‘Justice’… According to Whom?

December 13, 2011

Political Theory


In a recent class discussion, we were asked to define justice: “What is justice?” You would think this would be a simple question, yet it requires the most complex answers. This was a question which provoked an excessive amount of thought, so I wanted to explore and further discuss the subject on the blog. My initial and general definition was that justice is basically the idea of everyone having equal opportunity in society, everyone being treated equally, and everyone having the right to freedom. Injustice, I initially thought, is being denied these equalities. But during and after class, I realized there are a lot of varied definitions of justice and injustice. For example, Tocqueville viewed justice as simply how we govern our collective lives. This can be seen as true as we have fully established courts today which strive to govern our lives through ‘justice’. Rawls expressed how justice is fairness. Athens advocated that democracy is just. That the rule of the majority, whatever the majority decides is just.

Someone brought up in discussion that we can almost distinguish justice into two categories: private and public. This private ideology of justice stems from Socrates’ assertion that justice is truth. In refutation of Athens, Socrates advocated that the majority opinion cannot be just if it is not true: Truth is the ultimate standard of justice (the crowd and the tradition isn’t always right). He proposed two ways of thinking about justice: 1. Substantive: something is just if it promotes (for example) truth, the glory of god/nation, human happiness, etc. 2. Procedural: outcomes, whatever they are, are just as long as they come out of legitimate processes (such as trial, and law). The substantive view, however, expresses that it’s not enough to rely solely on process. The public view, in relation to this private view on justice, emphasizes equality before law. This perception of justice is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated throughout the Civil Rights Movement. In discussing the terms and conditions of justice and injustice, I’d really like to draw from Dr. Martin Luther King’s perspective on justice/injustice because he makes a lot of strong assertions in regards to the subject, particularly racial injustice. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail written in 1963, Dr. King expresses his views on justice as well as injustice that I can relate to and am in complete agreement with. Reading his letter helped me form my own opinion about what justice and injustice are.


I like the point that he brought up explaining how “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This rang true to me as I would agree that injustice is indeed a threat to justice any and everywhere. In reference to justice, MLK denotes two types of laws: just and unjust. He explains that “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” I one-hundred percent support this argument that an unjust law is in fact not a law. It is not moral or ethical to enforce a law which brings injustice to people anywhere. It is not by any means right to support unjust laws. He differentiates between just and unjust laws in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” This was a very interesting point to me, firstly that segregation distorts one’s soul and personality, and secondly that segregation is unjust because of this. His reasoning for why something is just opposed to unjust makes sense to me.

In discussion, another question proposed was “what is the relationship between justice and power?” In response to this, I believe that with power, one has the ability and choice to create justice and/or injustice. Back to Dr. King’s logic, he describes how “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” In sum, difference and sameness, also known as justice and injustice, can be made legal or “illegal” depending on the influence of those in power. It amazed me how power can truly influence and impact a society.

I pondered the relationship between justice and vengeance as well. Maybe one’s differentiation between or opinion on justice and vengeance correlate with social class and status, or economical development. Perhaps, many lower class and minority groups have different perspectives on gaining vengeance in regards to violence rather than justice by filing a report and taking the issue to the court of law because of the low rate of return through court and the justice system historically. MLK mentions how negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts in saying “there have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham that in any other city in the nation.” So, it could be assumed that many poor and minority groups have little faith in the justice system and in result, rely on violence to pursue justice/venegance. MLK promoted that “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” This was a significant point to make because if laws today are unjust and do not establish justice, and if we can’t rely on the justice system to upheld true justice for ALL people, then we fail in progressing socially and as a unified society.

Readers, it’s come to my attention, after all the readings and in discussing the subject with my peers that many of us may think we all have a pretty concise and agreed-upon definition or perspective on what justice and injustice are, but in reality, we don’t really. There are numerous opinions and perspectives on justice as mentioned above. So I ask, which definition is correct and which one is invalid? Who is to say? What does our society generally believe? What does our country’s motto “Justice for all” really mean? When does one’s desire for justice differ from vengeance? Or are these terms interchangeable? Lastly, I ask, what’s YOUR definition?



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2 Comments on “‘Justice’… According to Whom?”

  1. jkb34383 Says:

    Justice is the fair and equitable treatment of all individuals who live under a system of morals, laws, and ethics. Of course the specific meanings of what is just or unjust is subject to change based on the overall nature of a specific society/person. Generally justice can be related to, “To each his own” and “do to others as you would expect them to do to you” type attitudes. “To each his own” reflective of previous individual life experiences that form personal beliefs. The golden rule is just a way to characterize justice as having moral considerations as its backbone.

    Lastly, what is considered just in society must be determined by the majority, but as we have learned, an individual can still maintain their own private sense of the word.

  2. zekeharris Says:

    Justice changes meaning depending on who you are and where you come from. The fact that each person thinks it is good is at least some sign that we may be open to change when our previous misconceptions on what is just changes. As Martin Luther King Jr. was able to show through civil rights and sociopolitical change that the “separate but equal” that many thought was just was in fact the exact opposite. What is just and what exemplifies justice are all objective and no one is wrong, each is just a varying degree.
    I think justice is the fight for what the people think is right no matter their class, capital, or race. And if a new definition comes I think it is only just to listen, really listen to what is wrong.

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