: Which Brings Us to Legal Justice
An easy definition of legal justice is the restoration
of fairness in the eyes of the law. In this case, the law is intended
to be a common set of rules viewed as an objective measure of
morality - wrongful actions are simply made illegal and punished
based on the degree of injustice. And were every question of fairness
(justice vs. injustice) a black and white issue, law would become
the objective and external morality which it strives to be.
However, I don't think that anyone in the legal
profession believes the law to actually be objective. The appearance
of the law's objectivity, and its authority, is instead derived
from historical consistency, rather than from a higher philosophical
or moral framework. Legality and illegality are instead a function
of how societal norms evolve. While it was once societally acceptable
for men to beat their wives, today such behavior is not, and the
law reflects that shift. This example also highlights the one
barrier to legal justice permeating society. Spousal abuse is
still unfortunately commonplace among some demographics and what
prevents legal justice in this case from becoming ubiquitous is
its relatively high cost and unequal accessibility; legal justice
might be more aptly named "privileged justice" for some.
With spousal abuse, personal justice can additionally be a particularly
expensive, and therefore remote, option - its price can come as
continued or even escalated abuse. So called "silent crimes"
like abuse, rape, harassment or discrimination are ones in which
both legal and personal justice are more or less unavailable to
the bearer of injustice.
: Legal Justice = Personal Injustice?
Because legal justice carves out its domain from
that to which personal justice would normally apply, the two can
and often do clash. Personal justice may trump legal justice by
being cheap and easy, but legal justice has the government on
its side - namely, legal systems typically make legally unjust
all but the most benign forms of personal justice!
Fortunately, there are some advantages to legal
justice with respect to individuals: personal justice, while being
widely accessible and generally easy to achieve, also carries
the aforementioned owed debt. By seeking personal justice, the
son of the murdered policewoman invites a continued cycle of 'revenge'
killings between his family and the killer's family. These debts
do not come interest free, either, and as generations pass the
two families may forget what initially sparked the hatred, but
the debt accumulates with each new achievement of "justice."
Legal justice, by being less accessible and more consistent, at
least makes it more difficult to accumulate sizeable justice debts
(although one may accumulate a sizeable monetary debt in the process).
Legal justice, however, offers fewer benefits to
individuals in their dealings with larger legal entities such
as corporations or governments. Because such organizations are
defined entirely in terms of legalities, legal justice, however
subjective that term becomes in corporate/government law, becomes
significantly more accessible and proportionately less expensive
: International Justice; Personal Justice
in Another Guise
As an illustrative example of how personal justice
plays an important role in balancing power, let's briefly examine
the world stage of international politics. Because there is no
world-government and no corresponding world-legal system, there
are only "personal" options for resolving a conflict
between two nations. If China nukes Washington, what legal justice
can be had? Naturally, Washington nukes Beijing back and calls
it (personal) justice. To Iraq, its 1990 invasion of Kuwait was
the only way to achieve justice for what it perceived to be a
Kuwaiti plot to destroy the Iraqi economy .
Likewise, the multinational effort to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty
was perceived as justice for the Kuwaitis for the wrongful Iraqi
invasion. Continuing in this vein, it's easy to understand America's
poor reputation abroad - the United States' sense of national
(personal) justice is extremely enforceable due to the world dependence
on American leadership and the American economy. Such dependence
imbalances the power dynamic between nations, and nations abroad
feel this unfairness and see America's selfishness as irresponsible
Examples of personal justice in international politics
are extremely common, and thus, because of the lack of a higher
authority in the form of a superseding and historically consistent
(because we've established that it's not objective) legal system,
the concept of personal justice can be applied quite naturally
to international politics.
: Social Justice, a.k.a. Idealistic Justice
My undergraduate institution (Haverford
College) talked greatly about the concept of social justice
without really defining it. Applying our concepts of justice to
the social arena, we can define social justice thusly: personal
and/or legal justice that balances access to resources, opportunity,
compensation or otherwise promotes equality at the societal level.
In this sense, social justice is a special application/case of
the personal and legal flavors. Social justice, is idealistic,
not practical, and it is this quality that makes it special but
still not objective.
For instance, Vermont and Hawaii's state laws conferring
marital benefits and/or rights upon gay couples gives gays more
equal access to the privileges of the marital law. Worker's rights
laws give more equal compensation and opportunity to corporate
slaves. Individuals can, such as the iconographied
Che Guevara did, seek social justice themselves when legal
justice fails their constituency or is completely inaccessible
Only by destroying social differences (such as between
homo and hetero marriages, white and non-white laws, ruling and
serving classes, etc.) can justice be called social. But what
determines which social differences are worth destroying and which
are worth saving? This is the subjective shadow of social justice
- idealogies are what make the necessary distinction, and idealogies
are subjective by nature.
'Acceptable' social injustices exist in all societies
and are rationalized as a meritocracy: the distribution of haves
and the have-nots is determined by ability (only idealistic
communism claims to eliminate all social injustices ).
