Thursday, February 11, 2016

What does justice mean?

It's a serious question.

When there is oppression, for example, is justice bringing down the oppressors, raising up the oppressed, or some combination of the two?

We can, broadly speaking, look at two competing ideals.
  • Victim centered Justice is about helping those who were wronged and working toward making things right for them.
  • Victimizer centered Justice is about punishing those who do wrong and making them pay for what they've made wrong.
In reality these two things tend to mix, but separating them  out is useful because it allows us to look at some serious fault lines in society.

Victim centered Justice doesn't comprehend the idea of a victimless crime.  If there's no victim then there's no injustice so why the fuck is it a crime?  Well, a crime that is incidentally victimless computes.  We can look at traffic laws and see an example of the reasoning: "Driving like that could kill someone so making it illegal, even when no one gets hurt, is about preventing people from becoming victims, which is a just goal."  It's when a crime is victimless in its essence that victim centered justice throws a divide by cheese error.

"This person did X thing," the law says, "Who did it hurt?" victim centered Justice asks.  "Well, themselves basically," the law responds while scratching its head and wondering why it has to answer such a question.  "Oh, so they're the victim, what are we going to do to help them?" victim centered Justice asks.  "No, they're the bad guys.  They broke the law.  We're going to throw them in jail," the law responds while wondering what the fuck is wrong with victim centered Justice.  "How will that help?" victim centered Justice asks.

And that this point an exasperated law gets into the need to enforce rules and how their punishment will serve to deter other people from breaking the law.

Such reasoning isn't quite beyond the scope of victim centered Justice which will allow that keeping murderers off the streets will reduce the potential for people to become future victims and understand that deterring people from becoming victimizers in general will likewise reduce the incidence of people becoming victims, but it still doesn't really work out.

If doing drugs, for example, hurts you then victim centered Justice says that we should be trying to help you (free rehab, counseling, whatever!) and if anyone is punished it definitely shouldn't be you because you're the victim.  If anyone is going to be punished it's probably someone at a remove, someone who contributed to your victimization without themselves becoming victims of it.  Your dealer perhaps.

(Interlude to note that that last thing doesn't actually work.  It was essentially the problem of prohibition.  It was illegal to import, make, or sell alcohol, but not to drink it, meaning the users were completely free from fear of legal reprisal and thus leading to a vast market for the dealers to tap.)

Victimizer centered morality has no problem with any of this.  Find the person who did wrong.  Punish them.  End of story.  These people broke the law without hurting anyone?  So what?  They broke the law so we punish them.

There seems to be a very basic, deeply embedded, drive toward this way of thinking.  Bring the bad guys down.  The movie The Deep Blue Sea had to be rewritten because test audiences were pissed that the person whose unethical science led to all the deaths, and whose callous disregard for human life lead to trying to use those deaths to justify inexcusable actions, lived.  This character was, above and beyond the genetically engineered sharks, responsible for all the bad.  The character had to be brought down.  The character had to die.

It's what leads to "They got away with it," being said with horror or disgust.

It's the allure of an action movie: these are the people responsible, punch them, shoot them, or blow them up.  We'll cheer.

It's the case for Hell, "They escaped any punishment in this world, in a just universe they must be punished in the next."

It's the drive toward punishment over rehabilitation.  Justice isn't about making sure that they don't make victims of new people in the future, it's about making sure they pay for the bad shit they've already done.

And it has its own massive holes.

I'm not talking about the fact that any moral system rooted in a desire for vengeance will lead to seriously fucked up things, though it will.  I'm talking about how Victimizer centered Justice doesn't have any response for victimizerless crimes.

Flint was poisoned, but unless we find someone cackling about how they did great evil while twirling a mustache, it doesn't have a clear victimizer.  Don't get me wrong, manslaughter charges are possible and that should please victim centered Justice and victimizer centered Justice alike.  The first because a strong response reduces the chances it will happen again (though we all know it will) the second because we get to see the bad guys brought down.

But who are the bad guys?

