When Justice isn’t enough

Several years ago, a colleague from the office was going through a very acrimonious divorce and almost daily the topic of conversation was his divorce. In the beginning I felt a strong empathy for what he was going through. The empathy was short lived and replaced with indifference and sometime annoyance.

The problem was that he was so consumed by the injustice of the divorce proceeding (needless to say, I only heard his side of the story) his speech was constantly filled with hate and poison.  He kept ranting on about how the family courts in Canada was not about justice.  One day, I got so tired of listening to him that I said “There’s no justice in Canada, only a legal system, so get over it!”.  I said this rhetorically without giving it much thought since my sole aim was to shut him up.

Many years later what I said about justice came back to haunt me.  The idea of justice has been on my mind again and it’s made me regret what I’d said.  What I should have said was “Justice isn’t enough, we need a legal system”.  I don’t mean to degenerate justice.  After all, it is one of the four cardinal virtues.  What I mean by this is that justice seeks a fair remedy or a fair punishment, but it’s completely blind to the other great virtue, compassion.  In some ways, our legal system has to reflect how we seek justice with our own friends and family, and often it’s complicated by solidarity, our own complicity, and negligence.   What makes the western legal system great is that it’s liberally tinged with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.    I have no doubt that a great part of this ethos comes from the Christian theology of redemption, but I think it deeper and older than that.  I think it comes from the fact we (like other primates) are hardwired to feeling empathy, and in doing so we create cultures that codifies this type of behavior and expectation.  We all know the story of how eye for an eye leads to a village full of blinds, and by the same reasoning we would not be here 7 billion strong had we not sought a system which was more than justice.

When I read Merchant of Venice in high school the famous speech by Portia struck me as being poetic but not much more.  I realize how little progress has been made in 400 years since the idea was so eloquently shared with the world.

The Quality of Mercy

 The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.

But mercy is above this sceptered sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute of God himself;

And earthly power doth then show like God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

William Shakespeare
1600
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~ by rotatetechnology on November 6, 2011.

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