Friday, August 31, 2007

The Meaning of Justice

I was reading a book this week that prompted the following thoughts to occur to me.

I was wondering about our legal system. What is it that we are after; justice, which suggests that we value the truth over a system, or precisely that, systemized justice, that is, that everything must follow a certain code or chain of events?

Suppose that someone actually committed a murder but did not get a fair trial. In such a case, ought he to be punished for committing the murder or allowed free (assuming there is no court of appeal) because the judicial process failed him and he was not tried fairly?

Now, I feel that the person ought to be punished anyway because the truth is that he committed a murder (something that is somehow very evident) but I know in terms of pure thought that if this were to occur, our entire legal system would collapse. We need fair trials in order to ensure a kind of order; it is more important to defend the legal system which governs us all than worry about the one murderer.

In this case, the system overrides the truth (by which we mean, the hope for further justice in other cases overrides the one individual case.) We are more concerned with protecting the system that in turn protects all of us than actually punishing a crime.

I wondered if the same argument could be applied to religion. Suppose one argues that the goal of religion, similarly to the legal system, is to work for the most protection, a systemized system that helps everyone. Similarly, if at times the truth is avoided or negated in order to benefit the system, this is all right because religion isn't necessarily after truth but after the strongest system to benefit the whole.

There are problems with this analogy because we are arguing the human aspect as opposed to what should be a Divine system (albeit one implemented by humans.) But the conclusions I draw from this don't sit well with me at all. In fact, I still don't like the idea of the legal implications. I understand entirely why we would have to let criminals go if they don't have a fair trial and why the system outweighs the truth (assuming they are really guilty.) But I don't like it. I don't like it at all.

For what is true justice? Is justice meting out punishment in accordance to error or is it implementing a system that will hopefully succeed in doing this? And is justice rooted in the truth or in the system? For some strange and incredible reason, at one point I thought everything was simple enough for justice to be rooted in truth, but now I see that it is not.

I don't like the idea that the good of a system outweighs the truth.

The problem is, I don't see any way around it. And I cannot even argue that there is a way around it in the Torah, for there too, the legal system outweighs truth. There must be two witnesses to a crime (if only one, the witness himself is whipped because he only comes to blacken the person's reputation.) There must be courts of law (indeed, one of the seven Noachide laws.) Here, too, the overall system is more important than the truth and if the system fails in some way or if the right elements are not there (one witness instead of two) the truth is dismissed and deemed unimportant.

Rather an unsettling realization for me.


Anonymous said...

(I feel a bit awkward posting here, but as I've got something to say that might help you, here goes)

Firstly, you are confusing the system with the things it aims to protect. The system is never (or should never be) an end in itself. It may value the public good over the rights of the individual and see itself as the sole guardian of the public safety (actually it has to do so - the judiciary is the branch of government which must have a monopoly of legitimate force for the state to hold together), but it should not value itself over truth, freedom, security or anything else. That is tyranny.

That aside, I think the fundamental problem here is the difference between the ideal and the actual. The assumption the question works on is that system of justice has already broken down. The ideal legal system should protect various things (truth, justice, freedom, the public safety), but here it has failed. If the only way to restore it is to concentrate on one element at the expense of others; what do you choose? There isn't a 'right' answer, because all the answers are less than perfectly satisfactory, by definition. Hence, there are arguments on both sides, as you recognise.

A legal system needs checks and balances to avoid corruption on all sides. You need high standards of evidence to prevent wrongful convictions and laws like that against double jeopardy to prevent state tyranny, yet you need a way of redressing obvious mistakes. Historically, this has always been very controversial, unsurprisingly.

For example, under the Torah's system, one of the functions of the king was to redress such mistakes. The king had extra-legal power to operate in cases where the ordinary justice system could not apply (for example, see David on his deathbed giving Shlomo a list of people to execute). I think the Sanhedrin also had a degree of extra-legal power, although I can not remember its exact definition. Certainly the laws of evidence had a degree of flexibility both in more minor cases (IIRC, in monetary, civil cases, the judges could listen to a single witness or a disqualified witness (e.g. a woman or slave) and decide how much credibility to assign them) and in the most extreme capital cases.

However, this was also obviously open to abuse (see the midrash about King Menashe having Isaiah put to death on trumped-up charges, or perhaps Shaul trying to kill David). So then you need to bring in a load of checks on the king: limits on his power (in the ancient world = his wealth, horses, hareem), try to ensure he is God-fearing and law-abiding (the rules about the king's sefer Torah), and have the prophets to criticise him. Of course it isn't an easy balance, one need only look at the books of Kings and Chronicles to see that.

But the problem persists under every system. In seventeenth century England, they fought a long and bitter civil war over precisely the issue of the king's extraordinary royal prerogative (although taxation was more the issue there than arrest, it has to be said). Or just look at present-day debates over Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, 'ticking bomb' torture dilemmas...

Attempting to resolve such dilemmas is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Attempting to resolve them within a halakhic framework is what it means to be Jewish. A moral dilemma is a choice between two things that are neither completely good nor completely bad. If all the answers to the moral dilemmas of life were obvious, there could be no possibility of error except by deliberate rebellion, but there could be no debate, no discussion, no personal growth as we try to understand what concepts like 'truth', 'freedom' and 'justice' really mean.

This is a fascinating topic, and I probably could say more, both from a Jewish and secular point of view, and also to question your view that 'religion' is a system comparable to that of 'justice', but I need to dash.

Mordy said...

I watch Law & Order. ALOT.

Anonymous said...

The system is not set up as an arbitrary set of rules. They are all designed to prevent a false positive or to ensure the utmost degree of truth. It is hard for me to see it as choosimg the system over truth as one is meant to serve the other. If something falls outside of our guidelines it does so due to it's possible leading to a "non-truth". Th truth is not deemed unimportant, it is of such supreme importance that we avaoid at all costs it's opposite. The same is true for the religous rulings mentioned.

As you said, using this on a purely religious level is not so simple given the divine aspect.

Ezzie said...

Yep. :)

Aside: There should be safeguards in place in the legal system to protect against such incidents - punishing misuse of the system while not letting go criminals would be wise.