Structure & Strangeness


: 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 to them.

: 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 [7]. 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 injustice.

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 [8].

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 [9]). 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 injustice.


: References :

: [1] Oklahoma City National Memorial

: [2] Congress Link: On Civil Rights

: [3] American Heritage Dictionary : Justice

: [4] 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.

: [5] Footnote
: The complexity of a legal system can be seen as proportional to the complexity of the society which uses it.

: [6] Politics of Reason: Critical Legal Theory and Local Social Thought

: [7], "Kuwait invasion: Iraq unrepentant 10 years on"

: [8] Che Guevara - Socialist Revotionary

: [9] The Communist Manifesto

: [10] National Institute of Justice

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© Aaron Clauset

updated 8.26.01