On the Justice of Your Children

Dear Father,

Having seen Platocrates’ vision of justice it seemed all but necessary to look upon the works of your children and see how well we have fared. It has been an interesting journey to say the least, but it is one that has left a sour taste in my mouth. Coming from the smooth and effortless beauty of Plato’s finished city, the ever evolving landscape of your children’s justice seems almost boorish and crude, childish in fact. It is easy to see how and why this is so. Where the system devised by Platocrates is simple and basic, the systems of your children are varied and complex. In Platocrates’ Republic there are no laws; all men choose to listen to their Sophie-loving Kings, and they, in their infinite and impossible wisdom, rule in a manner most just. The creators of the city, having already laid down its basic structure and told the noble lies necessary for its existence, have done all that needs to be done. Leaving the city to its devices means leaving a perfect system to run as it is supposed to, unhindered and undisturbed.

This is not the case with your children, Father. As I surmised in letters past, between the harsh nature of the world around us and the deplorable nature of the children you have sired, we are faced with a very difficult existence, lost in a land where – if unchecked – the unruly would overrun the good among us and chaos would reign supreme. To prevent such catastrophic happenings your children, it seems, invented laws, limits to the things we could do with and to each other, and attempted to apply them to all that would listen, by agreement and by force. This forcefulness and artificiality is at its core the nature of our justice, the only kind we can manage, and it pales before the golden ideal of Kings and purposes that Plato saw for us.

The nature of your children’s justice is tied to one very important and basic thing: balance. “An eye for an eye” they say, “A tooth for a tooth”. Where something is lost, something must be given in return. You take an eye, yours will be taken. You take a life, and yours will be forfeit. Things must be ‘balanced’; things must be equal; things must be just.  There is an almost intuitive appeal to this notion. We feel cheated when others get things we do not. We feel robbed when others can harm and steal and do as they please with no consequence. This need for balance is a primal one amongst your children, and is perhaps the inspiration for Thrasymachus’ and Adeimantus’ admonitions in the dialogues that led to the construction of Platocrates’ city. And this need for balance, it seems, stems from perhaps the most selfish and primal thing ever to inhabit your children: the lust for vengeance.

Think about it, dearest Father. I have taken the eye of my brother. I have crushed it and turned it into its composite goo. Under this system of equity a court of law will require that I lose my eye as well. Things, after all, must be balanced, for the ‘good’ of society. This is a fallacious thought, however, for it does nothing to help the one that lost his eye. Taking my eye will not bring his eye back. Taking my eye will, in fact, result in two lost eyes. The balance your children seek is a negative balance, one that, it seems, is but an excuse to enact revenge. Our motivation for laws and punishments comes then not from a desire to do good, but from a desire to ensure that the perpetrator loses something, anything, as long as it is proportional to our loss. It is an act that does not improve but damages, an act that does nothing but gratify itself. It does not seek to edify; it seeks to deprive. It is angry and cruel and blind, seeking to attain some form of equality by removing instead of by complementing. It is not only a shadow when compared to the ideals Platocrates sought when building his city, but their complete opposite, for it is not motivated by love, a sense of good, or a need to alleviate pain; it is motivated by hurt and a desire to cause damage, however equal it must be.

Now your children are not all bad, and some of us have been able to devise a means by which this system, this base need to exact vengeance on people we do not like, can actually be used for good in our harsh world. Our civilisations have prisons, places where unjust men can be placed away from society until such a time as they have been able to learn their lessons and ‘pay’ their debts. The sentences such deviants face vary based on their crimes as we try, as much as feeble humans can, to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, that the deprivations we make are proportional to the deprivations we cause. Punishments, with this slightly nobler intent, serve as deterrents and protectors, not as tools of revenge. By punishing those that harm we send a clear message to others that the consequences would be severe, that ‘injustice’ – whatever that is – has a price; one cannot simply do as he pleases and expect that all would be well. By carrying out the punishment in a place removed from society we prevent the evil-doers from continually damaging our worlds; we put them in a place where their actions cannot harm the innocent.

Of course this system, even with the noblest of intents, is far from perfect. Our prisons are home to the greatest of depravities and your children, ever tied to their fundamental want for eyes and teeth, are glad for this. Criminals should not enjoy prison; they should suffer, they should scream, they should pay, preferably in pain, for what they have done to us. Never mind that a good number of those that enter these pits of punishment are innocent and are transformed into criminals of the worst kind. Never mind that such a system makes it next to impossible for the people it incarcerates to return better than they entered. A part of our hearts is glad that people suffer when they are taken away, for we know, as much as any man can, that only by these means can your evil children learn. More importantly, we feel better with this knowledge, and in some perverse way it does lead to the good of our societies. A population calm in the fact that perceived evil suffers is a population that is ultimately at peace. It matters not that the cost is occasionally an innocent and poor fellow; the powerful masses, Thrasymachus’ ignorant ‘stronger’, have been satisfied and justice has been served in their interest.

It is not surprising that even at its best the justice of your children is far from perfect. We try, dearest Father, we try so very hard. Our justice is slow, for we want to ensure that it is fair. Our justice is harsh, for we want to protect the people we care for. Our justice is picky and prejudiced, for we are afraid of the monsters we cannot see; and our justice is cruel, for we are weak and ignoble and believe that only force and self-interest can control those less than us. We are children, you see, ignorant and powerless against the vastness of the world we inhabit. Even with our aspirations towards nobility our methods are brutish and coarse, harsh measures imposed by harsh minds to deal with the harsh masses. It is another symptom of our base natures, another manifestation of all that we cannot get right. One can only hope that when I turn my attention towards the model of your divine justice a more elegant and superior system will be found. There is after all an excuse for our failings as humans, dearest Father: We did not make this world; we simply have to live in it.

With much thought,

Your Prodigal Son

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4 thoughts on “On the Justice of Your Children

  1. […] ended my last letter on a hopeful note, lamenting the crude state of your children’s justice and expecting that when I […]

  2. drenn1077 says:

    It is better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man hang.

    • Agreed. But sometimes fear and hate, those signs of our fundamental human weakness, make us condone injustice. All too often the mantra is “Better safe than sorry.” What harm can an innocent man do in prison?

  3. […] we birth eventually make it to maturity, we never stop trying to prevent the harm they cause. In my musings on justice I made the point that in its idealisation the justice of your children would aim to prevent harm, […]

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