Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Justice and Progress

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa and seems like a fine day to raise a question philosophers have been kicking around for a while. The relaunching of the country came with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings where many of those who committed heinous acts came clean about what they did and in return faced no official sanctions. It was deemed necessary to have an honest and as full as possible accounting of what what actually happened to cleanse the national spirit, so that it could go forward with a positive and more unified sense of itself and not have the lingering hatred and mistrust.

At the time, many argued that this was a miscarriage of justice or at least a deal where they traded tranquility for justice. Others argued that it was anew sense of justice. Philosophers talk of justice in two standard ways. Distributive justice concerns itself with fairness in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and power. Retributive justice is the notion of just deserts for one's actions.

Some tried to characterize what happened in South Africa as either an activity in retributive justice -- for their crimes again the culture and the majority, the formerly power lost the ability to frame the national narrative and construct the national mythology. To the victors go the spoils, but also the ability to shape the culture in their image and what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did was to make their version of the story impossible to maintain and therefore they paid their fine not only in power, but also in terms of the ability to shape the soul of the country, they became the outsiders, the oppressors, the villains.

Some argue that the notion of justice is too narrow with these two senses and that what we saw in South Africa's rebirth was a new and different type of justice. It is not one in which we punish the wicked by exacting some sort of revenge against them, but one in which those who are guilty are made to accept their guilt. It is the intrinsic act of honesty within the individual, the having to fully accept the picture of oneself as the person who acted intentionally and created the resulting effects, that brings the justice and not the externally imposed, eye for an eye, "take that, you scoundrel," doing unto the person. This is a third distinct notion of justice.

Yet others say that this does not amount to individual sanction and therefore no justice was done. Who is right?