group of indigenous women performing Lutheran hymns in their own language. Everybody cried, as these old women from an oppressed people came to the stage, and sang, celebrating the survival of their culture. This event, and similar ones, create a sense of emotional connection, and favour justice: these people are no longer abstract entities, but real human beings with a voice, a face, a body. Justice, then, would require two types of action. On the one hand, an act of fair judgement aiming to rebalance inequities; on the other, an explicit admission of our emotional bias, and a deliberate effort to create emotional conditions for fair judgement.

Justice does not only concern itself with relationships among individuals and between individuals and the community – but also between various communities. So what if they come in conflict? Recently, Melburnian developers illegally took down a heritage-listed pub in Carlton. The same are now suing the State for not granting an authorisation to build a high-rise tower on top of the site. This very possibility, that a convicted corporation sue the State, marks a characteristic of our justice system, genuine separation of power, and belief in the real possibility that an arm of the State – executive agencies in particular – might act unjustly towards individuals and groups. To go one step further, this acknowledges the right of citizens to be part of more than one collective. True, we must pay allegiance to the State – but also to family, city, region, the broader world, and a range of communities that we form. Our justice system must allow us to balance our allegiance to these various entities, particularly by acknowledging that the State is but one among many.

Unions are a form of collective organisation that aims to achieve greater justice. Their existence reveals a weakness of our adversarial system – that it requires an amount of power for justice to manifest itself. No worker on their own could stand up to the owners of a factory, the cost would be too high – but if structures back them up, it becomes possible. Thus, justice depends on a capacity for various parties to create the structures of emotional, financial and social support allowing them to pursue justice. And, therefore, organising and nurturing communities of mutual support, whether unions, clubs, municipalities, or even friendships groups and extended family networks, should be seen as an adjunct form of justice.

Change comes about when a system reaches a state of instability, followed by a restructure. It is always impossible to foresee precisely what the new state of affairs will be. The result may be catastrophic. Yet, justice typically takes the form of such a change, and therefore, it always carries with it the risk of a catastrophe. Therefore, those who benefit from a certain status quo will, more likely, stand against change. Not that they cannot acknowledge a failure of justice, but for fear that their own relative status change too much for the worse, or even that catastrophic change create excessive suffering beyond their own.

Considering this, some will be more structurally likely to resist justice: not only those who clearly benefit from the status quo, but those who built their lives on compromise with an existing system. Change would not only deprive them of status, but their whole personal history would appear under a new light. What if they were to fall victims to retrospective revenge, held accountable for all the violence incurred through the system that they propped us, whether compromise was prompted by greed, sloth or cowardice? It is, therefore, a requirement of justice that we do not let our own existence and sense of personal worth excessively depend on the structures of a corrupt system.

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