An Argument Against the Very Idea of Justice

by Sam Buntz

I don’t believe in justice. I’m announcing this to the world a little self-consciously, but it’s true. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of injustice—which is obviously just as destructive and hopeless as justice itself, since the very term “injustice” implies the need for a counter-measure of justice.

In the prehistoric past, justice was—as far as we can tell—an apparently minor concern. We continually dredge up one spear-tip riddled caveman corpse after another. (Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals offers a particularly pungent and still relevant linguistic argument for the fundamentally brutal nature of ancient humanity; “might makes right” really was the rule.) But, eventually, justice somehow worked its way into the human mind, probably from the lowest and most ardently persecuted rungs of ancient society upwards… And what was wrong with that? At the time, nothing—it was a positive development.

The world was hungry for justice, it being the necessary antidote to unmitigated war and slaughter, to the barbarian killing sprees common in every ancient culture, to sudden and casual acts of murder and assault. Justice was utterly necessary—but it only set the stage, in a sense, for the arrival of the Gospels’ concept of mercy, or for the Buddha’s teachings on the same. It enhanced the consciousness of humanity by torturing it with the knowledge of sin, the knowledge of good and evil. No progress would’ve been possible without this initial needle in the flesh—this inoculation against thoughtless brutality. Obviously, ancient justice as represented in the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic Law was almost as brutal as the reign of injustice that preceded it—but it was thoughtful brutality, a constructive, directed, and refined form of it, which only grew more constructive and refined over time.

We are living with the same basic notion of justice today, though it tries to couch itself in ever more congenial forms. For instance, we no longer support the more honest and obvious varieties of execution—hanging, the firing squad—but have no problem with lethal injection. This is true not only for criminal justice but for all other forms—even “social justice” and apparently liberal causes like slave reparations. If the idea were only to alleviate a burden, to provide aid and ease suffering, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, it wouldn’t be called justice. It would be called love or mercy.

But since the consciousness of sin is involved (the advocates of social justice don’t call it sin, though that’s what they mean)—a consciousness of past debts, the register of misdeeds—it isn’t love. Actually if it springs out of “white guilt” or class guilt, it’s what the poet Shelley called, “The dark idolatry of the self / Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone, / Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan.” It is purely pointless. Actions springing from an abundance of goodwill, from compassion and sympathy, remedy problems without constantly checking the tally of sins. As it is said, “Where there is love, there is no law.” Jesus and Buddha, among others, came to instigate this inner revolution—this basic re-orientation in the way human beings dealt with each other. They centered the motive for action in compassion rather than in a leveling of accounts.

Considered rightly, the bumper sticker and slogan, “No Justice, No Peace” is actually the opposite of Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Real progress comes out of this abundance of goodwill and love, but the process of identifying past misdeeds and chucking around blame, while ostensibly attempting to remedy those misdeeds, is just the same outworn precept that children should inherit the guilt of their parents. What does justice actually get for the person demanding it,which compassion doesn’t also attain?

Martin Luther King Jr. redefined justice as “the way love looks in public.” If that were the commonly accepted definition, I could easily go along with it—but it isn’t (though I’m all in favor of redefining it that way, as well). At root, justice is still centered in the ancient prescription offered by both Moses and Hammurabi: “an eye for an eye.” Gandhi was right when he said that this would make the whole world blind, and practically, few people live their lives in a perfectly “just” way, in any case. As William Blake put it, “Friendship cannot exist without forgiveness of sins continually.” I can’t think of a single, long-term friendship I’ve had that didn’t require either the friend’s forgiveness or my own, at some point. To keep an eye fixed on the register of faults—personal faults or social faults—obviously isn’t the best way to get on with people. We regularly abjure the principle of justice when it comes to our own personal relationships—but to apply the principle socially, in mass, seems much more difficult.

None of this, of course, means that I don’t believe in locking murderers away from society for what could easily be the rest of their natural lives. But I wouldn’t do it in a punitive spirit. The mind of an unrepentant killer is probably a miserable enough prison in and of itself—and even if our gestures towards rehabilitation were to prove futile in many cases, they would still benefit our own souls, cultivating our own sense of compassion, giving us the scope to extend it towards even the most reprehensible human beings and towards the non-human world. Perfect justice is best left to the cosmos—but mercy is for humanity. Shakespeare said it best, when he wrote Portia’s famous speech on “The Quality of Mercy” in The Merchant of Venice: “If justice be thy plea, consider this: / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.”

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