What is Justice?

If you listen to a protest, you will more than likely hear phrases related to realizing justice, like “no justice, no peace.” However, what is meant by the term ‘justice’ isn’t defined. Some assume the term means direct reparations from the state should be made to an aggrieved group. Others assume it warrants some form of retaliation against the aggressor group. In reality, neither of those forms of “justice” is actually justice.

According to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and, later Georges Gurvitch, justice is integral to holding society together (Bosserman 1968). Religion, in fact, appears to emerge precisely because a shared understanding of justice is needed for society to function. As Proudhon wrote, “Justice is the most primitive thing in the human soul, the most fundamental in society, the most sacred among the nations…. It is the essence of religions at the same time as it is the form of reason, the secret object of faith… (quoted in De Lubac 1948: 278).” Initially, religion is the great unifier within society because it contains a shared understanding of justice. 

The culturally-shared understanding of justice found within religion Proudhon termed authoritative justice. As religion and authority are intertwined at the dawn of civilization, authoritative justice bases itself around the notion of ‘might makes right.’ “Justice, like order, began with force. At first it was the law of the prince, not of the conscience. Obeyed through fear than through love, it is enforced, rather than explained (Proudhon 2004: 255).” Within ancient civilizations, the form of authoritative justice that predominated is known as the law of retaliation. The law of retaliation can be summed up by the phrase ‘an eye for an eye.’ Numerous references to the law of retaliation exist almost universally within early civilization. The oldest written records of the phrase date back to the code of Hammurabi from 1754 BC. However, in ‘the Axial age,’ between 800 BC and 600 AD, we find an evolution in the understanding of justice across a multitude of religions (Graeber 2014). From Pythagoras, the Buddha, and Confucius, to Zoroaster, Jesus Christ, and Muhamad, justice is redefined almost without exception. Instead of retaliation, authoritative justice now prioritizes restoration.

Nevertheless, authoritative justice remained intact. Authoritative justice based itself on faith and obedience. As Proudhon (1890: 80) commented, “in all ages the priest has submitted to the prince, and the gods have always spoken as the politicians desired.” Although the new form of authoritative justice now stresses restoration, authority’s grip over justice was still understood as legitimate. It was only in ‘the age of reason,’ starting in the 16th century, that authoritative justice was dismantled. Scientific discovery, like the heliocentric model of the universe, and technological invention, like the printing press, inherently challenged and eventually overthrew the authority that religion held over justice. Inadvertently, scientists released justice from religion. As a result, the legitimacy of authoritative justice was gradually demolished. Justice, now fallen from the hands of religion, can only be based around the individual. Even in relation to crime, Proudhon (2004: 257, 260) argued that “there is but one way to do justice; it is that the culprit, or merely the defendant, should do it himself…. Then justice, springing from liberty, will no longer be vengeance: it will be reparation.” Justice must now be something the conscience does to itself, not a verdict imposed externally.

Across society, Proudhon argued the individual increasingly has become understood as the only legitimate source of justice, which he termed immanent justice. No longer can religion or the state force the individual to conform to their authoritative interpretation of justice. Justice is now understood as maintained by the individual alone. Unsurprisingly then, it is around this time in Europe that Martin Luther denied the Church, state religion fell, social contract theory emerged, and waves of revolutions were sparked across Europe. Religion was no longer the great unifier in society. Immanent justice became the negation of authoritative justice. Due to the ascendancy of immanent justice, ‘might makes right’ became a completely illegitimate foundation for justice. The only legitimate source of justice is now collectively understood to be based solely within the individual’s conscience. Nonetheless, society, particularly at the foundation of most of its social structures, still bears the marks of authoritative justice. All social structures which emerged in antiquity, like the state and property, remain, at their core, based on ‘might makes right’ and authoritative justice. These ancient social structures contradict this new, shared form of justice based on the individual. In consequence, social strife is amplified in that our culturally-shared understanding of justice has not been allowed to properly take root. 

In order to align society with immanent justice, all social structures still based on authoritative justice must be abandoned. To abandon authority, society must first be thoroughly convinced of the reality of immanent justice. It needs to be demonstrated that authoritative justice not only impedes immanent justice but also generates social disorder. Only when immanent justice is properly understood will society be able to reorganize itself based on the individual’s conscience (Jamil in press). Of course, society built around the shared idea of immanent justice implies a society built around contract. As Proudhon (2004: 125) wrote in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century:

“The idea of contract, in opposition to that of government… passed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, without being noticed by a single publicist, not observed by a single revolutionary. On the other hand, all that was most illustrious in the Church, in philosophy, in politics, conspired to oppose it.”

Relatedly, social structure based on immanent justice, in contrast to authoritative justice, leads directly to property based on use and a ‘non-governmental state,’ in the words of Proudhon, which is a state based on consent instead of imposed force (Wilbur 2013). Property based on authorization by the ‘governmentalist state’ holds its legitimacy based on the historical legacy of authoritative justice. By releasing property from authority, property becomes upheld by the individual’s conscience alone. Similarly, by abandoning the ‘governmentalist state,’ which is the monopoly over force and symbolic domination, Proudhon argued the state would be recast. “Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange… irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign? (quoted in Wilbur 2013: 26).” Instead of externally imposed onto society, the ‘nongovernmental state’ would theoretically be internally constituted and would be concerned primarily with administrative endeavors.

In sum, the demonstration of immanent justice within the individual allows for justice based on restoration to be called forth and signals the demise of authoritative justice in society. Immanent justice takes place through the reciprocity of perspectives. Realizing the reciprocity of perspectives inherently results in the recognition of human dignity (Bosserman 1968). The duty of justice becomes solely to uphold human dignity. As Proudhon wrote “Reciprocity, in creation, is the principle of existence. In the social order, reciprocity is the principle of social reality, the formula of justice (quoted in McKay 2011: 283).” It is through the reciprocity of perspectives that restoration, instead of retaliation, can actually be realized. Only by society rearranging social structure to be based on immanent justice can social order be called forth and restored.

Works Cited

Bosserman P (1968). Dialectical Sociology: An Analysis of the Sociology of Georges Gurvitch. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publishing.

De Lubac H (1948) The Un-Marxian Socialist. A Study of Proudhon. London: Sheed & Ward.

Graeber D (2014) Debt: The First 5000 Years. Brooklyn: NY: Melville House

Jamil C (in press) Resurrecting Proudhon’s Idea of Justice. Journal of Classical Sociology. Retrieved from: researchgate.net/publication/345981358_Resurrecting_Proudhon’s_idea_of_justice

McKay I (2011) Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Proudhon  PJ  [1840]  (1890) What  Is  Property?  An  Inquiry  into  the  Principle  of  Right  and  of Government. New York, NY: The Humboldt Publishing Company.

Proudhon  PJ  [1851]  (2004) General  Idea  of  the  Revolution  in  the  Nineteenth  Century.  Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific.

Wilbur SP (2013) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State. In: Contr’un 2. Gresham, OR: Corvus Editions, pp.1–18. Retrieved from: https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/contrun/pierre-joseph-proudhon-self-government-and-the-citizen-state-2/

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