The idea of justice is a complicated one. Over the ages countless philosophers have tried to define this nebulous concept, and the dilemma of the nature of justice has been emphasized by the various languages the word has passed through. Each era’s interpretation of justice has tweaked the word a little bit, and in the modern English of today we are left with several variations of the concept. Justice is a noun, defined as “the quality of being just,” and has synonyms such as; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness. The quality of being just as an adjective is then said to be, “guided by truth, reason, justice and fairness.” Now if one pays close attention to the fifth word in that definition, they might begin to see how such circular logic can easily lead to subjectivity in an individual’s analysis of justice. Certain individuals across the span of time have left greater impacts on our interpretation of justice than others, and we will now take a brief look at some of the most prominent views of justice.
After long debates with fellow philosophers, Socrates concluded that justice was good, and therefore injustice was evil. Furthermore, to be a just man, one must also be a good man. He adapts a very simplistic approach to justice and tries to define it at its most basic level by a list of morals. Now for Socrates, the question was how to determine which aspects of man were good and therefore just. At the top of Socrates’ list of “good” virtues were characteristics such as knowledge, courage, and truth – specifically the truth about the nature of the world and of all things within it.
Empires rose, cities fell, nations came and went, and about 1,800 years later another prominent political theorist wrote (albeit indirectly) of the concept of justice. If one defines justice as what is good, then we can take a look through Machiavelli’s eyes into the city-state existence of the Italian Renaissance. To Machiavelli, what was good was the preservation of the state and the subsequent protection of its citizens. Machiavelli was not an absolutist, and he considered it perfectly acceptable for a ruler to do a certain amount of wrong as long as it made utilitarian sense. To Machiavelli, this occasional ignorance of the common morals, this amoralism, was perfectly acceptable, indeed just – as long as it served the ultimate goals of the state.
In the year of our lord 1651, a fellow by the name of Thomas Hobbes had some more ideas about the nature of justice. The first of the social contract theorists, Hobbes believed that justice was, “giving to each his own.” This being a very lose definition, Hobbes later states in The Leviathan that whatever the sovereign (ruler) does is just, and that the sovereign can do no injustice. He justifies this by his definition of the sovereign as an entity authorized by the people who compose the state. Therefore according to Hobbes, since the ruler draws his substance and power from the people, whatever the ruler chooses to do is what the people will, and therefore just.
Flash forward about three more centuries, and one would find the well known civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. describing a just law with, any law which is applied equally to all people.” I hope dearly that this is only a portion of what MLK defined as justice, because I believe that there is so much more to justice. I would say that a law could be a very just and good law without being applied to all; it would just be the case that said law was highly ineffective and unequally applied.
Overall, the theme of justice is one of monumental importance to every human being and is also something that needs to be understood and personally examined by all who possess the power to think it through. I would state that each of these great thinkers had something correct about the nature of justice, and maybe to correctly apply it, one needs to use portions of each of their theories.