What is Justice?
Since the senseless murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery last year, I have been running this question through my head—in many ways, this question has been in the back of my brain since the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin.
We are all told that we are all equal under the law, but we are continually reminded that we are not all equal under the law. In many ways, ‘all equal under the law’ has an asterisk after it that qualifies the ‘all.’ It is almost as if ‘all equal under the law’ was like the sign we put before the entrance to an amusement park ride that stipulates that one must be yay high to go on the ride.
The problem with that is that justice must not be an amusement park ride with a specific height requirement; rather justice must truly be for all. For justice to be for all, we need to reimagine what justice is because imagining justice as difference blind is what perpetuates systemic racial inequalities and maintains that asterisk.
The question that entitles this blog post is a massive question that I cannot fully answer in the space permitted to me here; however, I can begin to peel back the first layers of this question and begin to theorise a new way to view justice, a way that actually rests on the notion that all are equal under the law.
To achieve this, we first need to recognise that Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Colour lives matter. We need to recognise that the current system that we call justice was built by and for white cisgender heterosexual men. That may upset some people, but it is the truth. Neutrality equals white cisgender heterosexual, often Christian (Protestant but also Catholic), men. Let us begin.
We are taught from a young age that justice means that everyone is to be held to the same standard because were we to have different standards, that would be relativistic and unjust. So goes the argument.
If we stop and look at that argument, we need to dissect it and question why the bar cannot be moved. The bar is set there, as I said above, by white cisgender heterosexual men (WCHM) because they were the only ones considered by law to be persons.
This is no longer the case, but when we updated the legal definition of the person to include women, Blacks, Indigenous, and persons of colour, we failed to update our legal standards because ‘white is right.’ This way of constructing justice still privileges WCHM and even white cisgender heterosexual women although still one step behind WCHM.
When we look to the works of Emmanuel Mounier, a French Catholic political thinker who died in 1950, we see that he cared quite a bit about what justice is (Le Groff, 2020). In his article ‘Y a-t-il de la justice politique ?’ (Is there a political justice?), Mounier defined justice as ‘the inserting the universal point of view into the game of particular forces.
Now, the most collective, despite frequent confusion, is not necessarily the most universal’ (1947: 228). Mounier is attempting to show us that a universal understanding of justice requires a form of particularity because if we define justice based on one collective idea of justice, it is not going to be the best universal form of justice.
This means that basing justice on the viewpoint of white cisgender heterosexual men is not the best decision, as it negates individual lived experiences. To be blunt, the WCHM viewpoint cannot begin to understand the lived experience of a racialised person, and the WCHM viewpoint should not be the standard for justice.
In the article, Mounier argues that the status quo conception of justice is a ‘justice for’ when it should be a ‘justice of’ (1947: 227). He says that ‘justice of is still a justice for’ (Mounier, 1947: 227). His argument is based on a critique of liberal theory, which serves as the basis of our models of justice.
The argument is that justice for is inherently individual and isolating; it is the result of ‘interiorisation of guilt, individualisation of pain and suffering’ (Mounier, 1947: 227). This interiorisation and individualisation ‘has made [us] forget justice of, justice owed to supra-individual and more universal realities than the commodities and perspectives of the individual’ (Mounier, 1947: 227).
Now, this makes it sound like I am arguing for the status quo of universal justice. That is not the case. The case that I am trying to make by using this article by Mounier is to demonstrate that justice needs to be truly universal yet particular.
Justice in this manner needs to understand that ‘the essence of humans is not constituted solely by the individuality of the person. Humans are essentially social beings. The individual person is neither a zero, nor an infinite, they are a truncated existence and partially impotent. Humankind is only fully achieved by and in society’ (Mounier, 1947: 225).
This means that humanity is like the Body of Christ. If we think to that story, we are all many parts but comprise one body: humanity itself. Now, this argument about belonging to the human race negates the fact that race, despite being socially constructed, is important to note. But it is also useful. Each part is important and recognised for its importance.
When we reimagine justice, we should take into account the lived experiences of everyone as the basis of justice. We can stitch them together to form the basis of the universal. At times, we will need to favour a particular interest over another if the scales of justice are to remain balanced.
But at the same time, ‘[i]f the individual human is made to realise a living universality in human communities, general justice can prevail over particular justice each time it is necessary for this movement toward the universal’ (Mounier, 1947: 225).
The movement toward the universal must have as a foundation the truth that Black lives matter, that Indigenous lives matter, that the lives of persons of colour matter, that women’s rights are human rights, that gay rights are human rights, and trans rights are human rights.
I did not really answer the inciting question of this post, but I did try and peel back a layer to bring attention to the major failure of our current understanding of justice. This is not an easy conversation or one that will finish in 30 minutes. This is going to be a long process that we need to commit to and be prepared to feel uncomfortable.
We can begin in our Church by reading amazing authors like Olga Segura (https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2020/05/29/how-can-catholics-help-lead-fight-against-racism and https://therevealer.org/meet-father-bryan-massingale-a-black-gay-catholic-priest-fighting-for-an-inclusive-church/) and Fr Bryan Massingale.
Part of answering the inciting question is understanding the social contract. The social contract is broken, and we need to fix it. Stay tuned for an upcoming piece on the social contract.