From the Latin iūs (‘law, right’), justice describes a feeling that a dispute has been resolved satisfactorily. Disputes range in intensity from polite through raised voices, to the threat or actuality of violence. The pathway depends on how high the stakes are, whether a compromise can be imagined, proposed, agreed, and put into effect, and whether the process of negotiating a settlement is seen as unbiased, transparent, and respectful. The end-point of ‘justice having been done’ depends on enough stakeholders being satisfied enough by the outcome for everyone to lose interest and go home quietly. But when we are considering feelings it is always wise to look at the behaviour of monkeys and small children, and in both there is ample evidence that individuals pay close attention to the distribution of favours and disadvantages among their fellows. Perceived injustices prompt squeals of protest until the individual learns its status and adjusts its expectations, becoming subdued and unassertive, or articulate and demanding, as habits are formed through hormonal and neurological mechanisms interacting with family and cultural traits, and with educational and self-realisation processes.
Codifying justice as law, whether traditional, religious or constitutional, has always been a major preoccupation of human societies, since it is a way (alongside language and myth) for groups to assert their identities in competition with other groups. Thus, receiving ‘the law’ is an important part of the founding story that groups tell themselves, whether it was delivered by prophets direct from a god, or handed down from generation to generation over millennia by the accredited agents of tradition, or devised by ‘wise people’ long ago. What is seen as valuable is critical in all this, and history is largely driven by changing perceptions of what is valuable enough to fight over. Fertile lands, gold and religious orthodoxies were early and perennial contenders, but as groups have competed with one another problems have arisen from tensions rooted in different perceptions of value. A landscape means very different things to people who see it as the abode of Dreamtime beings and their own ancestral spirits, or their source of wild meat or water, and to those who see it as good ranching or mining country, and finding ways to settle disputes other than by force is endlessly challenging.
In the modern world our priorities tend to focus on the distribution of tax burdens, market access, public services and elite privileges, but we are becoming increasingly interested in the value of freedoms from environmental pollution, water shortages, and climate change. Every now and then, every culture needs to review and re-codify its system of justice and laws to ensure that it accurately reflects prevailing perceptions of what is valuable. The modern world is certainly due for such a fundamental re-think, either before (i.e. as a way to head off), or after, a major breakdown. A revised constitutional (ethical, legal, etc.) settlement will be hard enough to achieve even if humans perceive themselves as the only stakeholders, but many argue that justice should be broadened to include not only future generations (unborn people) but also non-humans and living systems. We know that we are evolved organisms living in and dependent upon ecosystems whose health, vitality and diversity are essential to us, so these additional elements in a codified system of justice are indeed necessary to our survival. And with survival at stake, there is the urgent question of how to reconcile the demands of survival and justice. Both will be advanced by people caring about justice being done to the unborn, the non-human, or the ecosystem, but in the modern world such feelings are hardly encouraged. This will also need to change, adding a huge educational agenda to the task now facing us.
© Julian Caldecott