Before the US civil rights movement, skin color was acceptably
associated with ability, and thus a fair game for the meritocracy.
In many places today, sexual orientation now enjoys that position
as acceptable social difference. Wealth, however, remains the
most insidious, yet acceptable, measurement of merit as it is
not related to any actual ability.
: Difference vs. Justice
Globalization. Melting pots. Multiculturalism. Diversity.
These are terms which describe the multiplication of difference
in societies that were once fairly homogeneous. This demographic
diversification naturally promotes a parallel growth of social
difference, which is often expressed as expanding social injustice.
Merging cultures and concepts of justice can be akin to mixing
oil and water; because legal systems are rooted in the same subjectivity
as personal justice,
The distinction between personal and legal justice
begins to get blurry when applied to groups with their own flavor
of culture. While it was legally prohibited, polygamy was
: © 2001, Aaron Clauset
: bits and pieces
Tribes, city-states and nations create legal systems
in order to foster a broader and more consistent implementation
of fairness. Legal systems are the cement that holds the social
structures (like personal property, together, and give the ruling
authorities the ground to rationalize their power. In some sense,
movements of social unrest reject the institutionalized form of
legal justice and use personal justice as a way to force change
to the legal system. On the level of a family or a tribe, those
systems are generally a personal justice projected onto the group
by the leader - the classic example of this paradigm is the absolute
monarchy, where the king/queen's word is law. As the culture absorbs
that system, it becomes perpetuated at the societal level and
becomes a true legal system. As a social group becomes, in sociological
terms, more rational, the system transmogrifies into an attempt
at a self-consistent morality.
Just as a societal norm does, the legal system carves
out its domain from personal freedom and claims authority over
it. This is where legal and personal justice clash - restoration
of fairness in the eyes of the law is likely different from what
we as individuals feel is acceptable, yet we are compelled to
accept such an 'injustice' by the legal consequences of rejecting
it. Similarly, we may feel that legal justice is missing in some
arenas, but are powerless to rectify such a legal injustice by
the largely elitist culture of lawmakers.
There is thus a tension between personal and legal
justice, between society and the individual, over which form of
justice is more appropriate. Factors such as accessibility and
gratification and legal accountability then become deciding factors
when a conflict arises.
When two individual's subjectivity collide, the
common ground they share is what can be called fairness. The difficult
reality is that no two collisions yield quite the same definition
of fairness; thus, justice is inherently a subjective beast.
Personal justice is what an angry individual, or
group of individuals, seek as compensation for the circumstances
that triggered the anger. Circularly, anger is what is felt when
fairness is absent.
Additionally, personal justice and legal justice
are often incompatible - individuals, being physical entities,
have a larger degree of autonomy than institutions, which are,
almost by definition, legal entities. An individual might yell
obscenities as a way of acheiving pesonal justice, but a corporation
doing something similar would have its pants sued off.
The picture is not quite so simple - personal justice
is cheap and immediate, while legal justice is laborious and expensive.
questions of power, domain, history and availability.
Personal justice is powerful on a personal level, but socially
weak. It's infinitely applicable to any situation, readily available
to everyone, but extremely inconsistent over time. Legal justice,
on the other hand, is is personally weak, but socially powerful.
With understanding personal justice as the "fair"
response to a personal afront, we can see that this brand of justice
is far more common than, and is often at odds with, legal justice.
Violence is generally prohibited by legal justice, while it is
the primary mode of personal justice. Yelling at (or hitting)
the driver who cuts you off, writing angry letters to an irresponsible
company and knocking your wine glass into the lap of the ass across
the table are all forms of violence, but more importantly, forms
of personal justice. Perhaps the most stereotypical form of personal
justice is the violent "passionate" retalition of a
lover scorned. Legal justice attempts to curtail the use of personal
justice to resolve conflict (injustice) by prohibiting the more
excessive forms of it. Thus, yelling, writing letters and spilling
wine glasses are not going to get you legally (socially) sanctioned,
while hitting or murdering your lover will.
Critical Legal Theory (CLT) essentially defines
justice in the spirit of social justice, and aims to prevent segments
of society from using the law to maintain unfairness, and thus
: References :
:  Oklahoma City National Memorial
:  Congress Link: On Civil Rights
:  American Heritage Dictionary : Justice
:  Footnote
: This distinction is perhaps why justice between an individual
and a corporation is so fleeting. For the individual, a reach
for legal justice is an expensive forray into unfamilar territory,
while organizations/institutions, being legal entities themselves,
are at much more at home in the tradition and methodology of legal
justice. It's this accessibility gap that prevents more justice
from being found between individuals and organizations.
:  Footnote
: The complexity of a legal system can be seen as proportional
to the complexity of the society which uses it.
:  Politics of Reason: Critical Legal Theory
and Local Social Thought
:  Arabia.com, "Kuwait invasion: Iraq unrepentant
10 years on"
:  Che Guevara - Socialist Revotionary
:  The Communist Manifesto
:  National Institute of Justice