These days everybody is talking about justice: social justice, racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, environmental justice and so on. Activists organize marches, protests, petitions and boycotts. Some even do violence in the name of justice. And yet, I have never heard an activist explain what they mean by justice.
Do they mean “equality”?
Equality is a clear concept in the abstract. But equality in actuality is impossible, which means its advocates would need to explain what aspects of life they wish to make equal and why. To avoid the appearance of arbitrariness, they would need to appeal to other principles to justify these modifications to the equality principle. It deserves mention that the bare notion of equality possesses no moral force. You can treat people equally whether you treat them well or poorly. People can be equally rich or poor, dead or alive, in prison or not. Hence the concept of equality cannot carry the full weight of the concept of justice, for justice possesses a moral force that equality does not. We are no closer to understanding what the activist means by justice.
Do they mean “fairness”?
What does “fairness” mean? Usually, fairness means that a rule-defined activity—a baseball game, a legal system or a system of economic exchange—is conducted according to rules, equally applied to all participants. Fairness, like equality, is a clear concept. But it has an advantage over equality in that it can be applied in practice. But fairness concerns the equal application of the rules and does not concern itself with the outcome of the activity. Justice understood as fairness means only that the winners and losers, win or lose “fair and square.” Fairness does not address more the fundamental questions: “Are the rules fair?” “Is the game fair?” “Is the system fair?” Surely contemporary justice activists are not marching for simple fairness!
Do justice activists mean to explain justice by the concept of “giving everyone their due”?
Clearly, this definition also needs explaining. How do you determine what is due a particular individual or group? This is clear only if such rights and privileges are specified in statutory law, common law or custom. Apart from appeals to law, claims of being “due” some right or privilege have no more moral force than saying, “I want this thing, and I feel I deserve it.” Even if activists can appeal to statutory law or acknowledged custom to justify a claim, this fit between a claim and the law cannot serve as an adequate definition of justice. Most of us think laws can possess or lack the quality of justice. And justice activists often protest against laws they claim are unjust. Still, they offer no explanation of what justice is or how we can gain knowledge of it. All the definitions of justice given above merely move in a circle and never arrive at a self-evident concept.
Why invoke justice, if they don’t know what it is?
Invoking the concept of justice, if it is to be effective, asks others to submit to an objective and universal norm that trumps all private interests. However, invoking the quasi-sacred and transcendent ideal of justice is no guarantee that activists understand or seek justice. For it is very useful to maintain the appearance of seeking justice even when seeking one’s private interests. One simple test of whether people are serious about universal justice is whether or not they apply it consistently and rigorously to themselves.
Why justice talk goes no where
There’s no such thing as justice. Justice is a relation, not a substance, a thing that exists somewhere. Justice/injustice is a relation between an action and a law that applies to that action. Or more specifically, it is a relation of a human action or law to the moral law intrinsic to the created order. Ultimately, justice is a relation of fit between an action and the eternal divine law. God alone is justice itself. In God alone is justice an actuality, a substance, a thing. Apart from its actual existence in God, justice is merely an endless series of relations of fit between groundless assertions of right and privilege. To seek actual justice is to seek God, and to seek God is to do God’s will and embody God’s character in this world so full of injustice and godlessness.
Note: I have written several essays dealing with justice on this blog. If you are interested in reading more, search the blog using the key word “justice”.