Webster dictionary tells us that justice is determined by a set of principles, which in turn, are established by the rule of law. In forming the law, determining justice is a matter of defining what is impartial, what is fair. This does not mean that our definition of justice is clear cut and universally understood. In fact, the ambiguity of deciding what is fair across a large human populace inevitably leads to internal conflict. Since humanity could collectively ponder morality, we have debated justice. Is it right to end the life of those who had ended a life themselves? Does an eye for an eye make the whole world blind, or is this the justice we need? How do we even define what is fair in a world of varying opinions and endless realities?
Following in tandem with our friendly Webster dictionary, let us say that what is fair to all is the act of ensuring the least amount of suffering possible. If what is fair is, indeed, a minimal amount of suffering, then our law begins to change, for what we uphold now in our current justice system is a set of principles defined by “an eye for an eye”. We equate the crime with a suitably equal sentence of punishment. This has only eased over time. When justice was first instilled in western civilization as a system, it was swift and, in most cases, more severe than the crime committed. A hand was taken from the thief for what was stolen, a head was lost for treason, and torture was induced for general punishment. Justice was brutal, serving as the collection of all deeds necessary to protect the interests of the state, no matter how cruel.
Over time, the idea of justice has evolved alongside humanity. As life becomes easier, so too does our definition of what is fair. Is this, however, all truly justice? I argue that what we define as just in our modern culture, and what we have called justice since its conception, is nothing more than the desire for vengeance under the guise of morality.
Let us turn back to our Webster dictionary friend. In this, vengeance is defined as, “Punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offence.” The system through which we regulate law and our determination of rights, what we call the justice system, is nothing more than a set of guidelines defined by the age-old desire for vengeance. We assign a punishment that equals the crime, and in doing so, satiate that desire to replace what was lost in retribution. What we have, and what we have always had, is not justice, but vengeance.
If we are to enact what is fair, if we are to ensure the least amount of suffering for all, we must steer away from punishment. We must begin enacting justice as preventative, not reactive. It is when justice becomes reactive that it then becomes vengeance. Justice starts at ensuring all peoples, no matter race, class or creed, are given an environment in which to flourish. Justice is the sum of all principles hashed out in the founding documents: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is when we stop upholding vengeance as justice that we will begin to build a truly supportive, inclusive, understanding and progressive community. Sure, punishment and vengeance will always have a role in regulating morality in society, and it is something we should not forgo. If we do not practice justice as it is intended, however, we will progress in division and conflict, and what we call “just” will always be the Band-Aid we apply on top of a tumor.