24 June 2011

Justice? Think about it!

Open a newspaper or visit a paper's website and over the course of about a month, it is quite likely that there will have been a trial in which someone was convicted of murder. Cue plenty of photos of crying parents and stern-faced lawyers telling everyone that 'although it took a while to find the murderer, justice has been done'.

But has it? Usually a convicted murderer will receive a life sentence in prison (that is if there's enough room) and won't be heard of again until many years later when the press will inevitably dig up the whole story again to remind everyone just how horrible the murderer was. But how exactly is this justice?

This of course opens up the can of worms that is defining justice, but I think it's really quite simple. 'Justice' is a completely made up term used to justify anything unpleasant happening to a person who is believed to be responsible for a crime.

Of course, people should be punished if they do something wrong. That's how we learn - we are animals, after all. Why do we use electric collars for dogs? Why electric fences for livestock? If they do something wrong, they experience an unpleasant sensation and are unlikely to do it again. The same system works for us.

Obviously you shouldn't electrocute people, but dealing with another person's death that you were directly responsible for and spending many years in prison is normally a perfectly adequate punishment for most offenders to never consider committing the same crime again. So there's no problem with the punishment, then. It's not what we should have to do, but that's just the way it is. It's how the brain works.

The problem is that the word 'justice' implies that the retaliation is 'justified' or morally 'right', usually if it's backed by the law. Which in turn suggests that the policy of 'an arm for an arm' is the right way to go - how would creating something else unpleasant - no matter who it affects - improve the situation?

There is nothing morally 'right' about punishing somebody for a mistake they have made - all it means is that two unpleasant events have taken place in the world, rather than one. Yes, people should be punished - it prevents the convicted from repeating their crime, but that's all it does. In an ideal world people would learn  from their mistakes immediately and would not need to be punished. But something bad happening to someone bad is only 'good' because we have this made up sense of justice. It's still two bad things in the world, rather than just one.

What ever happened to forgiveness? That's surely the most 'moral' thing you can do if a crime has been committed against you.

It's perfectly understandable for people to be angry when a crime is committed against them, and to want revenge, but do not blur the line between necessary punishment and personal vendetta by claiming that the punishment was morally 'right'. According to who? Sometimes punishment is needed to show someone the error of their ways, but there is only so much satisfaction that you can get from watching someone else suffer.

And even then it's only satisfaction rather than joy that the punishment is bringing you. So it's not even equivalent to being repaid by the convict with joy at their suffering. Everyone should get off their moral high horse - there is no such thing as justice.

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