What is Justice? We Know But We Don’t Know

By Brianne Donaldson

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

Like the words “God” or “love,” the term “justice” does not explain, but must be explained. All three words, in fact, share something of the same fate, insofar as each is taken as foundational to human social life and language even though there is little consensus of what any of the terms mean. Each describes something universally familiar, yet fundamentally inexplicable.

Beyond the sheer variation in definition, each term falters at the level of grammar. At the surface the three words seems like a proper noun serving as the main subject of a verb—for example “Love lives in the heart,” “God answers prayers,” or “Justice restores balance.” And yet, each word also plays between action and object such that “I love you,” “She embodied God,” or “Do justice.” Love is a thing, but it is also an action. God may be understood as a personal force by some, but as Whitehead suggests “God” denotes a mediating principle (PR 40), or a “medium of intercommunication” (AI 134). Likewise justice seems to be a desirable state as well as the enactment of ideals.

In spite of these ambiguities, “justice” continues to be a ubiquitous term in public discourse. A quick search of “justice in the news” for today—October 4, 2015—reveals multiple headlines that demonstrate the pervasive use and confusion:

  • Ex-Lawman on a Lonely Mission: Bringing the Police to Justice (Is it a place?)
  • Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Denounces Solitary Confinement (Is it a person?)
  • Tipping the Scales of Justice: Why Aren’t There More Women in Law Enforcement (Is it a balancing act?)
  • Black Lives Matter Activist Hired as “Senior Justice Writer” (Is it a condition?)
  • Hundred Rally for Justice in Detroit (Is it a deficiency?)
  • Pennsylvania’s Top Prosecutor Says Justice Violated Ethics (Is it a practice?)
  • Victims of Torture in Chad Anticipate Justice as Dictator’s Trial Begins (Is it retribution?)

These few examples begin to scramble up whatever definitional clarity might have existed in one’s mind a moment before. In short order, a concept upon which the national identity of the U.S. rests, as well as the ideal aim for global relations, war-making, not to mention civil and personal order, begins to sound like a nonsense term. The word is invoked by politicians and the people. It is utilized by religious adherents and secular atheists. It is spoken by victims, perpetrators, and legal representatives. It takes place within families and in prisons. It restores and it punishes. It is demanded by people at the margins and it is touted by those in the center of power. How can such a word be utilized meaningfully in all of these contexts? Are we merely speaking past one another, or is the term simply too ill-defined to be useful?

In the installments to come, I hope to elucidate some distinct commitments within various expressions of divine justice, notions of retributive and distributive justice, normative ethics, social contract theory, social justice, among others. Rather than seek a uniform definition, the aim (and it is but an aim at present) is to develop a functional set of questions that each of us can utilize to discern just what someone might intend (and not intend) in a particular use of “justice.”