It’s amazing how there are words whose definition everybody can agree on, but they can still mean different things to different people. While that may sound contradictory, when a word is used to express a concept we might all agree as to its ideal but just as easily have vastly divergent opinions on what it entails. Depending on our social, political, ethnic, and/or cultural backgrounds and upbringings, each of us has a perspective that will colour the way we conceptualize an idea – or see an ideal. While the dictionary may say that word justice means the quality of being fair and reasonable, and the administration of the law or authority to ensure that quality is maintained, what defines fair and reasonable?
In Canada and the United States, we have a code of civil conduct that is based on what our society has decided is morally acceptable. While there is an overall concordance about justice, even within our society there are significant disagreements on its application and absolute definition that stem from differing views on what exactly is morally acceptable. Yet in spite of our inability to define justice for ourselves, it doesn’t seem to stop any of us from demanding the imposition of justice in other jurisdictions.
Whether it’s George W. Bush justifying invading Iraq in order to bring Saddam Hussien to justice, demands for justice being made on behalf of the Dali Lama, or justice for Palestinians, it all amounts to the same thing. Us telling them what to do based on our morality. It doesn’t matter what your political or religious persuasion is, you’re going to be basing your definition of justice on your own version of morality and imposing it on someone else. Think of how ridiculous you’d think it is for a devout Islamic cleric to pass judgement on your way of life, and you might begin to get the idea of how you look to someone in that part of the world when you tell them what to do.
In her book, Unjust Justice, published in English for the first time by ISI Books, French political philosopher Chantal Delsol postulates that the desire to impose one person’s version of justice across the board as a response to various crimes against humanity that have occurred – and that might still occur – is as potentially dangerous as the original crime. In clear and concise language, she develops her argument through references to social political philosophies of the past millennium, and an examination of the past hundred years of history.
While she makes no bones about her anger at Western Europe’s blind eye to the crimes of the former Soviet Union and is somewhat snide when referring to what she calls progressives, she manages to present her case without being overtly political. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of this book as far as I’m concerned is that there’s plenty in it that is bound to piss off people at both ends of the political spectrum. I don’t say that just because it appeals to my perverse nature either, but as a sign of her integrity as a thinker. Not once did I find her trying to force her arguments so that they could better accommodate a particular dogma or ideology; indeed she is firm in her warnings about the dangers of dogma when it comes to the application of justice.
As a culture, the West has a long and depressing history of cultural imperialism dating back to our earliest recorded histories. Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and then the Christian Church have all taken their turns at imposing their morality by whatever means necessary throughout history. Ruled by the prevailing dogma of their time, emissaries of these empires sought to create a universal code of conduct, by which justice could be defined. If it meant exterminating all those who objected, they thought they were only doing what was necessary to make the world a better place.
While there have been philosophers over the years who have argued against this singular view of the world, and Ms. Delsol cites both Immanuel Kant and Charles de Secondat Montesquieu as examples of a more enlightened viewpoint, Unjust Justice argues that our attitudes haven’t really changed. While we might believe that the desire to bring the perpetrators of war crimes committed over the past sixty-five years to trial justification for the creation of a tribunal to try those cases, the very act of doing so implies the assumption of a moral authority on par with that of the Catholic church during the Inquisition.
Chantal Delsol argues that the only way a court like this can work are in cases like the Nuremburg Trials, the judging of Nazi Party officials for complicity in the Holocaust and other war crimes, when the people on trial were guilty of contravening the pre-existing laws of their own country – meaning there is a proper context within which they can be tried. Otherwise, it becomes a case of arbitrarily creating a frame work within which to hold them accountable. The only grounds we have to justify trying a Serbian leader for crime against humanity and not an American leader for ordering the bombing of Iraqi hospitals, or a Russian for bombing Chechnya, is because the former lost and the latter won. While that might play well on the home front, it isn’t much of a foundation for a world court, now is it?
While Unjust Justice is not an easy read, it is thankfully free of the usual academic jargon that clutters up many philosophical texts. Ideas are examined in depth but never beaten to death, so we are given sufficient proof in support of Ms. Delsol’s theories to make them plausible without ever feeling like she’s belaboured the point. Kudos must also be given to the translator of the text, Paul Seaton, for ensuring that the clarity of the original text is maintained for its new readership. It’s not often that you find ideas of this quality, let alone this important, presented in a manner this accessible. If you care about the nature of justice you really should read this book. At the very least it will make you think, and hopefully it might also get you questioning some of the easy answers other people try to pass off as ideas.
Obviously I’ve only barely touched the surface of the material covered by Ms. Delsol. What it comes down to is that justice, or the application of it anyway, is as individual as each society. One only needs to look at the differences between two countries as similar as Canada and the United States as to what passes for justice in their legal systems to see that. In Unjust Justice, Chantel Delsol issues a warning about the dangers of assuming any of us know what’s best for anyone else that we would be wise to heed. In our eagerness to see justice done, we run the serious risk of committing a serious injustice.