Do we live in a just society? If injustice prevails to even the smallest degree can we call our society just? Or can the cancerous moles that are injustices against citizens be they minorities, outsiders, the marginalized, be covered up and ignored so that we delude ourselves in the fact that we have a justice system and it keeps us in line?
As with many abstract and very important questions that have a significant impact on ourselves and our world, it is wise to return to the ancient philosophers for guidance. Plato is where it all begins (and his mentor Socrates) so let’s see what he has to say about justice.
Plato’s discussion on justice in The Republic is essentially an answer to the question whether a man should be just for the sake of justice or not be just as long as his reputation for being just is in tact. The discussion is presented as a dialogue between Socrates and a Glaucon where the latter begins with an argument that man should be unjust and appear to be just and therefore, loved by society. Since man will commit unjust acts when presented with the opportunity, he would be a fool to act justly and suffer a bad reputation, however much the notion of acting justly is admired by people. Socrates responds with his argument that man should be just for justices’ own sake and uses the metaphor of a city to illustrate his point.
In order to find justice within this city Socrates states we must first analyze three of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, and temperance. Wisdom is evident in those who govern the city, courage in those who defend it and temperance in its citizens who control their appetites. Justice then is found in the proper functioning of the three virtues in that those who are responsible do their job well and don’t meddle in other people’s business. It says in book IV that “flouting of the maxim to mind one’s own business is the injustice.” Plato then makes the comparison between the city and a human being.
The question is whether the human is a whole entity or composed of individual parts. Socrates identifies three separate components of man: Reason, Spirit and Desire. As in the city, Reason is the governing faculty and is responsible for controlling the Spirit. Both Reason and Spirit working together, govern the appetites or desires. The temperate man is therefore, one whose three parts are in harmony and where the intellect rules. Justice is the power behind a well-governed man as well as a well-governed city. It is beyond human construction and comes from a “divine” source as Plato says in Book IV. The answer to the opening question is that it is good for man to act justly for the sake of justice. This is reinforced by the conclusion that the properly ordered man will act justly as an outworking of his inner health whereas unjust deeds corrupt the inner self and bring disharmony to the three components. He finishes with the statement from Book IX: “the person who asserts justice is the more profitable. He tells us that in thought and deed the inner person must govern the entire person.”
Do we act justly? Can we act justly if our primary motivation is self interest? If our primary interest is profit is it in our best interest to care for those who won’t bring us any monetary gain? And is that just? In my own country, the aboriginal people have suffered great injustices and particularly now, the plight of aboriginal women on the fringes have been ignored. It is an issue that seems far away from my everyday life in suburbia yet the core of me, my DNA, is so alike with these women it is painful to sit and reflect on their trauma. It is an injustice. Yet we, our country, our government, passes laws that are “tough on crime” and bring about mandatory minimum sentences which place many of these women in jail for minor offences. I fear for us and how we will be judged by future generations on the injustices we have ignored.
John Oliver had a great piece on the damage mandatory minimum sentencing has had on America and its people.