The concept of justice is integral to the
development and identification of a group of people as a culture or society.
In the recorded history of civilization, one of the hallmarks of a culture
has been how the moral concept of justice is applied in the form of laws
and in the structure of a judicial system. To understand how this
concept impacts the development of a society, we first need to understand
the definition of justice. As defined in Webster's New World
Dictionary, the term "justice" has several related levels of meaning, which
can be divided into three groups of similar ideas. Two of the groups
of definitions relate to moral principles. The idea of being just,
that is righteousness or correctness, is listed in the first grouping.
The second centers on the ideas of impartiality, fairness, and a logical
pattern of argument which follow sound reasoning. The third group
adheres more to the strict concept of law and the use of justice in a judicial
system. It establishes the use of authority of power to uphold what
is right, just, or lawful; a procedure of a law court; the administration
of law; a judge (to do the administration); and a reward or penalty as
deserved (as in just deserts). For most cultures, the concept of
justice is represented as a system of laws, whether written or unwritten,
and defined consequences for the non-adherence to those laws. The
laws are intended to be the application of moral principles acknowledged
as common to the members of that culture. But frequently there develops
a conflict between the concept of justice and the moral principle that
the law is intended to support.
Natural Religion, as represented by Rousseau, is concerned more with the moral principals of righteousness and goodness that every man can find within his own conscience (Rousseau, p. 299) than with the blind following of any law set down by man, even if it is claimed to be of divine origin (Rousseau, p. 313). Rousseau's Priest established through the three articles of his creed that this morality comes from God. His first article describes God as the existence of a will that set the universe in motion (Rousseau, p. 282), while the second article confirms that it is an intelligent will (Rousseau, p. 284). The third article established mankind's free will, but also the voice of God within each of us, the "immaterial substance" of the soul (Rousseau, p. 291). The path of goodness or justice is followed when we listen to our conscience, which is the voice of the soul. As the conscience is the voice of God within us, the source of the principle of justice must also be God. As God is represented in all things natural, the Priest considers morality to be natural and therefore innate, not learned.
Taking another representative of Natural Religion, Plato, in Euthyphro (p. 11), places his emphasis of justice on the relationship of piety and divine law to the moral principle of goodness. He expands beyond the definition of justice as righteousness, adding the aspects of impartiality, fairness, and logical argument. He suggests, through Socrates' method of questioning, that truth can be known and flaws exposed through the application of a logical argument that uses sound reasoning, as Socrates does with Euthyphro. His source of the principle of justice is also the gods, as he feels "the inner voice," or conscience, guide him away whenever he is about to commit a wrong, but he applies this principle within the Athenian judicial system as a social standard of consciousness.
Revealed Religion, as demonstrated by the Bible readings, construes justice more in the form of following the law. The source of the laws given to Moses is the Hebrew God, whose authority is unquestionable (Exodus 20:1-18). God establishes the Covenant, a lawful agreement with benefits for following it and consequences stipulated when it is not followed. He also relegates a segment of the Hebrew population, the Leviites, to be His Priests, the earthly authorities on the rituals (or laws) of worship. The Hebrews are not, however, the only believers in a Revealed Religion. As noted by Rousseau (p. 319) there are Catholics, Protestants (of various denominations), and Muslims, as well as others, who all believe that Their God is the Only God, and that everyone else is wrong. In Plato's time the Athenians were also on the list.
Although the concept of justice is executed in different ways, both Natural Religion and Revealed Religion offer a perspective that is morality-based, whether explicitly stating a God, or a natural will, or a social standard as its source. The essential difference between the two philosophies is the degree of tolerance that believers of each have for each other and others, determined by the levels of inclusion, exclusion, or pluralism existent in the societal framework. Since we've already determined that the concept of justice plays an influential role on the development of a society, we can examine the validity of the norms and laws of the societies discussed above in terms of the treatment of violations of those laws. However, as we defined justice before discussing its interpretation by Natural and Revealed Religion, we should also define validity. We again consult Mr. Webster, as the accepted cultural word historian of our times, to determine the levels of the definition. The legal aspect of the term "valid" is listed first that is, whether something is properly executed and binding under the law, or carries legal force. Secondly, something is valid if well grounded on principles or evidence and is able to withstand criticism. The third aspect is more scientific in nature, applying ideas of robustness, strength, effectiveness, and logic, whether derived or inferred.
Rousseau's story of the Priest is set in a culture of rigid Catholicism, where the Priest is punished more for confessing his sin of adultery than he is for the adultery itself (p. 275). It is this contradiction between the standard of truth and the appearance of truth that sets him on his path of enlightenment. His subsequent reflections on the philosophy of Natural Religion serve to invalidate the religious culture of Catholicism when it can not stand up to Rousseau's criticisms. Rousseau discusses the spiritual quest for personal enlightenment carried out to the standards of logic in Natural Religion (pp. 310-11) that was discouraged by the Church. He identifies some of the possible ways that revelation can be misinterpreted (p. 313) and therefore the system of law issued from the Revealed Religion that was developed by that misinterpretation is invalidated: human testimony as the only support of miracles, without providing firm evidence; incorrect translations which affect robustness and effectiveness in communicating a message; and writings for a purpose undisclosed or for personal agendas of the authors, which violates the principle of truth on which the revelation is based.
