‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ are learned as principles early on and are taken to be law as we grow to discover the reasons behind society’s codes. Human rights, contracts (individual and organizational) and governments all are combined to create the structure that we live in. We hear often on the news and in fiction, that justice should be served. We tend to let the conversation end at that, nodding in agreement and then turning off the TV and going back to our lives. What is justice though, and can we, as humans, truly ensure it?
Justice is tied in with two specific terms: righteousness and lawfulness. These both flow from religious and societal concepts. Morals, a religious concept, are the basis for what ‘feels’ correct. An individual can have morals of a religious basis and still not believe in an omniscient and/or benevolent God. Most people, even those who would not consider themselves to be religious, believe that there are simply some acts that are wrong. Morals are standards of behavior and belief concerning what is and isn’t appropriate, and nearly everyone believes that their moral code should be applied to the entirety of humanity.
If you observed the murder of a child, you would immediately act to enforce punishment on the murderer. If that individual looked to you and noted that he didn’t believe what he did was wrong, you would still firmly believe that punishment should be inflicted. More often, this has to do with human rights, especially in the political realm. When observing a country that enforces slavery based on race, a massive majority of first world residents would state that this is wrong and that all humans are created equal. This is a moral belief (based on religious values), and at times comes in direct conflict with societal regulations. Even when society believes for an act to be legal, breaking a moral code distresses, more than anyone else, the individual that caused the distress.
Society as a whole also tends to create and define right and wrong, but these are often different than moral codes. Society may denote something to be illegal because of its effects on others or because a majority prefers it. Many religions believe it is perfectly acceptable to either smoke or drink, but a multitude of societies have or continue to enact laws to remove these activities completely, often for a very logical reason. Laws and regulations ebb and flow with governments and elected officials while morals (at least appear to) remain set rules that life must follow throughout the universe.
When an individual breaks one of these rules, then what is the right outcome? Popular culture would say that an appropriate reaction would be to cause the individual the same pain that he or she caused those that were harmed. This can be seen in reality with differences in jail sentences and fines for each crime. I would argue that this retaliation is not wrong in a practical sense, but it is, in fact, wrong to desire such an outcome.
When someone is hurt by another, there are two desires. The first is a craving for the break to be repaired and the second is a need for empathy. If a child is taken from a parent, that parent both wants the child returned and also intends for the person or entity that took the child to understand what it is like to lose a son or daughter. Another example, likely much more relatable, would be that when a person is cut off in traffic, he or she both wants their place back in line (their time returned to them) and for the individual who cut them off to feel that loss. But would it help for them to experience that, and is there an appropriate way for this to take place?
If you, having just been cut off in traffic or having just lost a child, could share that exact experience, the exact feelings and thoughts, with the individual who morally wronged you, then they would have an incredible amount of regret. Empathetically, they would share your pain. Absolutely this is desirable, and would likely halt the issue from taking place ever again, but is it realistic?
Frequently, people refer to the need for justice as a desire for closure. Two men desired closure, one seeking an answer as to why his ex-fiancé broke off their engagement and the second desired an answer from his father as to why the father was so distant throughout the second man’s childhood. The first man speaks with his ex and learns exactly why the engagement ended. He spends the next five years working to regain the love he lost by working to become a better man. Even though he changes his actions, the scar of pain from a relationship loss is still there and there is a nagging sense of failure in the back of his mind, even when he reaches a successful marriage with another woman. The second man’s father dies and the man never discovers the true cause for pain in his childhood. The man lives the rest of his life feeling as though he was wronged and takes that pain into each following relationship. In both examples, the men fail to recover from their loss, even though one individual received what he thought was closure.
Even if we could stop and sit down and explain to our adversary what was wrong and why, that person may not fully understand. Even if we could provide them a virtual recreation of the event, the antagonist still may not grasp the effects of it because he or she don’t have the same history as the individual that was wronged. Placing someone in jail, taking their money or injuring (or killing) them may lead to a person temporarily feeling as though the scales have been evened out, but the pain and lack of empathy returns, even if the adversary no longer exists. Revenge, even as a concept in our minds, is simply a fantasy that leads to anger and frustration, which is often revealed elsewhere in our lives (often, to people we don’t mean for it to affect, like a spouse or child).
What’s the point of justice then, and how can we cope with loss? A set of laws and their enforcement must still be in place, even if they simply work to deter behavior. The most significant issue is that enforcement fails to convey empathy. For a religious person, that empathy may be conveyed after death, but it simply isn’t realistic for it to take place in life. Without a method for perfect retaliation, the only answer for someone who has been hurt is to let retaliation go. Why? Whether is it a lie, theft or death that takes place, there is no way to make whole what has been lost.
Forgiveness is the only way that a person will be able to return to a normal life because it turns over retaliation to a higher power. Placing that trust in a higher power allows for a victim to let go of the pain and stress of the event. Forgiveness often goes so far as to reverse the empathetic need. If you or I have been wronged, it does a surprising amount of good to try to understand what could have led to the loss and why another person or entity would act in such a way. Even if it’s impossible to understand, letting go of the loss may be the most realistic way to achieve happiness. Without the opportunity to perfect justice in the world we live in, we at least have a chance to prevent additional pain and loss from entering our lives from that wound. We have a chance to start again and forgive that person, organization or ourselves for our failures.
Values, A Series: