Before I begin writing my short essay about justice for this week’s writing prompt, I want to take a step back and sincerely reflect on what justice is, and what makes something or someone just or unjust.

My intuition and observations lead me to understand that there are different forms of justice societies value or appreciate, as well as how it’s administered. But are there fundamental beliefs about justice most of us share?

How Do We Understand Justice and How It’s Administered?

There are only two types of justice that I can think of at the moment. There is the type of justice that is administered within some type of codified system. And then there is the type of justice that is administered outside of that codified system when that codified system fails or is perceived to have failed.

We can and do understand and administer justice within our legal systems, our family systems, our cultural systems, and within our religious systems. Often these systems overlap and feed into one another and influence one another and our understanding of justice. Each one of these systems is not necessarily the same for each one of us in the world, especially when we have different family structures, different cultures, are from different countries with different legal systems, and practice different religions.

Or… is that only a perception we have? That our sense of justice can be different from others because our systems used to administer justice seem different sometimes. Instead, what if we believed that we all do have the same shared fundamental, dare I say innate, understanding of what is just and what is not just, after all?

This post is meant to spur questions and dialogues. So, I suppose those are my questions.

As I mentioned above, right now there seem to be only two types of justice I can think of at the moment. The type of justice that is administered within some type of codified system. Let’s call this “legal justice.” And the type of justice that is administered outside of that codified system when that codified system fails or is perceived to have failed. Let’s call this “vigilante justice.” Here are my brief musings on both.

Legal Justice

The legal justice system exists to maintain security and order and is necessary, or so we are raised to believe. We have laws to keep everyone safe and society orderly, they say.

According to my intuition, education, and observations, it seems “legal justice” can be and often is administered by different types of systems; justice is administered by our family members, religious orders, penal codes, our neighbors and peers, federal legislation, etc. Basically, any widely recognized codified system can administer some type of legal justice. Anything we do outside of the laws and orders codified by these systems is seen and treated as “illegal.” And punishing such illegal acts, acts conducted outside of these widely recognized codified systems, is often perceived as justice.

We need an organized and (hopefully) humane and civilized way to deal with thieves and murderers, for example. In this sense, legal justice often can and does make sense. And many of us follow suit with the conventions and laws of how the society around us dictates our behaviors, especially family members and peers, and religious orders.

However, there are many times our legal justice and the systems that administer it fail us. For example, Jim Crow laws, laws that allow men to beat and incarcerate their wives, laws that only apply to certain sects of society not all sects of society—aren’t necessarily just. And “legal” laws are being updated all the time, supposedly because they are unjust just as they are.

Overall, here’s what’s interesting to me about legal or codified justice, whether it is administered by a church, a parent, a government, or society: it places emphasis on the codified system itself and not humans although its system was created (supposedly) by and for humans, and it regularly benefits only those who are in control of administering its codes and laws.

Vigilante Justice

Like most others, I immediately think of Spiderman and Batman and other comic book characters when I think of vigilantes. And figures like Robin Hood and Joan of Arc come to mind. They all take justice into their own hands and live outside of the confines of the widely recognized codified systems of their time. However, they’re still very much aware of the codified systems of their time and must work directly against them in the name of justice. And I would argue, in doing this, they come up with their own codified systems of justice and still administer them in similar ways.

For example, Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. His code of conduct relied on economic fairness and equity. So every action he took relied on this code. However, technically, stealing was wrong and he believed this too. In his mind, however, stealing was really only ever wrong or unjust when the rich stole from the poor and not necessarily the other way around.

There are also superheroes who kill so that others won’t be killed, or because they are following their own sense of vengeance and justice. Is killing ever justified? Even if it is for revenge? Or in the name of vigilante justice itself?

Joan of Arc led armies for a monarchy. In the name of God and his orders, she said. However, would God condone war and death to such a magnitude for a man to be a king?

Overall, what’s interesting to me about vigilante justice: it wouldn’t exist if our widely recognized codified legal systems for justice actually kept everyone safe and orderly. However, vigilantes get a bad reputation when they start leaning too far in the other direction against the codified systems they’re fighting, and start to seem “unfair” or ultimately inequitable, and well… kind of like hypocrites. For example, if Robin Hood stole every last penny from the rich and the rich were now poor, would that be justice? If a superhero kills everyone in a town who was at fault for murdering their father, would that really be justice? Kill those who killed? Ultimately, vigilante justice seems hard to gauge in its more extreme forms. Especially when it’s only determined by a solo actor or person.

The Uncertainty of Fairness and Goodness In Justice

Sometimes it seems that we think justice should also ensure fairness and goodness. But what is fairness? And what is goodness? Does or should justice ultimately promote fairness and or goodness?

Not everyone experiences loss or hardship or restrictions in the same way. Not everyone starts from the same place or lot in life. And things like revenge also come with fairness. An eye-for-an-eye can seem fair at first, but it can also leave the whole world blind and potentially promote hypocrisy and keep violent cycles alive. Who killed who first? Does it ultimately matter when justice is the goal?

Goodness can also come with fairness… or can it? A person can be good whether or not things are fair to them, no? In fact, a good person might be perceived as good precisely because of the unfairness they have endured. But fairness can also only occur if the one who has more doesn’t feel slighted by maintaining equity, no? Especially since they are likely the ones administering the codified systems of justice we’re supposed to follow. And what exactly is goodness? Do we all have the same sense of goodness? Is it possible that maybe our codified systems influence our sense of goodness and fairness and not the other way around?

Is Justice Innate or Taught?

I believe that our sense of justice is both innate and taught. How our innate natures of justice are balanced with what we learn about justice as we age, and who or what does the teaching about justice, is important to consider. Here are some interesting articles I’ve recently come across concerning justice.

As the post above indicates, I have a lot of questions about how justice is understood and administered. And it’s seeming likely that a lot of them won’t be answered fully anytime soon…

What are your questions about justice?


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