Justice, Injustice, And In Between

Clay Conrad writes:

[A]lmost nobody denies that, say, executing an innocent man would be a substantive injustice.

So, if there can be a substantive injustice, then there must be, by elimination, substantive justice.

Why does that follow?

Say that it’s unjust to execute an innocent man. Does that mean that every time an innocent man is not executed (three and a half billion times a day; seven billion if “man” includes “woman”), justice is done? Should we be celebrating justice every moment that government deigns to allow us to live?

That’s just silly. Much that is not unjust might be just, but more is justice-neutral.

I don’t sympathize with the position that there is no justice. I believe (because I want to, okay?) that there is justice, but it’s pretty clear to me that none of us humans know what it is. But, as the absence of injustice is not justice, so the existence of injustice doesn’t prove the existence of justice.

But how is it that we could have the capacity to know injustice without an equivalent capacity to know justice? I figure we don’t really know what anyone deserves. Any disturbance of the status quo might be just. The innocent man might well deserve, for some other reason unknown to us, to die. But killing him for the wrong reason—for the crime he didn’t commit—is unjust. In much the same way, due process is no guarantee of a just result, but punishment administered by the government without due process is intrinsically unjust.

All that’s not unjust is not just. That we have the capacity to identify injustice says nothing about our ability to know justice.


  1. A society without crime, where nobody appropriates to himself what belongs to others, would indeed be a just society, and would indeed be worth celebrating every moment. The absence of crime is justice. And bankruptcy for criminal defense attorneys.

    1. You worry me sometimes, Kindley. You know nobody is talking about a society without crime.

      A society without crime could be a society in which everyone was cowed into submission, or one in which everyone was under the alien overlords’ mind control. Nobody but you is talking about a society without crime because everyone but the utopians acknowledges human nature.

      Rereading my post, it appears that you could only be fixating on “the absence of injustice is not justice,” without the context of that phrase. So: the absence of injustice in a particular case is not justice. Better?

      1. A society in which “everyone was cowed into submission, or one in which everyone was under the alien overlords’ mind control,” would emphatically not be a society without crime. It should be evident to you that crimes committed by government (or alien overlords) are crimes.

        I read your post carefully, and responded in good faith, and not to nit-pick. No need to worry though. I’m going to voluntarily take a break from commenting on your blog.

        Justice is ultimately metaphysical, which is not to say it doesn’t exist. We judge justice and injustice in this world by reference to it. Something we know inside us gives rise to our displeasure with the things that are. Consider the prayer: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I note from your bio that at some time you engaged in religious studies. Perhaps you came across the idea that in heaven the saints remain free even though they’ve been freed from sin. But this isn’t just a matter of theology. Plato and Aristotle talked about Justice too.

        I think a lot of confusion ensues from our use of the word justice to signify both the absence of crime (that is, each person freely enjoying what is rightfully his) and our lame efforts in this world to “do justice” in particular cases (“how many pounds of this defendant’s flesh will restore harmony to the universe, or at least make us feel safer?”). Presumably, the very purpose of these efforts to “do justice” is to eliminate or minimize or somehow nullify crime.

  2. You are correct in that the argument is fallacious. This would be akin to the “you are either for me or against me argument.” Anytime one adopts a universal proposition, one is destined to have another point out the exception to said rule.

    You are (in your last few posts) waxing somewhat philosophic… but then I suppose this is entirely appropriate given the name of the blog.

  3. But how is it that we could have the capacity to know injustice without an equivalent capacity to know justice?

    Oh, that’s easy; happens a lot. We don’t, for example, know the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem — or, actually, if he had proof of it, much less an elegant one — but we do know that until 1984, nobody had been able to show a valid one that applied to all values of n.

    It’s not all that useful, though, to know some or even most values of injustice. To know what is justice, we’d have to know all of the values of injustice.

    I’m reminded, as I so often am, of the AE Van Vogt novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher, where the guns only work when they’re pointed in a direction where it’s morally correct to shoot. (Why these guns had triggers at all escaped me; I think that whole clusters of them should have been placed on every streetcorner, permanently on, constantly spinning so that they point in all directions. But digress.)

    1. If there were whole clusters of those guns on every streetcorner, we might all be dead. My justice. Your justice. Bennett’s justice. Kindley’s justice. The manufacturer’s justice. The guy who does the delivery and set up of the gun’s justice.

      1. Well, your hypo assumes that it might be just for us to be killed. I’m not sure about me — there are folks who say, roughly, that I take up a much-needed space in the literature — but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be for you or Bennett or Kindley.

        That said, I’m appropriately skeptical of the basic conceit. But it was a fun book.

  4. I beleive that a workable definition of justice is fairness. In any event, fairness is what seems to have prevailed as a working definition in Molohan, Brady, Bagley and Kyles. Especially in Kyles.

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