Although the concept of justice is ubiquitous across time and history, pursuits of what is mutually considered fair and reasonable are often fraught with dissension and turmoil. From playrooms to press rooms, playing fields to battlefields, bedrooms to boardrooms, and courtrooms to Congress, cries of “Justice!” ring out. But, what is justice and how is it obtained? The following primer with two examples offers a brief outline summarized from my nearly thirty years of historical, religious, and societal research across the sweep of world history. Understanding and implementing these actions can help with finding paths of justice anytime, anywhere, in any situation.
The pursuit of justice requires two companion actions – DEFINING and DECIDING. Defining actions seek to determine the parameters of any given situation, while deciding actions seek to determine the proper course of action. Without clear definitions, deciding actions can lead to the exact opposite outcome – injustice.
Each action includes four distinct components. Defining involves determinations of Authority, Differentiation, Standards, and Accountability, while deciding involves Balance, Due Process, Integrity, and Recompense. Note, a single variable factor within the scope of these components can produce a different result that leads to either justice or injustice in a given situation. The same action in one case could be just cause for reward and in another case just cause for punishment.
Example One: A person carries a ball
Defining actions include determining who or what has authority in that specific situation. Differentiation determines various relevant factors – who carries the ball, when, what type of ball, where they carried it, how they carried it. Standards define the rules according to the circumstance – a man carried the ball, the ball was an American football, the man was a college football quarterback, the ball moved from a still position on the ground held by a center who hiked it backwards to the quarterback who then moved within a marked playing field across defined lines and maintained possession of the ball until the period of time ended. Accountability determines who interprets the factors, how, and potential courses of action based on the next companion action.
In this case, current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football rules that govern North American college football are determined to be the mutually accepted authority among all parties involved. If the game was Little League football, or soccer, basketball, or tennis, or perhaps played in a different time in history or geopolitical location, the authority might be different. Based on this authority, the differentiating factors influence the applicable standards. If a spectator carried the ball, or a tackle, or a player from the opposing team, different standards would apply. Similarly, if the game was soccer or basketball or tennis, carrying the ball could result in either a penalty, forward movement, or a score, depending on the applicable standards. Direct accountability in this instance involves the seven approved college football referees on the field and the replay official in the press box, and indirectly their supervisor of officials and the committees and President’s Council that oversee them. Spectators watching on TV, online, or in the stands, team coaches and University Presidents, or even an off-duty referee standing on the sidelines, have no authority to enforce accountability in this instance.
Deciding actions then use all the above information to assess the situation. Balance includes considering all determining factors along with the person and teams involved. Due process includes considering all evidence in a procedural manner, checking and rechecking (the on-field referees talk with one another, everyone watches replays from different angles, and the replay official communicates with the referees). Integrity involves engaging the process without bias, bribe, secrecy, or any other undue influence. Recompense is finalized when it is determined that the quarterback did indeed take the hand off, run downfield and cross the goal line, and the referees signal of reward for a touchdown is deemed legitimate and the points confirmed.
However, if the play clock reached zero before the hand off, or the quarterback stepped out of bounds or his knee touched the ground before crossing the goal line, or another player on the offensive team received a penalty call, the just action would involve the punishment of eliminating the touchdown call, perhaps enforcing penalty yardage, and then playing the next down.
In general, the above process happens quickly and repeatedly countless times every week every year every football season across America. These two actions and all eight components required for justice result in just outcomes most of the time, although the exceptions create angst and taint teams and titles for decades.
Note the many factors that play a role in determining whether the outcome of a circumstance can generally be considered just or unjust. Consider that many people want to skip the seven steps in favor of going straight to the last one – determining reciprocity – which can include either punishment or reward, or both. This haste can lead to miscarriages of justice and proliferate more situations that require judicious attention, as widely evidenced in swift rushes to judgment based on accusations and claims often disseminated rapidly in our day and age by mainstream and social media. In response, millions of people prematurely and unduly announce their personal conclusions of justice, speak unjust words and initiate unjust actions, heaping multitudes of sin upon themselves that in turn require a just response in each and every instance.
The cause of justice is always damaged when people arrogantly hammer their opinions as truths just because they think them, promulgate mythical narratives based on unsubstantiated assertions, and propagate subversive agendas through outright lies and distortions of fact. This type of behavior spans the range of human history and serves as a chief enemy all that is just and right and good.
One component in particular – due process – deserves specific note in this regard. Every culture and organization at any level across time has engaged in due process of some type, often either authoritarian rule or mob rule. The American system of government sought to address this perceived imbalance through separation of powers, a system of checks and balances, and designated guidelines for due process. When implemented in balance by people of integrity, this system has set the American republic apart among all the governments of the world like a shining city on a hill. Whenever and wherever corrupted, injustice has marred the majesty of American exceptionalism and harmed undeserving victims.
Example Two: Sexual intercourse
Who is the authority in this case? The Bible or another religious text? The government? Which government? The individuals? Their communities? A combination?
What differentiating factors exist? Does the intercourse occur between people? Or animals? Or an animal and a person? If two people, are they related in any way? Was the action consensual? How old are the persons involved? When and where did it occur?
Applicable standards are derived from answers to the above. A bull and a cow in their own field, a purebred male and female dog penned up together on purpose, or a married male and female person over the age of consent privately engaging in mutually consensual intercourse would generally not trigger the same reactions as some variations might. Changing any single factor among some communities – a grandfather consorting with his young granddaughter or his grandson, an unmarried couple, two people both married but not to each other, a person forcing actions on another, older man and child bride, more than two persons at the same time, persons of the same sex, or a very public display in a public place – could impact the determination of identified desires to pursue justice.
Then, given all the above, what lawmakers and/or law keepers have jurisdiction in this circumstance? Or, in some instances, some would consider that none of the above matters and no further action is necessary.
If further action is deemed appropriate, balance includes considering all factors and everyone appropriately directly or indirectly involved, as well as discounting anyone or anything irrelevant that might unduly tip the scales. Due process and integrity involve accordingly considering all the evidence orderly and without bias or deceit. Recompense then takes everything into account to determine the just result. A newly married couple in their 20’s returning from their honeymoon would receive the reward of praise and congratulations for their intimate behavior from those who love them and celebrated their union, whereas a rapist could justly receive a conviction and prison sentence for similar behavior under different circumstances.
The two actions of defining and deciding along with their eight concordant components can help determine justice in most situations. From parents to presidents, bosses to ball players, and ministers to media producers, following these guidelines can help lead to just responses.
Furthermore, where opinions differ, understanding the distinctions can help explain divergent rationale and conclusions. In some cases, this may not lead to mutually acceptable resolutions, but it can at least help people know the source of their disagreements, such as when arguments over decisions are really rooted in disagreements over definitions of authority, differentiation, standards, and accountability.
Attempting mutually acceptable decisions based on irreconcilable defining factors strains the journey of justice and pains any who attempt it. In these cases, modeling justice according to this framework can produce multiple parallel scenarios that can each seem just in and of themselves to specific audiences, but not to others. And there, in a nutshell, is the history of the world – pursuits of justice punctuated by beauty bathing in glory, drowning in tumult, and rising with hope and fortitude seeking opportunity with each new day.