Justice from a Human Perspective

Every human being has a sense of justice that develops at a very early age. If I show a cookie to a 15-month old, and don’t give it to her, she will cry. She might not be able to articulate what she is thinking, but she reacts because “it isn’t fair”. I shouldn’t show her a cookie I’m not going to give her!

Is this a primitive form of the sense of justice that we all have? Maybe.

Scientists used to believe that a sense of justice didn’t develop until age 6 or 7, but recent studies suggest our sense of justice forms much earlier than that (before we even reach the age of two).[1] The study shows that toddlers not only have a sense of justice; they are already developing nuance in their sense of justice to distinguish between lesser and greater injustices.

That sense of justice matures as we grow older. Studies show that children as young as 3 to 5 years old can already identify injustice done to others, not just themselves.[2] I think our common experience demonstrates that our sensitivity to injustice grows, develops and becomes more refined as we mature as people. We develop a sensitivity to injustices done to others, not just ourselves and the people we know.

Still, that sense of injustice is never provoked so much as when we are on the receiving end. We are never more incensed at injustice as when the injustice is done to us, our family or people with which we identify. Our sensitivity to injustice tends to get softer and less urgent when the injustice is done to people we don’t know, especially if they are people with whom we don’t easily identify.

Don’t think so? When someone from “the other party” rants about a particular injustice done to “their side”, do you feel empathetic?

We can train ourselves to be more sensitive to other people, including other people with whom we have little or nothing in common, maybe even people with whom we disagree, but it’s a lot of work!

Let’s be honest here: it’s much easier to spot the injustice done to ourselves and people with whom we identify; we are much quicker to jump to our own defense and to the defense of people with whom we identify; we don’t naturally have the same feelings for others, especially those with whom we have little or nothing in common.

These observations suggest that a person’s sense of justice is affected by his or her perspective. As we grow older, our perspective broadens and widens, and we can learn to take other people into account as our sense of justice develops, but even as mature adults our sense of justice is driven by our personal perspectives.  We see this in people of different political persuasions (perspectives). People of different political persuasions have different ideas about justice.

On the issue of immigration, for instance, one school of thought is that we should protect the safety and privileges of the people who live in this country by limiting the number of people who are allowed to enter the country and vetting them closely. They might argue that the people here earned their right to be here. People have fought and died for the freedoms people here enjoy. Being able to enter ought to be an earned right that can’t be taken unlawfully or given to people who haven’t earned it.

Another school of thought is more welcoming of people from other countries. People who entered the country for many generations merely showed up and entered. We are a melting pot, and our values are determined by that heritage. Why shouldn’t anyone who takes the effort to come here be allowed the same access to the freedoms and wealth of this country as those who are here?

Both sides make some sense. Each side will argue they are correct. Each side is convinced of it. They might find some common ground, but they differ significantly on what justice looks like on the issue of immigration when we get into the details.

On some issues, people are in universal agreement. Killing people for fun is wrong, End of story. On other issues, people have diametrically opposed ideas, like abortion, capital punishment, etc. , and there is little middle ground.

We all have a sense of justice within us that arises before we can even articulate a cogent thought on the subject, and that sense of justice develops as we mature. When we are wrongfully accused, lied to, stolen from, or treated unfairly, our sense of justice is provoked. We don’t all have the same sensitivity for injustice done to others, especially those with whom we don’t identify, but we can identify injustice when we see it, even when we aren’t on the receiving end.

That sense of justice is universal. We act as if justice is an objective fact, even when we don’t agree on exactly what it is. When we cry, “Unfair!” our protest is intended to illicit agreement. We are appealing to everyone else’s sense of justice, and we are righteously indignant when other people don’t see it our way.

We fundamentally believe that justice is essential to civilized life, but not even the most sophisticated and studied experts on justice, the ethicists and philosophers and theologians, agree on exactly what justice means in all circumstances.

I think that this is true because justice is a matter of perspective, and our perspective as finite human beings is limited. Justice is subjective to that extent. Or, maybe, I should say that justice as conceived by human beings is subjective. It is limited by our finite perspective as finite beings.

Thus, I think it’s virtually axiomatic that justice from a human perspective is subjective.

Still, we are all convinced that some objective standard of justice exists. I say that unequivocally because even the atheist Richard Dawkins, who claims that there is no God and (therefore) no absolute standard of justice, makes statements and assertions of what is right and wrong. In his book, The God Delusion[3], He even wrote his own alternatives to the Ten Commandments.

Everyone who says, “It’s not fair!” is appealing to this universal sense of justice. And not only that, they are expecting others to agree!

I believe that we have this sense of objective justice because there is a God, and we are created in God’s image, but our sense of justice is subjective because of our perspective as created, finite beings. While justice from our perspective differs, justice from God’s perspective is absolute. God’s perspective is certain to be different from ours because God is infinite. The prophet Isaiah explains it like this (speaking of God’s perspective) (Is. 58:8-9):

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

In the following blog post, I will explore God’s perspective, to the extent we might be able to know something about it.


[1] See, for instance, Infants Possess a Sense of Justice by Lena Groeger writing for Scientific American March 2, 2012

[2] See Even 3-year-olds have a sense of justice by Warren Cornwall writing for ScienceMag.org June 18, 2015

[3] See Wikipedia.

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