Justice is for Victims

The recent events surrounding Michael Brown’s death raise the topic of justice in modern society to a new place in public consciousness. Many have called for justice for Brown, and almost always this consists of calling for the indictment, prosecution, and punishment of Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Brown. Would this be true justice for Michael Brown?

Justice is the virtue of giving each his or her due. As a person, as a human, as a members of various relationships, each person deserves some particular kind of treatment. Justice is thus, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will.” So justice is about the person with whom one interacts, their dignity and standing as who and what they are. Other virtues, like prudence or fortitude, are about the agent who wishes to display them. To be insufficiently brave is to feel too much fear, or to feel fear of an improper object, but justice is about other people.

This makes sense in libertarian theory. The non-aggression principle is not framed in terms of the violator. It is wrong to aggress against another person’s justly held property primarily because it harms the victim, not primarily because the gains therefrom are not real accomplishments (though this is the case). The right of self-ownership does not follow from the fact that others have no ability to control one’s will but from the fact that one has the inalienable ability to make decisions for oneself. Even the law of equal authority is fundamentally about the wrong done to someone when power is expressed over them.

Leftists recognize that justice is about victims, also. When explaining the problems in rampant bossism, the callousness inculcated in bosses is morally secondary to the vulnerability endemic to the employees’ position. Underprivileged groups’ stigmatization is a wrong committed by the privileged against the marginalized. Privilege is not about the privilege holder, it is about the unfairness of the social dynamic it forces onto the underprivileged.

Given how easy it is recognize in both paradigms that justice is about victims, why do people so often think justice is about punishing the criminal? Often, when protesters call for justice in the name of a victim, they call not for reparations or restitution, but for criminal prosecution of the perpetrator. Why does this attitude persist? Even libertarian theorists, most notably Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, attempt to move from justice for victims, restitution, to criminal law, retribution.

For too long, the state has had a stranglehold on justice. Frederic Bastiat noted that when justice is perverted by the state, the people come to know nothing else but the state’s actions as “justice.” It is no surprise, then, that justice is thought to be some kind of persecution of those who do harm to others. The state uses justice as the banner under which it may take its looter’s share. By parading about as the “thin blue line” police become symbols of morality, even as they leave destroyed lives in their wake. Prisons are warehouses for the socially discomforting and pens for the downtrodden who would otherwise mar the cityscapes of the influential, not temples of justice, nor cages for social decay. The state and its agents have stolen justice from its citizens.

State interest in retributive, perpetrator-focused justice is natural. It makes the rightness of a choice dependent on the one performing the act against another. Taking property from another is theft, unless the state is levying a tax. Shooting another person without cause is murder, unless an “officer of the law” is holding the gun. The quasi-divine sanction of the state removes moral responsibility from one who would rightly be a criminal. The victim is of no importance under a state’s so-called justice system. The perpetrator is everything, and the state has the power to decide who the perpetrator is, criminal or agent of the law. This is the identifying feature of the state and the source of its influence. It claims the final right in deciding the legitimacy of a use of force. It holds itself up as the final arbiter. It decides who matters.

To have true justice the state’s model of punishment must not be the operating paradigm. Those who have been harmed by another, no matter who the other was, must be made whole again, and it is the responsibility of the damaging party to ensure that this is so. This cannot be done by focusing on the perpetrator. Only the victim’s status matters in evaluating whether justice has been done, and victims deserve better than the farce the state has conducted for centuries in the name of its own victims. They deserve justice.

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