2019-03-31

What is justice?


How do you define justice? What is its measure? How do you fill it with life? How do you bring it about? These questions haunted me for many years. Recently I brought up the justice issue in my book “Mach was!?”, and I also put it before Tom, a dear friend whose ponderings I value highly. Yet I have not been able to come to a satisfying conclusion.

So what is justice?

The suspicion that my questions might be based on invalid hidden assumptions has been with me for quite a while already. In John Michael Greer’s book “Star’s Reach” we read,
"The balance of the world is always exact but it’s never fair. That’s true in politics, in war—" He shrugged, glanced at me. "Anything else you care to name. One person gets the benefit, another pays the price, and there’s no justice to who does which—but the price still gets paid."
Here we go. I read and translated JMG’s novel five years ago. It took that long for the penny to drop.

There is no justice.
by Albrecht Dürer

It is that simple. Justice doesn’t exist because the word has no clear meaning, and the word has no clear meaning because justice doesn’t exist – not even in the sense that a law exists. It rather has the properties of a ‘human being’ or a ‘tree;’ for practical communication purposes we may pretend that there is a generic standard human or a norm tree, separate from all other humans / trees of its kind, and from everything else that exists. The truth is, though, that each being is unique and has neither a clearly defined beginning nor end; it is inextricably interwoven, interconnected, interdependent with the continuum we call ‘Kosmos.’ Similarly, the justice concept develops its usefulness only if one acknowledges its fuzziness: What we perceive as or refer to as just is highly personal, cultural, and circumstantial in nature. It varies from time to time, from case to case, and from place to place.

Justice, as a word, symbolizes an abstract idea that describes an ideal. Being abstract in nature it does not bring any concrete content with it. Whether it is just that a thief’s right hand gets removed, whether it is just he gets sentenced to a fine or whether it is just that he may join a welfare program against poverty is totally up to cultural values. And whether the thief agrees that he is being treated in a just and fair way is completely dependent on what he expects to receive as a reward for his behaviour.

As an idea justice does not possess a physical counterpart – which it also cannot have because as an ideal it refers to a perfection that does not exist in the world of forms and shapes. Justice is about the things that should and shouldn’t be, and it is therefore extremely is-phobic and judgmental. Depending on who defines what justice is, it is not even clear whether it is supposed to be a thing, a condition, a feeling, a perception, or a process: justice is achieved, gets done, feels right, seems justified, or gets established; and it can only occupy its place in a world in which people possess agency. Whether they do, or not, is under dispute, though; mind the philosophical discussion on Determinism. Still the people of our culture believe in their agency, and so we tend to fall into the trap of confusing sanctions for justice, as there seems to exist a need for such a thing.

Having dismantled human-made justice, what could take its place in our lives? For it seems to me that its removal as a factor leaves an ugly wound behind that will fester if it cannot be healed. What is it that makes us construe the kind of ‘justice’ that we could achieve by acts of will? Is the justice concept a manifestation of something deeper? Do we perceive a kind of natural or divine balance, a moral equivalent to the law of gravity?

If so, Karma – the rule of ‘justice,’ a Kosmic mechanism of cause and effect which the Buddhists describe – might be the answer. While we may, to a certain degree, take decisions which change the course of our lives, those lives are also the result of decisions taken at an earlier point in time. As we cannot foresee most of the consequences of our actions, though, willed decisions rarely lead to happiness or harmony, unless we follow ‘right action,’ i.e. action that is guided by compassion. When we learn to accept what life dishes us out we begin to perceive the immensity of a dynamic balance that is truly Kosmic.

Within this balance we feel no need to judge people, do not divide situations into ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ do not label events as ‘just’ or ‘unjust.’ We do not need to prevent anything from happening, nor do we long for punishment, retribution, or vengeance. Compassion, the enactment of ‘justice,’ has us not only feel for, and love other people; it lets us understand that everything that happens does so for a (Karmic) reason and is therefore in perfect harmony with everything that exists. All dichotomies dissolve, and justice becomes the air that we breathe, the element that we live in, the thing that one does not need a word for. Justice is what-is.

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