In the ever-expanding lexicon of over- and misused words, justice deserves a special entry. We routinely hear of the need for social justice, while protesters often demand justice in particular legal cases (“No justice, no peace”), and Justice is even a popular name given to baby boys and girls. Marvel Comics’ Justice League of crime fighters is a valuable superhero movie franchise. So familiar is the term today that it’s invoked more as a political cause than a legal abstraction – even though politicization is the very thing which undermines the apolitical essence of justice itself.
Many people in our era call for justice as their most desired objective, a self-evidently valuable prize equated with a grand beneficence dispensed from on high. And it’s perfectly true that there are many historic victims of injustice, where the law said one thing but its application by police, judges, employers, educators and other officials said something quite different. If you or others like you have had long experience of being kept out of school, kicked off the job, evicted from your home or thrown in jail for no reasons found in any legal code – or for specious reasons contravened by fundamental legal principles – then simple justice would indeed be a welcome gift. But justice isn’t synonymous with favor. A just verdict might arrive at either guilt or innocence. A just outcome can leave both winners and losers. Just reasoning can be generously lenient or severely critical. There are many things which may result from the fulfillment of justice, but mere winning isn’t necessarily one of them.
Yet it’s become common for activists and demonstrators to speak of “justice” as a jargonized equivalent of “success,” as if getting justice out of any one situation (such as a criminal trial or a high court decision) will automatically lead to health, happiness, and prosperity thereafter. Everyone should want justice as a democratic good, of course, but no one should rely on it as a career plan. And true success is something you can achieve for yourself, with effort, ability, and perhaps a bit of luck, but true justice is something you have to passively wait to be granted, by someone else who has the power to administer it. In some contexts, justice seems to signify only “getting what I want,” or “getting whatever other people have” – equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. By these definitions, justice doesn’t stand for a starting neutrality that gives everyone the same chance, but a special consideration that gives an indefinite second chance to anyone who asks for it.
In his 1994 book In Defense of Elitism, William A. Henry wrote:
When John F. Kennedy asked rhetorically about the fairness of life, he knew whereof he spoke. He had been born attractive, intelligent, and wealthy. He grew up in a family of glamor and political power. He survived the war that took the lives of so many of his contemporaries, and emerged a certified hero to boot. His family connections helped him win a Pulitzer Prize (and his employees may have helped him write the volume for which he was honored). He got away with massive amounts of marital infidelity, including an affair with a girlfriend whom he shared with Mafiosi, and he managed to conceal medical conditions that might have raised grave doubts about his fitness for the rigors of the White House.
When John F. Kennedy asked rhetorically about the fairness of life, he knew whereof he spoke. His father was a philanderer and both parents were often away. His older brother was killed in war. A sister died in a plane crash. Another sister was mentally retarded. He endured severe back pain and kidney problems. He and his wife lost a newborn child. A taint of alleged vote fraud in Chicago will forever cloud his greatest triumph, being elected President. And he had his brains blown out in front of a watching world at the age of forty-six.
For all our conflation of justice with gain, or accomplishment, or even fortune, the accurate usage of the word ought to be considerably more limited than its current pervasiveness. As William Henry’s JFK illustrates, fairness, luck, and justice aren’t all the same, and they aren’t the same as personal victories or jackpot-like windfalls. There should definitely be justice in this world, as well as in our society and our legal system. But those who cry for justice at every instance of failure or disappointment should reflect that they may very well already have as much of it as any of us ever gets, or ever deserves.