‘Cosmic’ or ‘absolute’ justice


We insist on safety for life, limb and property but tend to shackle the police as they try to do their job. Nevertheless our sense of justice is violated when the judicial system over-emphasizes the rights of criminals at the expense of law-abiding citizens. Further contradictions abound when the calls for absolute ‘cosmic’ justice become strident. We have to be content with the amelioration of injustices, assisting disadvantaged groups in helping themselves. A global solidarity is emerging but it has yet to find a suitable frame of reference.

Overweening justice

In parallel with the breakthrough of democracy, celestial assets have been heavily discounted. The expectations of the citizens are concentrated on worldly matters and injustices have thus become insufferable, on principle. The claims on redistribution of the earthly good have grown even faster than the economic resources. Thomas Sowell has in The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999) analyzed this frame of reference and its political consequences.

Cosmic justice insists on the modification of the rules of the game for the benefit of all underprivileged groups. Thus it can be deemed manifestly unfair, if the best wins or the most qualified advances. Statistical differences in any outcome are regarded as an unfailing sign of gross injustice which has to be rectified by positive discrimination. Destructive side-effects do not concern the stalwarts of cosmic justice. They rest assured of their moral superiority.

At regular intervals absolute justice has been visited upon our culture, and every time it has led to unprecedented violence and injustice. Nothing and nobody then escapes the vigilance of the legal machinery; all denunciations are plausible, no punishment too severe when it comes to obliterating sin or – most important of all – eliminating the depraved opponents of the glorious Millennium. But the argus-eyed guardians of orthodoxy soon lapse into corruption while the cynics ineluctably advance to the top.

Wrangling with injustice

Busybody know-alls are about to define away crime and guilt from this world. We are just at the beginning of this sea change but the logic seems irrefutable. All deviations from the social norms must have an underlying cause. The delinquent has been exposed to bad upbringing, bad company or bad genes. He (less often she) is not to be blamed for his transgressions. Every misdemeanor – serious crime in particular – is the result of unhappy circumstances and on a level with mental derangement. A sound human being does not commit crimes; a criminal is consequently always sick.

The exertions of jurists to codify definitive and formally binding rules for human interplay meet with meta physical impediments. Like ‘universal’ psychology, sociology, economics, politology or epistemology, absolute justice must for purely linguistic reasons remain an unattainable chimera. Only martial law can be just and straightforward. In civil societies the happy diversity of values entails unavoidable self-contradiction which necessarily precludes the exercise of universal and clear-cut justice.

Every country has its own historically conditioned legislation which varies a lot even between democracies. Laws are made to establish rights but often create new wrongs. Thus the citizens cannot be protected against all injustices. That would require a superhuman wisdom which is not obtainable. But we can try to guarantee the predictability of the legal system. Then each and everyone should know when he or she is breaking the law.

For the common man, justice is all about perfidy punished and honesty rewarded. When the administration of law is perceived as arbitrary or grossly unfair, a breach of the explicit rules becomes quite acceptable while the exploitation of legal loopholes is denounced as fraud.

Global justice

The demands for cosmic justice have transferred from the national to the global level where they are misconceived in the extreme. The systematic amelioration of injustices requires a strong political structure and mutual solidarity which we can only dream about.

Extensive redistribution would merely create a gigantic minus-sum game – monstrous waste and expanding corruption. Besides, such an aim stands in ironic contrast with the condemnation of western values, poured out by post-modern critics of our culture. Why should we expose innocent people, happily living in harmony with nature, to an unhealthy western life-style – hard work, stress and competitive pressure?

All the same, the prevailing differences in living standards are no longer taken for granted but are slowly transforming into glaring injustices. We are far from a working global order but we are feeling the pangs of an emerging global conscience.

The limits of justice

Society cannot and should not guarantee absolute justice for its citizens, no more than their happiness or success. But we can try to alleviate obvious injustices without creating undue restrictions on the opportunities for personal self-realization. As customary in a democracy it is a matter of a reasonable compromise, a social-psychological plus-sum game. Freedom in all its aspects is the precious joint heritage which should be optimized.

Good care for the sick is a self-evident aim in all democracies even if the affluent usually have access to better services. Even so, free treatment of self-inflicted ills may evoke feelings of unfairness. In high-tax countries, surcharges on alcohol and tobacco should cover additional health care costs, though. Besides, the early demise of the abusers will reduce retirement expenditures. In any case, we cannot leave any member of society to suffer and die, earlier misbehavior notwithstanding. Here too justice falls short of perfection.

The ancient Greeks stated that those who are loved by the gods die young – and thus avoid the unfair blows of fate. Sophocles (496–406 BC) reached ripe old age but may for that reason have let Oedipus exclaim “Not to be born, is past prizing”. Life is unjust from beginning to end, something we just have to accept.