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality seems a good target.  They violated regulations and lied to the EPA to cover it up.  They took too few samples, took them in the wrong places, did it in the wrong way, and still their work would have brought attention to the fucking disaster that was Flint if not for the fact that they threw out two samples with the result that their conclusion changed from just above the panic line to just below it.

Then again, what about the EPA?  It's their damned job to make sure the Michigan DEQ is doing its job and instead they trusted those lying bastards.  Doesn't that make them responsible?

What about the city, the county, the state, the governor?  When samples were collected properly the people of Flint proved to anyone who would listen that the place was killing them.  No one listened.  It was so much easier to listen to the DEQ saying, "Nothing is wrong here."

What about Darnell Earley who decided to switch the source of Flint's water to the deathtrap water?  He did it for spurious reasons that don't hold up to scrutiny.  Seems like the bad guy.  Well if he's to blame then it must be the governor's fault because the governor is the one who installed Earley as someone whose power trumped democracy which is what allowed Earley to do stupid things that the people of Flint could have told him were unsafe and shortsighted.

What about all of the officials who let a local GM plant switch away from the death water (it was corroding the equipment) but forced the people to still drink it?  Of course they were still listening to the EPA which made the mistake of trusting the DEQ which was itself just a group of incompetents trying to get by with their limited resources, which were making things difficult.  For all of the damaging bullshit that the DEQ did, even if they'd been acting perfectly they didn't have the necessary information to do the job right.  They could have done the job close enough and sounded the warning bells immediately, but it was impossible for them to do it right.

So, who do you punish?  The governor, the state, the county, the city, the DEQ, the EPA, and Earley, and so forth are all to blame.  Do we throw the entire government of Michigan in jail along with the EPA, all of the officials in Genesee County, all the officials in Flint, and so forth?

If your morality is centered on punishing the bad guy then this situation is extremely complex and difficult.

On the other hand, victim centered Justice knows exactly what to do.  We investigate who fucked up what and what their culpability was and what lines were crossed which eventually leads to incitements and trials, yes, but before any of that we fucking help the people of Flint.

There is no safe level of lead exposure.  Unlike many horrible things even a tiny amount will fuck you up tremendously.  Given that even a tiny amount is catastrophic, the fact that the lead levels in the water were the highest the lead experts had seen in their entire quarter century long careers is really fucking bad.

These people were hurt, they need help.

Victim centered morality has a clear response and direction.

Victimizer centered morality doesn't know what to do until we've gone through the involved process of who knew what and when, who screwed up, who covered up, who was innocently but destructively wrong, who ...


Flint may not be the best example.  Consider murder on the one hand and other forms of preventable death on the other.

In victimizer centered Justice these two things are completely different.  The first has a murderer, a person to be punished.  The second does not.  Thus if someone is murdered this is a Justice issue which means we have a moral obligation to do something about it.  If someone starves then, unless there was someone stealing their food every time they tried to eat, there's no bad guy to punish.  No victimizer means that victimizer centered Justice doesn't see this as a Justice issue, and thus there's no moral obligation to do anything.

In victim centered Justice these are variations on the same thing.  How we respond to them will be different (you don't reduce murder using the same methods one would use to reduce hunger) but both things have victims and thus they're both issues of Justice and there is a moral obligation to respond to both.

Victimizer centered Justice has no response to systemic problems unless it tries to punish the system itself which ... how would you even?

"Capitalism, you have caused people to starve when there was adequate food, for this you are being given a prison term of twenty five to life," doesn't seem like a viable option.

Victim centered Justice says that we have to respond whether or not there is a clear bad guy.  People are going hungry, that's bad, we are morally obligated to try to do something about that.  Sure, no one gets punished, but Justice, in this model, is not about punishment.  It's about protection.


For the past 40 years or so abortion has dominated moral debate in my country and the two sides have tended to talk past each other.  It also happens to be what got me thinking about this today.

Certainly part of the lack of connection is that it's hard to engage with people who think you're a baby killer who is worse than Hitler, but hard is not the same as impossible.

When engagement takes place there tend to still be massive disconnects.

