Religion and Philosophy

What is Justice?

As a Nietzschean, I don’t really believe in the concept of abstract “justice,” which I consider to be more of a Sorelian myth or a Platonic noble fable.

By Cayce Jamil, Center for a Stateless Society

If you listen to a protest, you will more than likely hear phrases related to realizing justice, like “no justice, no peace.” However, what is meant by the term ‘justice’ isn’t defined. Some assume the term means direct reparations from the state should be made to an aggrieved group. Others assume it warrants some form of retaliation against the aggressor group. In reality, neither of those forms of “justice” is actually justice.

According to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and, later Georges Gurvitch, justice is integral to holding society together (Bosserman 1968). Religion, in fact, appears to emerge precisely because a shared understanding of justice is needed for society to function. As Proudhon wrote, “Justice is the most primitive thing in the human soul, the most fundamental in society, the most sacred among the nations…. It is the essence of religions at the same time as it is the form of reason, the secret object of faith… (quoted in De Lubac 1948: 278).” Initially, religion is the great unifier within society because it contains a shared understanding of justice.

The culturally-shared understanding of justice found within religion Proudhon termed authoritative justice. As religion and authority are intertwined at the dawn of civilization, authoritative justice bases itself around the notion of ‘might makes right.’ “Justice, like order, began with force. At first it was the law of the prince, not of the conscience. Obeyed through fear than through love, it is enforced, rather than explained (Proudhon 2004: 255).” Within ancient civilizations, the form of authoritative justice that predominated is known as the law of retaliation. The law of retaliation can be summed up by the phrase ‘an eye for an eye.’ Numerous references to the law of retaliation exist almost universally within early civilization. The oldest written records of the phrase date back to the code of Hammurabi from 1754 BC. However, in ‘the Axial age,’ between 800 BC and 600 AD, we find an evolution in the understanding of justice across a multitude of religions (Graeber 2014). From Pythagoras, the Buddha, and Confucius, to Zoroaster, Jesus Christ, and Muhamad, justice is redefined almost without exception. Instead of retaliation, authoritative justice now prioritizes restoration.


Leave a Reply