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Justice: a Natural Fact or a Social Construction? Essay

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Updated: May 30th, 2020

The existence of the justice system, which the entire society is based on, has always been a hot-button issue for philosophers. Some (Locke, for example) argued that justice has an intrinsic value and, therefore, is a basic principle of the universe’s existence. Others, like Hobbes, claim that justice is the concept that was created and is defined by people and, therefore, cannot exist outside of human society. Although both viewpoints seem very legitimate, Hobbes’s idea that the state of nature is the state of war and, therefore, all people are free to pursue their desires, is more credible, seeing how in nature, the concept of equilibrium is a more appropriate way of describing the balance of the right and wrong than the idea of justice is.

Seeing justice as a concept that stretches well beyond the human culture and expands into the realm of nature, Locke, basically, notes the key imperfections of the given system as the execution of the only-the-strong-survive principle. Moreover, Locke notices that justice as the weapon of those beholding power may be turned against the people whom this system is called to protect: “The great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world” (“Second Treatise” p. 342). Therefore, Locke makes it obvious that people have an intrinsic sense of justice and, thus, are limited in the choice of their actions by the liberty principles that they have created.

When it comes to analyzing the legitimacy of Locke’s viewpoint, one must mention that the philosopher addresses a number of issues that are topical even nowadays. For instance, the corruption and abuse of power, which can be observed at present in a number of states on various levels, is still topical and widely discussed in media. The given phenomenon, according to Locke, is one of the many flaws of the existing justice system.

In addition, Locke also makes a very powerful statement by saying that, God, Who, according to Christianity, is the only source of true power, is the creator of the universe; hence, the universe must be powered by His principles of justice, which are the only legitimate ones among all those existing. Seeing justice as the only possible way of running the state and people’s lives, Locke, therefore, defies justice system its flexibility, yet makes it obvious that the law of nature is the only possible form of law and that the necessity to protect oneself and others must remain every citizen’s top priority. As the philosopher argues, people will always bend and shape legal system the way in which it will be beneficial to them, which is impossible to carry out once the legal system is based on the law of nature:

Though the law of nature is plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biassed by their interest, as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases. (“Second Treatise” p. 66)

With all due regard to Locke’s contribution to the evolution of philosophy, one must point at several dents in the aforementioned conclusions. For instance, with God as its Creator, justice cannot possibly have any flaws or weaknesses, which Locke himself disproves by noticing a range of issues that are wrong with justice in contemporary society.

Hobbes, in his turn, offers an entirely different set of principles, in accordance with which justice system must be reconstructed. As Hobbes explains, justice is the concept created by people and for people – a concept that cannot possibly exist outside the human world. People make laws, and they are entitled to do so for the sake of keeping the state in peace. In Hobbes’s concept of justice, no one must be allowed to judge others’ actions; everyone is their own judge. According to Hobbes, nothing can be unjust once taken outside the context of morality: “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice” (“Leviathan” Chapter XIII).

At first, the very thought that the institution of justice cannot exist on its own may seem quite disturbing; on second thought, though, one will be able to see that justice is, in fact, the product of civilization. Comparing the phenomenon of “injustice” to what scholars call “absurdity,” Hobbes, as a sensualist, makes it clear that neither of the notions can be observed as a self-sufficient concept: “For as it is there called an absurdity to contradict what one maintained in the beginning; so in the world, it is called injustice, and injury voluntarily to undo that which from the beginning he had voluntarily done” (“Leviathan” Chapter XIV).

As solid as Hobbes’s argument might seem, it also has its problems. For example, Hobbes clearly ignores the obvious difference between a man and an animal, which Locke makes a very strong emphasis on by claiming that people are mostly guided by a natural need to stay alive. The philosopher’s intent to draw a very distinct line between the laws of nature and the laws created by people could be related to his support for and approval of monarchy; however, Hobbes denies the fact that his interpretation of justice is somehow connected to his political views: in response to the suggestion that justice is a word without substance, Hobbes claims that in that case, “there be also that maintain that there are no grounds, nor principles of reason, to sustain those essential rights which make sovereignty absolute. For if there were, they would have been found out in some place or other” (“Leviathan” Chapter XXX).

Despite the doubtless the fact that Locke must be given credit for his theory regarding justice as an integral part of nature and people being primarily driven by appetites, it seems that Hobbes’s idea of justice as a concept created by people and for people seems more plausible. Indeed, when getting into detail about justice and the way it works, one must admit that, for justice to exist, a system of reasonable laws and appropriate penalties for breaking these laws must be introduced. Hence, the parties involved must be aware of what they are right or wrong about, whereas in nature, these are instincts that creatures are guided by, not reasoning. Without a moral compass to rely on, one will not be able to conjure an efficient justice system; thus, the entire idea of justice becomes pointless.

It should be mentioned, though, that Locke’s idea of justice as the phenomenon that exists outside human ethics can be interpreted as an attempt to define, analyze and interpret the laws of nature that keep the natural environment in balance. In other words, Locke means to envision the fragile balance, in which the elements of nature exist, as a manifestation of the so-called “natural justice.” In that sense, the idea of nature and its creatures hinging on some kind of intrinsic justice is rather plausible. Justice, in its most direct, eye-for-an-eye meaning, can, in fact, be observed in nature. The basic concept of a food chain can be used to prove the given viewpoint; for instance, herbivores fall prey to small carnivores, which, in their turn, are consumed by larger carnivores.

Nevertheless, the given examples can hardly be seen as a manifestation of natural justice – at least, not as justice system introduced in most of the present-day states and in the human civilization in general. Drawing the line between the justice represented in the wildlife and the justice system created by people, one must mention that in the latter case, the key principles listed in-laws and regulations, as well as the assessments of particular cases of injustice, are carried out consciously and with the purpose of making the criminals recognize their mistakes. Nature, instead, dictates its own concept of “justice,” which is much more uncompromising than the one designed by the human race.

While Hobbes’s idea of justice is perfectly applicable to the environment of human society, it can hardly work in the realm of nature. Therefore, it can be assumed that Locke’s point is more feasible – at least, in the XXI century society. It should be noted, though, that, when replaced with the idea of equilibrium, the concept of justice seems applicable to the world of wilderness. Considerably more cruel and primitive than the elaborate justice system created by people, the equilibrium of the elements of nature can be seen as an equivalent of human justice. In that sense, Locke’s interpretation of justice as the law of nature that exists in all its domains is just as accurate as Hobbes’s more pragmatic point of view.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan. 1660. Web.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. 1773. Web.

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