The problem of ‘justice’

Human beings have always set a lot of store by the idea of justice- the idea that there is some universal concept of right and wrong, of those who do wrong deserving retribution, and that ‘what comes around goes around’, appears terribly appealing to the human psyche, and is a crucial  part of the human experience. Exactly where this came from science is still rather unsure (neuroscience still being very much in its infancy), but the idea has been a favourite of philosophers for a long old while. It’s the sheer arbitrariness of the concept that really grates with them, the idea that this way of doing things is more right than that way for no fundamental reason. To quote Terry Pratchett: “Take the universe and grind it up into the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy”. He (or more specifically his character of Death) views justice as just one big lie that humans need to believe in order to survive, and to be fair, he may have a point.

I could spend several posts debating this issue, but you can probably fill in the argument for yourself, and in any case such an argument can be reduced down to ‘it doesn’t make sense, and in the grand scheme of things there’s no reason for it to matter, but the human brain appears to have an inbuilt concept of right and wrong and therefore such an experience is a necessary part of being human’. I could equally spend an entire post talking about psychopathy and how that affects this viewpoint, and in fact I probably will one day. But today I want to consider the concept of justice and ‘badness’ itself, and evaluate it against one basic human truth:

Nobody can, unless forced, perform an activity which they feel is fundamentally wrong

This is an even more fundamental part of the human experience- in fact the holding of views upon what is right or wrong automatically predisposes this fact. The most interesting quandary that this fact throws up concerns our concept of justice, and indeed our justice system. The legal proceedings of punishment for wrongdoing are, naturally, focused around a list of things that are classified as ‘wrong’- the law. However, if we consider that nobody is capable of doing an activity that they consider to be wrong, then the validity of a list concerning what is right and wrong is called into question. If nobody believes that they are doing wrong, then who are we to punish them for it?

This line of questioning inevitably leads to the conclusion that a justice system is, in fact, unnecessary as nothing can every be considered to be ‘wrong’ and thus deserving of punishment, and is one route for arriving at the idea of anarchism- no laws, just do whatever you like.  So, how then, with this fact in place, did we ever arrive at the complex and protective legal system we have in place today?

One way to answer this is to examine the culture of gangs and organised crime, which act as a fairly good model for studying what happens when there are no rules. The biggest fish will rise to the surface as leaders, and begin to gather followers around them. In this way a gang is formed. The gang members tend to follow their leader’s way of doing things, at least for as long as he brings them success- this is in their best interests. The leader sets out a way of doing things that works, and sets out rules that make sure that he gets his majority share of whatever spoils come their way. Anyone who breaks those rules is punished as an example to the others, to make sure that they continue to follow the rules and continue to bring their leader rich pickings and rewards. However, other gangs present in the area will limit the takings the leader can expect, so once his gang has grown big enough he will try to gain control of some turf, and attempt to expand his sphere of control by either crushing rival gangs or accepting them into the fold, swelling his ranks.

This is pretty much exactly how countries first developed, except that instead of gangs we have tribes who grouped together for protection and an increased chance of survival, and instead of gang leaders we have small kings and chieftains. Once the tribe was big enough to stabilise its own existence, it was able to expand outwards and consume others around it, until the tribes were big enough to merge into countries. Remember, all of these tribes (or gangs) will have rules, designed to keep the rewards flowing to the top, but as the tribe grows inside it becomes impossible for one figurehead to control the entire organisation. Thus, at the lower end of the tribe, people’s connection to their leader becomes more and more distant, and as such so does his control over them. To combat this, he begins to recruit loyal enforcers to maintain control over the general populace- but they can never have the numbers to exert total control over a tribe of any reasonable size. When there are no laws in place to prevent theft, assault and other such ‘crimes’, victims will, naturally, become increasingly common and increasingly angry at the pain and inconvenience of them. The common people begin to resent the lack of organisation in place to keep them happy, and with control over them reduced their power increases. To crush all the dissenters would only destabilise the leader’s power base and leave him open to being conquered himself, so to maintain his position of power, the leader must, therefore, appease the general populace to an extent, and start introducing rules to keep them happy- and here we are, right back at the idea of a country with an organised set of laws. Thus, anarchism is an unsustainable system that will eventually revert back to organisation as people begin to clump together for security. Rules that were once in place to secure the top position for leaders begin to become rules for the people, and the whole system goes right back to where we started.

Thus, it is demonstrated that humankind’s instincts for self-preservation, leading them to clump together into a group for survival, and later to express anger about their lack of legal protection, will eventually demand a system of justice with laws centred onto the good of the common people. This may take a long time to occur (it took hundreds of years to turn the monarchies of Europe into systems even remotely representative of their people), but it will eventually occur as long as the people are able to find their common voice. In short, a justice system is inevitable.

OK, that hasn’t really answered any questions, so I think I’m going to have to make this a two-parter. See you on Saturday then.

[Oh, and sorry about missing a post on Monday- I was away]


One thought on “The problem of ‘justice’

  1. Pingback: The Price of Freedom | collapsinghrung

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