"If you're really against abortion, why don't you implement policies that reduce the number of abortions?" One side asks.

Or, for the giant conversation bomb:
"If the unborn are people then miscarriage is killing more people than abortion by really fucking massive margins.  Why aren't you working to stop miscarriage even harder than you're working to stop abortion?"

And the response that tends to come back is complete confusion over how the questioner has totally missed the point.

Justice is about punishing the wrongdoers.  If there are no baby killers, then there are no wrongdoers which means that Justice isn't in play.

Miscarriage is unfortunate, but it's not a moral issue because there's no one killing the babies.  Reducing abortion may be a laudable secondary goal, but the moral issue revolves around punishment and until we get the punishment in the other stuff is on hold.

Stopping the "baby killers" isn't about saving the "babies" (quotes because I don't hold to the belief that a zygote is a baby) it's about punishing the "baby killers".  Reducing abortions through non-punishment means, reducing the loss of the unborn via miscarriage, these things don't punish the "baby killers".

Justice is thus not done, and therefore it isn't a moral issue.

We're left with one side looking at it from a victim centered view, the other seeing it from a victimizer centerd view, and the two sides comprehending each other not.

And that's before we get into issues of gender, race, class, religion, and political expediency.


Even within the United States, it must be said, there are pro life advocates who take a victim centered view of the issue.  They are not, however, a majority.


  1. ...I didn't draw the connection between seeing justice as about retribution and pro-life ideology before. That makes a lot of sense.

  2. "Justice" is about as useful a word as "addiction" if nobody bothers to define what they mean by it. It's more of a cluster of vaguely related things from which the listener is expected to pick their favourite.

  3. Great post, and I think I'll be stealing your terminology :-)

    While the most important thing in Flint is to stop people being poisoned, I do think everyone who has failed in this matter should be held to account. At the very least, they need to be informed in no uncertain terms of their failings.

    And I don't think we need to see this as being unduly victimizer-centric. It's about ensuring this never happens again, so we're also stopping people being victims down the track.

    1. And I don't think we need to see this as being unduly victimizer-centric. It's about ensuring this never happens again, so we're also stopping people being victims down the track.

      I completely agree. Deterrence is very much a thing when you're focusing on preventing people from becoming victims. A lack of accountability just makes people more willing to do the same or similar bad things in the future.

      A lack of accountability also means that the same exact people might be doing the same exact bad thing (possibly to the same victims, possibly to new ones.)

      So, yeah, no matter which way you look at it people need to be held accountable for their actions.

    2. On re-reading I see you already made this point very clearly, and you were well within your rights to say "yeah, I already said that", so you're being super diplomatic :-)

      While I think it's a fair criticism that on the whole we are not victim-centric enough as a society, I would want to defend a certain amount of victimizer-centricity, or at least something that looks like that. Murder is morally horrific in a way an accident is not, and it seems to me somewhat inhuman to treat someone being murdered by a jealous lover as being equivalent of an accident victim, even though in both cases someone has died. I think this can be seen as victim-centric in a certain kind of sense, because we have to accept a certain level of accidents, whereas we don't have to accept any murders. So the murder victim has a ground for complaint that the accident victim doesn't... one is unjustified in a way the other is not. I'm not putting this very well, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

      The other thing I'd have to say about cases like Flint is that one can read being held to account as a certain kind of communication or training that's good for the 'victimizer': being an engaged operative who knows what water reports are about, cares about the outcomes, and is engaged with their work as part of the regulatory framework is a better form of life than being a blind functionary who stamps forms with numbers on them.

      This is victimizer-centric, of course, and it's not as important as provisioning clean water to the people of Flint, but it's not punishing bad people for simply being bad.

  4. Framing the abortion debate this way is very insightful. There is a lot on the anti-choice side that reflects the importance of punishing wrongdoers. I think a key issue is that abortion allows women* who have sex to escape the punishment that they should rightly have to suffer.

    * where "women" should be "people with a uterus", but I doubt the anti-choicers would understand the distinction.