Friday, January 15, 2021

If We Want Justice, We Must Not Be Unjust Ourselves

As I watch the aftermath of the mob that stormed the Capitol building, I am struck by some things being proposed in response that seem to be rather dubious. Let me be clear: That act was rightly condemned, and justice does need to be done in response. However, some of the angry proposals made in response seem to be unjust in themselves. Some seem to disproportionate demands made against people who did not take part in the mob attack itself. Others seemed to be taking advantage of the outrage to simply target political opponents for short term (and shortsighted) gain.

This article is not going to dissect those actions or identify the people I think might be guilty of them. That would turn the article into a political argument and would distract from the point I want to make. It could even be rash judgment if I am mistaken in my assessment of their motives. What I want to do is look at the demands of justice in a way that would be true regardless in the past or present, regardless of whatever events or information might come up later, with no need for me to offer retractions.

Justice can be described as giving to others their due. That can be positive in the sense of making things right to those who were wronged and negative in the sense of exacting proportionate consequences for wrongdoing. A failure to do make things right for the wronged or failing to exact no more or less than proportionate consequences to the wrongdoers is injustice. However, punishing people for something where involvement in wrongdoing is remote or non-existent is also injustice. For example, a person who sells gas at a gas station is not considered guilty of aiding and abetting if he sells gas to the driver of a getaway car used to commit a crime unless it can be established that he knows and condones the action it enables.

That means we cannot target a person whose ideas we dislike, punishing him or her for the actions of others, unless we can show a direct cause-effect link between Person A’s ideas and Person B’s actions. Nor can we charge person A for anything greater than what he or she intended to do or could have reasonably foreseen as arising from those actions. Vincible ignorance is a sin, while reckless behavior and criminal negligence are actionable.

Therefore, we must be careful not to mete out injustice in response to injustice. When passions run high—especially when we have been personally hurt by injustice—it is easy to respond in anger and act unjustly ourselves even while being convinced of our own righteousness. If we assume that our foes are reprehensible and a crisis is one good way to remove them from power for the greater good, we are also acting unjustly by doing evil so good might come of it.

As Catholics, must show the way by making certain that we do not support injustice against our foes because we dislike them or think it is the only way to stop them. As Socrates pointed out, being just is not doing good to our friends and evil to our enemies. We must do good—which is not necessarily the same as being nice—to everybody. We need to make sure actual cause and effect is established before we seek to punish a person for something. We need to make sure that only the wrongdoers are held accountable, and only for what they have done.

That is hard to do of course. People on both sides of our dualistic system can point out unjust responses from “the other side” while ignoring the injustice on their own side. They are both right when they point out the double standards of others. The problem is, they are both wrong when they explain away or ignore the double standards on their own. People are good at pointing out the hypocrisy of others.

History should be our guide: It is not only immoral, but dangerous to have a double standard of justice depending on the leaning of the wrongdoers. For example, Weimar Germany, during the period of 1918-1933, did have cases where police and judges were sympathetic to the Nazis and handed out exceptionally light sentences compared to those whom they were antagonistic towards. That was an injustice and helped the growth of Nazism from being a fringe movement to becoming a major power in German politics prior to 1933 when Hitler came to power. However, a past failure of justice must not be used to justify allowing a similar miscarriage in the present. We cannot remain silent on past injustice but we cannot use “Whataboutism” to justify ignoring the present injustice either.

My adaptation of an old political adage might help here. “He who says we must do something in situation A, must be prepared to support doing the same in situation B unless it can be shown that the different conditions in situations A and B merit a different response.” That means we must be careful in how we form our demands and in the parallels we draw. If we are unwilling to have a standard being held against us, we should be extremely cautious about applying it to our foes. The balance of power will always shift and those who were targeted while out of power will invariably use the same tool once they are back in power.

We can either apply real justice to our foes or we can continue the cycle of injustice. The Catholic belief requires the first. Modern politics always chooses the second. With this in mind, regardless of what happens in the world, we who profess to be faithful Catholics must start by acting justly in what we do and what we say.


(†) The original, “He who says A, must say B,” was formulated by one James Burnham. I know nothing of his politics or beliefs. So, please do not associate me with anything he said that might be offensive.

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