What is justice?


Thursday 23rd January 2014

This Japanese manga story called Death Note (click on the picture and watch from 2:43 to 3:56) raised the crucial question we discussed in today’s session and was based around the key character’s own reflection on ‘righteous judgment’ and his own question, ‘Do I have the right to pass judgment on others?’  The kind of judgment he’s talking about is to do with the idea of justice and the conflict between punishing and forgiving an evildoer.

In the context of the story, our character, Light, takes on the mantle of judge, jury and executioner in a vigilante expedition towards creating a utopia without any criminals.  There is no room for forgiveness in this approach; it’s all about using his magic book, the ‘Death Note’, as a tool to weed out and rid the world of all perpetrators of evil, whatever the scale of their wrongdoing.  However, in the class discussions, much of the enquiry centred on justice being a way of limiting a criminal’s human contact with others or its being a rehabilitation which makes them fit back again peacefully into society. Alternative views explored the possibilities for reintroducing a form of corporal punishment to enforce the belief in taking a ‘life for a life’ against the possibilities for confronting criminals with the pain they cause their victims as a way of teaching them empathy.

Even though there are problems with each of these views (eg. how do we decide the scale of injustice?), surely justice is a balance between both punishment and forgiveness.  It is also about preserving the human rights and moral rights (are these the same thing?) which shape our behaviour in society.  And it is also about ideas of fairness and equality as well as trust and tolerance which help us to function in a mutually enhancing way.

In philosophical terms, justice is linked to the field of ethics which determines the justness of an act in terms of either its consequences (Consequentialism); or a moral code or law (Deontology); or the inherent goodness or badness of the person who does the ac (Virtue Ethics).

These distinctions mean we have to explain the difference between morals and ethics and where these come from because without such an explanation, how would we know the difference between right and wrong in the first place?

There is an evolutionary response to these ideas of justice and related values.  Would anyone care to present it…?

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