What do we mean by the word “justice?”
4/29/21 / Andrew Streight
In the wake of a historic verdict in the George Floyd trial that marked the 1st time a white police officer was charged with and convicted of murder in the state of Minnesota, we’ve all seen the word “justice” used quite a bit in our conversations and on social media. Indeed, here are some of the reactions to the verdict that specifically use the word “justice:”
“Today, the tears are of pure joy and pure shock because days like this don’t happen. The whole world shouldn’t have to rally to get justice for one man.” Chris Stewart, one of the Floyd family’s attorneysChris Stewart, one of the Floyd family’s attorneys
(Prior to the verdict, after closing arguments) “I just feel that in America, if a Black man can’t get justice for this, what can a Black man get justice for?Philonise Floyd, one of George Floyd’s brothers
“Today’s verdict is a step forward. Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father back — but this can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.”President Joe Biden
While the vast majority of responses to the verdict were positive, many conservative politicians and thinkers also used the opportunity to express faith in the integrity of the U.S. criminal justice system and/or that Derek Chauvin’s actions don’t reflect the morality of law enforcement overall, a view that is not shared by the majority of Black Americans.
“Derek Chauvin had 17 misconduct investigations before he took the life of George Floyd. It’s clear Chauvin’s actions were sickening and irrefutable—he was a bad cop. Today’s decision is justice for the Floyd family.”Representative Mark Green (R-Tennessee)
“There is no doubt in my mind that jury reached the right verdict. While this outcome should give us renewed confidence in the integrity of our justice system, we know there is more work to be done to ensure the bad apples do not define all officers … We must all come together to help repair the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and Black and minority Americans.”Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina)
“Today, the American judicial system worked once again. Derek Chauvin was held accountable for the murder of George Floyd. No man or woman is above the law, ever. Tonight, I pray for the Floyd family. We must continue to fix injustices in society.”Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Florida)
It is notable that all the reactions shared above seem to agree on the fact that more work needs to be done to address injustices in the United States, particularly for Black Americans. What that means in terms of policy and action, though, is likely to differ significantly across political ideologies.
While there is some basis of agreement that justice was served in the Derek Chauvin verdict across the political aisle, there are differing conceptions of “justice” here that are evident in the sentiments shared above. Getting back to my philosophy major roots, I consulted my old friend, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for some help understanding a bit more about the word “justice” and how it has evolved over time.
As noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are several important distinctions that can help us identify where some of the reactions to the Chauvin verdict might be coming from. In particular, the distinction between conservative vs. ideal justice can help illuminate how the two groups of thinkers above agreed in some respects but also seemed to approach “justice” from a different conceptual starting point.
The first group of quotes shared above speak more to an “ideal” understanding of justice, which relates to the necessity of reforming existing norms and practices: “justice often gives us reason to change laws, practices and conventions quite radically, thereby creating new entitlements and expectations.” On the other hand, a “conservative” interpretation of justice focuses more “people’s rights under existing law or moral rules, or more generally to fulfil the legitimate expectations they have acquired as a result of past practice, social conventions, and so forth.” The need for future action evident in the first set of quotes above, as opposed to the general lack of a sense of urgency in the second group of quotes above, illustrates how these two differing understandings of justice might interpret the Derek Chauvin verdict.
Understanding the different ways people might interpret the word “justice” is important because groups often struggle to move forward in addressing a problem if they are not operating from the same fundamental assumptions. We see this often in our work, especially as facilitators. If individuals in a group are not clear about what a particular word (often in a mission, vision, or values statement) like “justice,” “impact,” “equitable,” or “sustainable” (to name a few) really means, the group often runs into roadblocks when it comes to taking real action to make the concept a reality. For this reason, it is important that we are all clear on our conceptual understandings of the word “justice” in order to achieve real, meaningful action and policy.
And we welcome any comments, questions, or ideas you might want to share or discuss with us in the comments here or on our Facebook or LinkedIn – we relish the opportunity to think critically about what is happening in our world, clarify concepts to convert them into action, and to talk about what we’re learning with our communities.