Transcendent Justice or Human Judgment: Where Do The Norms of Justice Come From?

by Brianne Donaldson

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

In the previous installment, I speculated on what is weighed in the two scales of justice. Most contemporary explanations suggest that the truths of society rest in one scale and fairness—or the attempts to fairly enact those truths—rests in the other. But what is the content of and source for these foundational truths?

Majid Khadduri suggests in The Islamic Conception of Justice that the scales and contents of justice are relative based on values of a given society. For example, the Prophet Muhammad sought to reform specific tribal norms by improving the status of women, the treatment of slaves, and prohibiting infanticide (Khadduri 8-9). The New Testament challenges a different set of norms that marginalized women, foreigners, and the sick; Jesus also critiques the rich, imagines uplift of the poor, and seeks to extend merciful care to those in need (Foster, n. p.).

Whatever the relative values, Khadduri invites us to consider two important categories for these sources of justice: one human, and one transcendent. The first “assumes that men [sic] are capable of determining their individual or collective interests” and thus able to “establish a public order under which . . . scales of justice are likely to evolve by tacit agreement or by formal action” (Khadduri 1). The second “presupposes that man [sic] is essentially weak and therefore incapable of rising above personal failings,” thus “a superhuman or divine authority is invoked to provide either the sources or the basic principles of the public order under which a certain standard of justice is established” (Khadduri 2).

In his analysis of justice in the Jewish tradition, Haim Shapira suggests that the Torah and Talmud hybridize (275) divine justice and human judgment. Here, certain human judgments represent divine decision such as casting lots or trials by ordeal to determine guilt without human intervention (277-284). If you were thrown into a river, for instance, and survived, you proved your innocence according to the judgment of God (283). In human judgment, courts and judges (not prophets and priests) heard cases according to laws and evidence. God was implicit, rather than explicit, in this legal system; God did not decide guilt or innocence, yet a judge must be fair as a delegate of the Divine, and a judge might consult God for help with a decision (287-289).

Still another example of transcendent justice is that of karma or a natural law of cause of effect “governing physical laws such as gravity, but also as a moral law governing action” held in various forms by many Indian/Asian philosophical systems (Long 1). According to Jeffery Long, “If one engages in actions that are violent, or motivated by hatred, selfishness, or egotism, the universe will respond in kind, producing suffering in the one who is cause suffering to others” (1). He goes on: “Similarly, if one engages in actions that are benevolent, pure, and kind, the universe will respond benevolently, and one will have pleasant experiences” (1). Karma offers a form of transcendent, universal justice without a deity that seeks to explain why there seems to be so much injustice in the world. What one has done in a past life bears karmic consequences or benefit in this life, and how we act toward others today determines the quality of our future. Justice is somewhat self-inflicted in this natural causal matrix.

Transcendent and human sources are regularly conflated in our language about justice (putting one’s hand on a Bible in a court of law or the retributive adage “what goes around comes around”), obscuring the sources and norms that we claim to strive for or lack. It is important to identify these multiple sources that lurk within contemporary images of or calls for justice. If the truths, or normative ideals, of a society are in one side of the scales, it is imperative to identify the content and the source of those norms.

Works Cited

Foster, Robert. n. d. “Understandings of Justice in the New Testament.” Society of Biblical Literature.

Khadduri, Majid. 1984. The Islamic Conception of Justice. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Long, Jeffery. 2009. Jainism: An Introduction. New York: I. B. Tauris.

Shapira, Haim. 2012. “’For the Judgment is God’s’: Human Judgment and Divine Justice In The Hebrew Bible and In Jewish Tradition.” Journal of Law and Religion Volume 27,  No. 2 (2011-12). 273-328.