Tag Archives: justice

Justice, Mercy, and Definitions

Sometimes I like to think about the concept of justice. Specifically, what IS justice, really? And related to that, what is mercy? I plan to get more concrete about these ideas in application to the real world at a later point – right now I just want to keep things more conceptual.

There seems to be an idea, at least in the US, that justice = punishment. We achieve justice by punishing the people who do bad things. I grew up in a conservative christian denomination, and punishment was a VERY big thing in that. Punishment and justice were words that were used practically interchangeably. 

In more examples that I can’t find the source for because it was all from many years ago, I used to occasionally read a blog by an autistic pastor. In one blog he posted a sermon he gave regarding two values that he considered particularly important to christians – justice and mercy. The question was could they coincide simultaneously. The conclusion was they could not. What really stuck out to me when I read it was that he never actually tried to define “justice” for his audience. Instead, it was simply treated as a given that justice means punishment. It was also treated as a given that mercy means refraining from punishment. Since mercy would mean less punishment, and punishment would mean less justice, they two must be at odds.

I’ve seen the same concept come from atheists as well. Even up to one atheist declaring “Mercy is, definitionally, the suspension of justice.”

Needless to say, I find these definitions VERY limiting.

So I say, let’s go to the dictionary! What does dictionary.com have to say about justice and punishment?

Justice:

  1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness:
  2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason:
  3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
  4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment:
  5. just treatment of all members of society with regard to a specified public issue, including equitable distribution of resources and participation in decision-making (usually used in combination):
  6. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

Now all of this is absolutely fascinating to me. So many definitions! And despite the fact that (in my area of the world) people treat justice as simply being punishment as a default, it doesn’t show up on the list until definition six. SIX! 

Beyond that, justice seems to be about our conduct. Our actions. Our choices. So justice might be punishing a robber. But it could just as easily be making sure that robbery never happens in the first place. This is where phrases like disability justice, health justice, environmental justice, etc come in. 

And then there’s mercy. Once again, going to the dictionary:

Mercy:

  1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence:
  2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing:
  3. the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, especially to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.
  4. an act of kindness, compassion, or favor:
  5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing:

The mitigation of punishment miiiight be seen in definition 1, but we only see it for sure in definition 3. Otherwise, going by these definitions, mercy can be seen as acting just compassion and benevolence toward people. Maybe those who are against us, but also maybe everyone. And by that way of looking at it, we can absolutely have mercy and justice coincide.

It is both merciful AND just to create accommodations for disabled people so we have the same access to things as abled people do. 

It is both merciful AND just to create a world where no one faces the choice of stealing food or going hungry. 

I feel a little uncomfortable bringing up examples because they could be seen as “political” and I’ve generally tried to keep politics off of this blog. In this case, though, it’s necessary. This is a topic that matters to me, and how we, as a society, conceptualize justice directly impacts how we make our laws. How we structure our society. The systems we put in place, and the systems we do not. 

That is why it matters so much. Thinking about what justice is on a conceptual scale is how we decide how we implement justice in the real world. Personally, I think justice needs to begin well before we reach the point of punishment. 

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Justice

I’ve been thinking about the concept of justice a lot lately. About what it is, what it means, and the best way to achieve it. It’s an interesting subject to me, but I don’t have any easy answers.

I live in the US, and in the US it seems to be taken as a given that justice = punishment. It is a highly binary society, steeped in ideas of good vs. bad and punishment vs. reward. When someone is bad, we get justice by punishing them, and this seems to be very rarely questioned. And, honestly, having been raised in this culture, in a family that fully embraced the punishment ideals, I am not immune to this idea. I also think that this punishment thing taps into the desire to *hurt them back.* This is something else that I am not at all immune to – when someone hurts me, often my very first desire is to hurt them back. So if I have been hurt by someone’s actions in some way, the idea of them enduring some form of punishment can be very appealing. And, honestly, when a person does a terrible thing, particularly a terrible thing that ends in the death of an innocent person, punishment should definitely be a consequence of their actions.

However, is that justice? If I want justice, is that how to get it? Are consequences for the perpetrators enough?

This is not simply an academic question. The autism community seems to be rocked by tragedy entirely too often. A type of tragedy that I keep hearing over and over and over again, and I’m sure you have too. It’s the one where the headline goes, more or less, “Parent kills autistic child.” And everyone blogs about it and we try to make enough noise to be heard above all the people acting like killing an autistic child is maybe less bad than killing a “normal” child and we cry out for justice. Over and over, we want justice.

Eventually in my life I learned that their are other ways of looking at justice than simply punishment. One way is restitution. There are plenty of cases where I like this idea, but in the kinds of tragedies we deal with, is restitution really a thing? Nothing can ever undo the damage done when a child is murdered. This is not an act that anyone or anything can make up for. It’s done, it’s over, that’s it. What kind of justice can we have in this sort of situation?

Increasingly I think I want to look at justice as bettering the world in some way. Hurting the parents who do things like this certainly makes me feel better, but does it make the world better? Does it make it so that these things don’t happen anymore? Not really.

Crying for better services is certainly something important, but it carries the dangerous subtext that lack of services somehow makes killing one’s child a reasonable decision, which is not the case. So while we need better services, no doubt about that, I’m not so sure they are part of justice.

Want to know one thing I think would be just? Something that would make these situations ever so slightly less terrible? If, when something like this happened, the headline simply read “Parent kills child.” If we didn’t need to add in that “autistic” thing. If a child could simply be a child, and the world reacted to a parent killing their autistic child the same way it reacts to a parent killing their neurotypical child – as opposed to how it is now, when so many people seem to believe that the loss of an autistic life is less terrible and more understandable than the loss of a neurotypical life.

That would be a step towards justice. A small step, but at least it would be something.

I’m not sure what other conclusion I can draw here. I don’t know how to achieve justice for murdered children, autistic or otherwise. All I know is that I don’t want it to happen anymore.

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