Imaginative Justice: Summary Questions

by Brianne Donaldson

This essay is one of a 6-part series titled “What is Justice?”:FirstSecondThirdFourthFifth, and Sixth

Justice seems to be a relentless exercise of moral imagination mixed with some blue collar repair skills to adjust the scales of well-being when they have fallen askew.

The five previous installments have attempted to map out a certain territory of the term “justice” that evolves on multiple fronts without linearity or consistency. In lieu of the “functional set of questions” I promised in Part 1 of this series, I will raise the following considerations:

1. How does justice balance equality and difference? Put too simply, justice can be a call for a facile homogeneity, that all life is equal. On the other hand, justice can be a call to pure difference, wherein each life must be judged in its radical uniqueness without recourse to universal norms or preconditioned biases of group identity. Both of these options lead us toward an absurd notion of justice. Justice, whatever it may be, must grapple with the reality of multiplicity, simultaneously affirming the inherent equality of life across lines such as race, gender, species, nationality, or aptitude, even as it considers the unique differences that shape each of these lives. Commitments to both equality and difference paradoxically shape the dispensation of justice.

2. How is justice differently defined in a specific context or usage? The term “justice” is deployed across diverse contexts such as criminal justice, political justice, and social justice. Criminal justice includes punitive notions for individual reward and punishment as well as restorative notions for the individual and the community, for the perpetrator and the victim; which are we referring to? Political justice adjudicates what lives count as the polity—immigrants, ecosystems, animals, other nations, women, diverse races, queer, differently abled, the poor—and how they should be treated. These values can clash wildly amid secular or religious contexts, and being clear about the foundations we use to define, restrict, or extent the political community—what lives count—is essential. Social justice requires an accounting of memory, an examination of inherited beliefs, persistent bias, and historic iniquities within thoses sphere in which calculations of “the just” might be made. What kind of justice are we talking about when we talk about justice?

3. What contradictions persist in attempts at justice? Contradictions persist in the application of norms, context, and coercion. Regarding social norms and their violation, we must perpetually ask “what makes for a punishable offense?” What norm/s is/are offended, for example, in killing a person, in homosexuality, in abortion (or criminalizing abortion), in an individual stealing a watch or a corporation stealing the pension plans of aging workers, or robbing from future generations in environmental destruction? Norms require vigilant re/assessment and maintenance if they are to clarify rather than obscure.

In the realm of context, we may decide it is necessary to punish someone who kills an individual, yet justify the killing of many in war, or advocate the death penalty. We may defend our family pet against undue harm while socially sanctioning the killing of farmed animals or oceanic creatures. What contexts make some lives more killable, or certain injuries acceptable?

Regarding coercion, if the scales must be balanced, do we forcibly take weight from one side for the sake of the equation? In distributive justice, for example, do we take more from one to give to another, say, in taxes, and how do we narrate that social benefit to build coherence rather than antagonism within these communal decisions? What mechanisms of persuasion incentivize social concern just short of coercion such that one should voluntarily serve the marginalized, assist the indigent, cultivate generosity. . . or else?

4. What is the relation between justice and imagination? Even as the calculations of justice are too often relegated to the “priests” of legal and religious institutions, the real work of justice begins in personal relationship, within the communicating encounter between two or more bodies wherein we find ourselves seeing and caring for others and places previously unknown to us. Imagination becomes central.

Throughout the courses on which this blog series was based, students repeatedly, though sometimes inadvertently, returned us to the realm of moral imagination through their insights. For instance, Kant imagined that even if he did not know someone, they were deserving of the respect for persons, they should be viewed as rational even if they rationalized differently, and that we must imagine how it feels to be treated as merely a means, so to ensure we do not treat ourselves, nor a stranger, as such, but always as their own end.

John Stuart Mill’s longtime romantic and intellectual relationship with Harriet Taylor informed his belief that women should be considered full participants in political life, and he extended that by imagination to the poor, and to slaves. Jeremy Bentham extended the polity even to animals; anything that could suffer, he imagined, would have a claim on us as part of our community, even if they were at present unknown to us.

Rawls encountered the bodies and devastation of the Atom bomb, making real an imagined Other, to whom the wholeness of justice had been violently denied.

When students observed restorative justice sessions between victims and offenders, the “criminal” became humanized and contextualized, changing the location of restitution to the emotional and social imaginary rather than in isolated punishment. Reading the stories of immigrant children crossing the border made the so-called “alien” familiar in their longings and fears, and rendered them members of our moral imagination. Looking at the prevalence of racial, gendered, and species bias in advertising revealed subtle messages handicapping students’ communal imaginations.


In my final analysis, I suggest that whatever justice is, it requires first the courage to give a neighborly reading to our planetary fellows, to expect nuance and complexity in the existence of others, to look at the contingencies of history, and to hear the motivating concerns and the simple pleasures at stake. Justice is the effort to see better, and where we cannot see, to imagine, so that we might better grasp after principles that include more lives, and more difference, in our calculations of justice regardless of where those lives land on the spectrum of existence, boundaries, or hierarchies. From this active analysis, we may then do the more difficult work of negotiating conflicting values, competing claims, and faulty structures.

Although justice can often feel “out there”—done by others divine or judicial in some court room or political policy, beyond our control—justice also emerges “in here,” in the courage (and even faith) to meet the bodies, creatures, and places of our world in all of their many-sidedness. The aim is not to turn away from, but to dive into, complexity—to step toward, to reach out, asking questions, finding out more, listening, looking at the past, expecting many factors, allowing ourselves to feel more deeply with the experiences of others, knowing that justice too can multiply and innovate in order to hold the proliferation of claims and cares that grow within and upon on us.

Justice is the practice of confrontation between what has been and what might be, between the provocation of grief and the awakening of possibility. The sorrows and deficiencies of the present are but signposts to alternate futures of tomorrow’s justice, which will be imagined and performed into being.


Justice” mural painted by El Mac, Augustine Kofie and Retna near Vine and Sunset in Hollywood, CA as part of the Manifest Equality show, 2010. See more here.