In the story of Euthyphro, Plato recounts the problems which Socrates encountered throughout his life by going against the approval of public opinion, inferring that if Socrates had not annoyed so many important people in Athens, he would not be up on morals charges. This apparently legally valid charge is shown to be invalid and falls apart during the trial in Apology, when Socrates states that the main reason he is being persecuted is because of this reputation, not because of any illegal activity (section 18b-19a). At the end, when he is sentenced to death, Socrates invalidates the legality, principles, and logic of the Athenian judicial system and its hypocritical societal concept of justice by not trying to plead down his case for a softer sentence, such as banishment, which was the accepted practice of that culture.
Another example of the conflict between the laws of a culture and the moral principles upon which those laws are based comes from the New Testament. In Mark 2:23-28 and Mark 3:4-6, Jesus ends up confronting the Pharisees over Sabbath laws, first over his disciples picking grain to feed the hungry, and secondly when he cures the man with the withered hand in the synagogue. In these stories the Pharisees see only disobedience to the Holy Laws and traditions, even though Jesus reminds them that "the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not mankind for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). In other words, His admonishment could be taken to mean that laws were created by man to reflect morality, not to dictate it, or else the meaning of the law is lost. As in the case of Socrates, Jesus' confrontations with the keepers of the law, and their perception of a challenge to the moral and legal validity of their authority, were ultimately what led to Jesus' death.
In the Biblical readings of Revealed Religion, moral violations are easier to identify, although they carry different kinds of penalties. The laws are clear, primarily the Ten Commandments, and the punishments should have also been clear. However, that is not the case. In 2 Samuel 11-12:14, we are presented with the story of David and Bathsheba, in which David violates the commandments against adulterous behavior, murder, and blasphemy. His punishment by God logically should have been swift, sure, and severe. Instead the punishment--death--is against the newly born child that was conceived during the affair. In fact, David goes right out and impregnates Bathsheba again with the child who becomes Solomon, one of the most acclaimed kings in history. In Exodus, we are presented with the violation of the laws against murder when the Israelites are ordered by God to destroy the Canaanites. Again, the punishment is reward. A third example of the inconsistency of policy against violators of the covenant occurs in Jonah. Jonah commits blasphemy by questioning God's response to the Ninevites. Even though he had prayed to God for intervention on behalf of the Ninevites, Jonah did not want to accept it when it was given. His punishment was a one-on-one discussion with God about it, not a lightning strike as might be supposed.
The norms and laws of a society seem to be valid when they are still based on the moral principles for which they were established. When the moral aspect is lost, those in positions of power in the society are more apt to abuse the enforcement of those laws. In some cases, like David's, that means an indifference to the laws, holding oneself above the law. In other cases, such as with Socrates and Jesus, the ultimate penalty of death is paid for pointing out to the people in power the invalidity of their laws. In the case of Rousseau's Priest, it means abiding by the established laws as well as you can without violating your own conscience.
The problem of misapplications of law and cultural norms in modern day society can be reviewed as well. On a global scale, we can look at two different cultural responses. The Nuremberg trials of World War II war criminals was an attempt to establish a universal standard of justice after the mass destruction caused by the Nazi war machine. The title of "crime against humanity" was used for the first time to express the heinous nature of behavior perpetrated by Hitler and the SS. The trials established a global community with a norm that considered certain behaviors as intolerable to all humanity, even in times of war. They also enacted to prevent the re-establishment of the Nazi political party dominance in a defeated German society. A decade later, Stalin's 5-Year Plan applied fascist mechanisms on the people of the USSR. In an attempt to industrialize that country, funds from government social programs were converted to develop mechanization. People who questioned the State, free thinkers, were sent to the Gulag. Both of these examples are evidence of the eventual failure of societies whose laws are invalid. This invalidation can come from within the society, as seen in Soviet fascism's limit to withstand criticism, or from external pressures of the world society, as in the case of the German Nazi society which violated basic human moral tenets.
In the United States, we have also gone through periods of cultural injustice. The concept of manifest destiny established by President James Monroe in his Monroe Doctrine promoted the idea that Euro-American society had the moral responsibility to spread the American philosophy to "inferior" people. While this attitude did cause the opening of the Western and Southern United States and the colonization of the Philippines and Pacific Islands, it virtually declared war on any "non-American" already living on those lands.
As recently as the 1960's, we were culturally embroiled in the question of whether to provide constitutional guarantees to all American citizens. Although the original language of the Constitution stated that the Bill of Rights were guaranteed to all men, meaning citizens, of the United States, women and non-whites were interpreted to be excluded from constitutional protection and privilege. President Abraham Lincoln sought to change this inequity with the enactment of the 13th Amendment, specifically stating that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude would exist within the United States. Congress followed with the 14th Amendment to protect individuals from local and state abuses of the law. It essentially expanded the protections from the federal government specified in the 5th Amendment to include state and local governments, and also guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law regardless of race, religion, gender, creed, or color. However, these amendments went virtually unnoticed for almost 100 years. It took a re-emphasis by those in the Civil Rights Movement and the Equal Rights Movement to bring those amendments to national attention where they could be used to serve the purpose for which they were designed. The moral principle of justice, which had been misapplied for so long, could then be culturally incorporated.
