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Justice

This morning I reported for jury duty, the fifth time I have been called in my life. I sat in the Jury Pool room, alongside a hundred or so of my fellow citizens, ready to sit in judgment on a major corporate lawsuit, or perhaps given responsibility for justice over a human murder.

In other words, I was being given power. Like a vote, it’s not much power, but it’s power. Jury duty gives one the ability to unalterably affect human lives. Power granted to me, to the other people in that jury pool, by society.

The Enlightenment Package of science, capitalism and democracy have been so successful at unleashing the potential of the unpowerful majority that we forget how little sense that makes. Why would the powerful cede any of their power, even to their own benefit? Human beings don’t usually have that much foresight, or capacity for sacrifice.

The answer, of course, is that they didn’t intend to do it. It happened little by little, propelled by short-term exigency, retrojustified by success, and always accompanied by a great deal of upperclass whining.

Can this go on indefinitely? Sometimes I wonder if the epitaph of the Unprecedented Era will read “For a while, the powerful lost some of their power to the powerless. Then they remembered they were powerful.”

But it hasn’t happened yet. And every day jury duty is honorably served, it remains a minor miracle.

As it turns out, I was not empaneled on an actual jury today. Most of the jury pool was. It’s random chance—I’ve served on two juries before. Perhaps next time.

Been thinking a lot about justice lately. The need for justice arises when an individual has suffered a wrong, and appeals for balance for that wrong.

Take, for instance, murder, the most basic of all wrongs. The victim is deprived of their very life. They no longer exist. Which makes them unable to appeal for balance. Therefore, murder is not an injustice. In fact, because no one extant has suffered the wrong of the victim, no one else has standing to appeal for that wrong, which means not only is murder not an injustice, but it is an injustice to prosecute anyone for murder.

Wait a second. Huh? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s ludicrous.

Ludicrousness is something for which philosophers have to keep careful watch. You’ll be following a chain of thought, gathering swift epiphanies, and so on and so on to glorious conclusion, and then look at the result and say “That’s ridiculous. That can’t be right.”

Then you go back to check the work and try to figure out where you went wrong.

Except here’s the problem with the problem: is the unexpected conclusion truly ludicrous, or is it a difficult and frightening truth? David Pearce’s idea that total biological ecstasy is a moral imperative might strike many people as ludicrous. Or Peter Singer’s idea that it is immoral to spend one penny on unnecessary pleasures as long as anyone in the world does not have enough for the basics of living. I have seen theists and atheists alike throw up their hands in exasperation at having to deal with their opponent’s ideas when it is obvious those ideas aren’t worth their time. “Ludicrous” can just be a measure of what you’re accustomed to, what you can’t give up.

In this case, I honestly do think it ludicrous that murder is not an injustice. But, like most philosophical wrong turns, it does teach something. Murder is the one wrong where the victim themselves can never receive justice. The victim is gone, to oblivion or the afterlife. One way or another, they are removed from earthly priorities. Like a funeral, any justice is for the benefit of the survivors. But that benefit is important, and something to keep in mind as we consider the idea of justice.

ADDENDUM: There is one exception I can think of to what I just said. If we posit an afterlife in which the murder victim cannot rest until they receive justice—such as they have to haunt the earth until their murderer is caught/punished—then that is a case where the victim could truly receive benefit of justice.