Classical theory has taken great pains to describe the term “justice” and govern its application in a range of different settings. Given how this word has become associated with a fair and just government, and with a fair criminal prosecution system, it has in some ways taken on new meanings apart from its classical definitions.
One of the first theories of justice was Mill’s utilitarian theory of justice. The traditional utilitarian theory was based on the idea that the right thing to do was the thing that brought the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. The utilitarian theory of justice established that justice itself was more than just the wrong or right thing to do in a given situation (Vaughn, 2015). Rather, it was a moral right that took on far more importance and prominence than any other. This gave it more prominence in this theory and helped to establish justice as something more than just a fleeting feeling of happiness that could be brought on by doing a good deed or abstaining from a bad deed. Nozick’s libertarian theory of justice remains both prominent and important in some political circles. This theory suggests that a person has a right to possess properly so long as that property was acquired properly (Corlett, 2016). Likewise, if the property was transferred to him by someone who acquired it properly, and in accordance with justice, then it is justice for the person to continue to possess it. The third principle, and perhaps most important, is that no one has any right to possess a property if the first two rules have not been applied and passed. Rawls came up with a theory of justice, as well. In it, he argued that one should take the original position to understand real justice. In this, he meant that one should imagine being in a position where one would know everything there is to know in the world, but would not know one’s social status, profession, race, and the like (Valentinov, 2017). Under this system, one would want to have a fairly equal system so he would not have the chance of being given less. With this, Rawls argued that it was critical to have a theory of justice that provided for fairness, and if there was social inequality, it could only happen when every person was given the equal opportunity to gain a high status (Follesdal, 2015). Likewise, his version of justice suggested that any such system must be directed in such a way that it benefits the poorest first.
While these are large, philosophical definitions of justice, there are more specific applications that matter in today’s criminal justice system. The word justice is thrown out often in the criminal system today. It is used to re-assure people that the system is a good one that lives up to the ideals that they have been trying to achieve. Ultimately the new world definition of justice, in its modern application, tends toward punishing people who have done the wrong thing. The criminal justice system, and the prosecutors who tend to fill it, often talk about securing “justice” for the victims of crimes. In that context, it means that people who wrong those victims must be made to pay by the state. This can mean prison time, fines, probation, or even death in some states.
At the same time, there are people who find themselves on the other side of the criminal justice system, and they tend to have totally different ideas of what justice can and should mean. For instance, public defender’s offices, which are charged with defending the poor, invoke a broader definition of justice. They also invoke the Constitution, which provides rules to constrain the government and keep that government from doing bad things to its citizens. Those in public defense argue that justice only occurs when the rules are followed and when people are treated fairly, even when they have done something bad. One of the most common times that “injustice” is used by people on this side of the system is in discussing those situations where the system has convicted an innocent man for a crime he or she did not commit. This is one of the great splits between the two sides—one sees “justice” as attaining a result for a specific sub-set of people. The other sees “justice” as assessing the process to ascertain whether it has been applied fairly even in situations where applying it fairly may be difficult.
This shows just how much justice can differ from “security.” Security is based on the idea of keeping a people or a community safe. Often times, when security is the only goal, justice is the thing that gets overrun. Security concerns itself less with the principles and more with the outcomes. It concerns itself with whether the way something plays out tends to provide for a safer environment. Justice sometimes requires things to happen that lead to less security. This is favorable so long as the situation edifies the system and the concepts of fairness.
Justice is a nebulous concept overall. It is one of the most interesting concepts because of the interplay between theory and application. Old school theory suggests one thing and defines justice in one way, while modern systems define it how they want to. Ultimately “justice” is such a powerful word that many people want to attach their own actions to it. This is one of the reasons why its application has been so wide and shifting over time.
- Corlett, J. A. (Ed.). (2016). Equality and liberty: analyzing Rawls and Nozick. Springer.
- Follesdal, A. (2015). John Rawls’ Theory of Justice as Fairness. In Philosophy of Justice (pp. 311-328). Springer, Dordrecht.
- Valentinov, V. (2017). The Rawlsian critique of utilitarianism: A Luhmannian interpretation. Journal of business ethics, 142(1), 25-35.
- Vaughn, L. (2015). Doing ethics: Moral reasoning and contemporary issues. WW Norton & Company.