Misguided policies do not, however, invalidate the American culture, as the initial principles have remained the same. In response to historical societal changes Thomas Jefferson wrote:
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think that moderate imperfections had better be born with because we accommodate ourselves to them and find practical means to correct their ill effects, but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind, as that becomes more developed, as more discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the changing circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regiment of their barbarous ancestors. (Wrobleski & Hess, p. 222)Jefferson's belief, that a civilized society could be flexible enough to grow with the inevitable development and change that comes with time if the society was founded on a constitution of moral principles, has been realized in the United States. Our Constitution is considered a living document, like a home in which the foundation is sure, but from weathering an occasional brick may have to be removed or added, or re-aligned, to provide a safe haven for all its inhabitants. Within our system of justice, we protect the spirit of freedom and independence that our forefathers instilled into the document "of the people, by the people, and for the people," while understanding that sometimes we need to redefine the terms to encompass the very people for whom it was written. That said, we must still acknowledge that the process of balancing justice for all with equal protection under the law is laborious and full of potential conflicts.
In the movie Lone Star, the morality versus legality conflict is represented by a crossing of borders. These borders cover many areas. Physically, the county is on the border between Mexico and the United States separated only by the natural boundary of the Rio Grande. Within the county, there are invisible manmade borders between the Indian Reservation the town are for "wetbacks," the areas for "whites," the area for "blacks" known as "Darktown," and the military base. Racial lines are, on the surface, fairly distinct between Mexicans, blacks, Indians, and whites. Power borders are established between those with money and those without. Psychological borders are introduced, with the psychotic, cold-bloodedness of the evil sheriff (played by Kris Kristofferson) and the manic-depressive "high-strung" ex-wife of the current sheriff. Lastly, there is the ultimate conflict between the absolute moral code of Revealed Religion and the individual response to the voice of conscience in Natural Religion, when the protagonists choose to cross the sexual borders into adultery and incest.
As long as the people are kept separate and isolated, the boundaries in the community remain firm. It is only when the different groups meet that there is conflict: such as the scene in the school where some of the parents seem willing to refight the Alamo over whose version of history is being taught to the students; such as the romantic relationship between the two military officers of different race, who hesitate to make their commitment permanent due to the racial issue; such as the evil white Sheriff continually harassing and stealing from the minorities he didn't actually kill; such as the wealthy Mexican café owner who is as exploitative of her own people as any white person; such as the younger Sheriff Sam Dees who is so blinded by his own beliefs about his father, Sheriff Buddy Dees, that he can not understand why everyone else respected him so much.
Sam Dees undertakes a journey of growth while solving the crime of the murdered Sheriff. He is forced to compare his perception of Buddy's grievous abuses of position with that of the Sheriff who Buddy replaced. Eventually, when confronted with the truth of the murder, Dees Jr. makes the same kind of compromise that had caused him to hate his father for so long, the same kind of compromise that Rousseau's Priest makes in order to stay a priest, which is to internalize the moral concept of justice and work out its application the best way he could. This level of compromising morality is also presented in his willingness to ignore the uncovered fact that his girlfriend and lover is also his half-sister.
This movie is a modern day allegory representing the many levels of conflict that can develop when the moral principle of justice is lost during the daily application of law enforcement. At its heart, the movie is about perceptions and a quest for the truth, but not merely the apparent truth of "who shot the sheriff." It searches for the greater truth of "what is justice." In performing that search, we can recognize the ages-old theme of "absolute power corrupts absolutely" in the main character's belief that there was no middle ground for his father. There are many similarities between the legendary sheriff Buddy Dees (played by Michael McConehey) and another flawed character presented earlier, the Biblical King David. They both started their careers by destroying a giant (one literally, the other figuratively in the sheriff's evil, corrupted boss); they both became the voice of law and a symbol of justice to their people; and yet, they were both corrupted into an adulterous relationship and other manipulations of power.
In conclusion, every complex society is
characterized by change and growth. This is most obvious when there
are conflicts between moral principles, such as justice, and the socially
agreed upon application of those principles in the form of laws.
The source of the principles is not as important as the principles themselves.
If the principles are valid, then the societal applications will be strong
enough to withstand modifications and reform. If the principles are
not valid, in being based on prejudice or hatred, then the societies will
eventually fail from either internal or external pressures, requiring revolutionary
means for change.
Lone Star. dir. John Sayles. Miramax, 1996.
Metzger, G. and Murphy, R. (ed). (1994). The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Neufeldt, V. and Guralnik, D. (ed). (1988). Webster's New World Dictionary of American English (3rd Edition). Cleveland & New York: Webster's New World.
Plato. (1993). The Last Days of Socrates. Harmondworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Group.
Rousseau, J. (1997). Emile. London: J. M. Dent.
Wrobleski, H. and Hess, K. (1997). Introduction
to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Minneapolis/St.Paul:
West Publishing Company.