Themes in Literature

Literary Justice

Literary Justice

The desire to be treated fairly, and to see others treated fairly, is a fundamental human impulse. We seek justice in our own lives, and many of us promote it in the lives of others. Injustice strikes us as unnatural, an imbalance that should not be tolerated in moral, humane societies. Some would even argue that justice is the most important factor in making a moral society, saying that without justice, there can be no true moral authority. Philosophers do not agree, however, on virtually any aspect of justice. There are controversies involving whether or not actions can be considered just, what intellectual paths we must take to make those determinations, how justice should be carried out, and whether or not there can be such a thing as “natural” justice— that is, universal principles that all societies should follow.

Justice is a complicated subject because what is “right” may not always be what is “just,” and what is “just” may not always be “right.” For instance, a culture that follows the Old Testament precept of “an eye for an eye” might call killing an innocent person to avenge the death of another innocent person “just.” Few of us, however, would call that the right course of action. Conversely, the institution of slavery might help a local economy function well, leading some to label it “good,” but it would be impossible to argue that slavery is ever “just.” Literature explores the complexities surrounding the concept of justice often. For instance, when the lion Aslan agrees to be sacrificed in place of the traitor Edmund in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he is conforming to the laws of Narnia, laws whose stated role is to deliver justice. Edmund, after all, did commit treason, and treason should be punished. For Edmund to die at the hands of the White Witch might be justice, but Aslan knows it would spell disaster for the future of Narnia, so he dies in Edmund’s place. Conversely, the women of Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles subvert justice, becoming criminals themselves in the process when they hide evidence that might convict Minnie Wright. What they do may not be just, but Glaspell definitely wants us to believe that what they do is right. This question of what is “just” and what is “right” is one of the questions philosophers grapple with when they discuss justice. Serious explorations of the problem must examine first whether or not we can ever rationally justify these terms, which seem so very subjective. If we can justify them, then we are left asking the equally difficult questions of “How ought we to act in order to be just?” and “How ought social institutions be structured so as to achieve justice?” (Buchanan and Mathieu 12). Some theories of justice are retributive—that is, they are concerned with using punishment to restore the imbalance created by the injustice of crime. This type of justice is almost exclusively associated with criminal justice. When it is properly retributive, those who have taken “unfair advantage of the law abiding populace” are punished in proportion to their crime (12). The killers depicted in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, brutally murder a family of four. They performed this deed, as Capote notes through his title, “in cold blood.” What this phrase indicates is that there were no mitigating circumstances to explain why they committed this crime.

In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the title character kills his wife, Desdemona, because he believes she has been unfaithful; it is a crime of passion that he commits in a fit of rage. But Hickock and Smith kill the Clutter family calmly and without remorse. When society seeks justice for this offense, then, it seeks the highest penalty. Because Hickock and Smith took lives so coldly, they must pay with their own. This is retributive justice. While we may not always agree on just how to make all punishments fit their crimes, the concept itself is relatively simple. Distributive justice, on the other hand, is a much more complicated concept. Theories of justice that are distributive seek to regulate social and economic inequalities. The distribution of goods in a society can never be perfectly equal: Some will always have more than others, due to differences in intelligence, skill, personality, or sheer luck. Distributive justice asks us to determine how this inevitable imbalance might be most fairly corrected. One of the foundational principles of distributive justice, sometimes called the “formal principle” and usually attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, is that “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally—but in proportion to their relevant similarities and differences” (Buchanan and Mathieu 15). Applying that principle to real-life situations is complicated. Most philosophers of justice agree that we must focus on certain material principles in our consideration of whether or not inequality is just: need, ability, effort, productivity, public utility, and supply and demand. In other words, when we try to determine whether or not a particular state of inequality is just or unjust, we must consider the above categories. One system of distributive justice is known as utilitarianism. This system asks one question of actions and policies concerned with distribution: Does it maximize overall utility? For example, for utilitarians, “maximizing overall utility might permit or even require members of one segment of society to lead live of impoverished slaves, lacking even the most basic civil and political liberties” (26). In the system of apartheid depicted in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, the black Africans live lives in just such a position. Dinesen is able to justify this situation because she sees them as childlike and unable to handle their own affairs. She truly sees this clearly unfair situation as being better for society as a whole; thus, she is adopting a utilitarian position. John Rawls, perhaps the best known philosopher of distributive justice, rejects this utilitarian mindset. His principles of justice, outlined in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, are threefold.

First, each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of equal basic liberties. For Rawls, these basic liberties are freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to hold personal property, and freedom of political participation. Second, offices and position are to be open to all; people with similar abilities and skills should have equal access to positions of power and importance. Third, social and economic institutions are to be arranged in ways that maximize the benefits for the worst off. Rawls’s ideas are controversial, to be sure, as adhering to his principles almost guarantees a redistribution of wealth. Another school of thought, libertarianism, would declare that any redistribution of wealth is theft. So how can we assure ourselves that our societies are just without becoming Robin Hoods, robbing the rich to give to the poor? Or maybe Robin Hood, despite his criminal ways, was acting in the name of justice. Criminal justice, of course, would punish Robin Hood for stealing from others, but it is social justice we discuss here. The basic question is whether or not those at the top of the social heap have a moral responsibility to share with those at the bottom. Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, seems to have felt that they did. In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Clemens uses the story of a child, Huck, who has been forgotten by his society, to “argue for the ethical and moral treatment of children” (Kiskis 67). If it is incumbent upon us as Christians to physically and spiritually comfort the poor, how can we let a child like Huck forge his way alone? He is abused by his father, isolated by society, treated as an outcast, and finally left to fend for himself. The community sees this as Huck’s own choice, but Twain wants us to consider how we can let a child make such a choice. Twain’s Huck “reminds us of our complicity in a society that disposes of people” (71). If we accept that complicity, then we might also consider the possibility that our society should mandate reversing such injustice, and this would inevitably require some type of redistribution of wealth. We give up some rights, then, if we are willingly a part of such a society. If in order to right these wrongs, we have to give up some of our own basic liberties, or allow those liberties to be infringed upon, then perhaps that is the way we achieve justice as a society.

See also Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim; Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, The; Edwards, Jonathan: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones; Gaskell, Elizabeth: North and South; Gay, John: Begg ar’s Opera, The; Gordimer, Nadine: Burger’s Daughter; Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; Kincaid, Jamaica: Small Place, A; Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee: Inherit the Wind; Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird; McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove; Molière: Tartuffe; Paine, Thomas: Age of Reason, The; Pirandello, Luigi: Six Characters in Search of an Author; Shakespeare, William: Hamlet; Othello; Silko, Leslie Marmon: Almanac of the Dead; Sophocles: Antigone; Twain, Mark: Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The.

3 thoughts on “Literary Justice

  1. “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” Shakespeare

  2. Shakespeare: “To be or not to be.” Satre: “To do is to be.” Socrates: “To be is to do.” Scooby Doo: “Do be do be do.”

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