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“I hate LD. You just talk about things you don’t understand and you never get anywhere.” My brother said this to me as we were driving home from our most recent tournament. I asked him exactly what he meant and we discussed the concept of justice. His point was that nobody really knows what justice is, but it also plays a crucial role in Lincoln-Douglas debate rounds.

This is a problem.

Many of us refer to, argue over, and try to find clarity in our rounds through justice. But, if challenged, do we have a firm understanding of what justice is? More, are we unbias in our interpretation of it?

Culture’s Effect on Justice

It is important to first understand the way our theory of justice can be influenced by our culture. As an American born after the tough on crime era in the 1980’s, my interpretation of what is “just” would be far more retributive focused than someone born in Norway or other more rehabilitation-oriented systems. I’ve been raised with the belief that criminals deserve punishment and that the sentences that they’re given should be uniform and consistent to the crime committed. My society teaches me that justice is a proportional punishment to the crime inflicted. But I should try to understand other societies and their interpretations of justice. The Economist put it this way, referring to Norway’s maximum twenty-one year sentence for a man who murdered seventy-seven people.

“The maximum sentence in Norway is twenty-one years, though this can be extended indefinitely in five year blocks as long as the prisoner is deemed a “high risk” for repeat offence. Is this enough for a monster like Mr Breivik? And even if he spends life in prison, doesn’t it offend our sense of justice to imagine a man responsible for such enormities whiling away his time jogging in the crisp air and putting on musicals in comfortable confinement? I say, yes, it does offend our sense of justice. It offends mine. But I am very wary of my own instinct for retribution, and of yours. The idea of balancing some cosmic scale, of restoring the moral order to equilibrium, is deeply appealing.”

So while some of us may have a difficult time understanding how a twenty-one year prison sentence for that kind of man would be considered “just,” that lack of understanding is caused by our own interpretations of what is justice. This is because justice can vary from culture to culture, creed to creed, age to age. Different people will justify different punishments for different crimes – depending on their moral code and theory.

Justice and Moral Theory

The first variable to justice is the moral theory. What is moral will determine what is just. Because of this, it’s important to understand that morality and justice run hand in hand. Some will say that anything that doesn’t violate the individual rights of other is moral. Others will take a more restricting view of what is moral. But whatever the moral theory, it will, ultimately, deeply affect how justice is viewed. When there is no moral theory, and no standard for what is moral, justice becomes unstable and impossible to balance. In a country like the United States, where lawmakers legislate morality based on the whims of the people, rather than holding fast to a moral standard, what is considered just will change with time. And this can be clearly seen in the United States even in the past century.

It’s clear that Lincoln Douglas debaters are left with in a dilemma. We are challenged to discuss theories within Criminal Justice Systems, when the theory of justice is widely misunderstood. Debaters need to approach each round understanding what interpretations of justice they’re defending. Clearly, affirmative debaters will be defending an approach to justice similar to that used in Norway. Conversely, negative debaters will often be defending a retributive form of justice, and therefore one similar to what’s used in the United States.

With this in mind, here are three classic interpretations of justice.

Definitions of Justice

Justice as Harmony

Justice as harmony is the theory of justice proposed by Plato in his Republic. Plato argues, through dialogue with Socrates, that justice must be applied to the person and to the City State. Interestingly, Plato uses the Greek word, “Dikaisyne” to refer to justice, which has deep ties to ideas of morality and righteousness. To Plato, justice is goodness. Plato said it this way, “that one man should practice one thing only and that the thing to which his nature was best adopted.” He believed that justice would leave the man to be free from interference from the City State.

Understand the deep love that Plato had for justice – he believed that justice is to the soul as health is to the body. He sees it as deeply important to fulfill. Plato argued that justice is the continuous harmony between the state and the citizen. It is an order, but more importantly, justice is a duty. Plato’s interpretation of justice is like that of the motion of planets. The harmony of their relationship is held together in their harmonious, consistent, and predictable motion.

Justice as Divine Command

Justice as Divine Command says that justice and all of morality exists because God commands it. As a Christian, this theory is appealing to me – but not without hesitation. This theory argues that what is considered unjust is only so because God commands it. After all, justice is deeply related to what is moral. And morality is determined by what God commands or requires.

This theory, of course, does not eradicate the fact that justice is relative to the culture, creed, or age. Specifically, justice as divine command will be influenced by the culture and creed of a nation. In a Christian nation, we can expect the Bible to be the highest moral theory. That nation’s “Divine Command” will be different than an Islamic nation, whose highest moral theory would of course not be the Bible, but the Quran. Furthermore, as time passes, even the most religious nations will see a change. Consider, for example, the United States two-hundred years ago, compared to now. The way the Bible is perceived is vastly different today than it was before.

Before Plato presented his interpretation of justice, he responded to many other interpretations of justice. To this specific theory he argued “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” If the former is true, justice is arbitrary. But if the latter is true, then justice becomes greater than God. Making God nothing more than a mediator between man and justice.

Natural Law

The third and final interpretation of justice that we’re examining, is John Locke’s theory of Natural Law. This interpretation revolves around Individual Rights. This is understandable, as Individual Rights are the expression of justice. When justice is achieved you will see individual rights protected. This also plays into what was covered earlier – the idea that justice and morality are closely related.

The theory of Natural Law states that man is due their rights and he who violates the rights of others believes that man does not deserve rights. A criminal, then, is somebody who has violated the individual rights of others. John Locke defined law as,

“What, then, is the law, or at least what should it be? What is its rational and moral function? Is it not precisely to maintain an exact balance among all rights, all freedoms, all forms of property?”

So Locke believed law existed to protect individual rights. Those who violate other’s individual rights have violated the law. Criminals deprive others of their individual rights. Therefore, society gives the criminal exactly what he believes he deserves – the deprivation of rights. But more, society gives the criminal what he believes all mankind deserves. In violating the law, he has violated someone’s individual rights. This means that he believes man does not deserve individual rights, and so society is giving him what he believes in.

Noah Amedick is a Coach in Training at Ethos Debate. He has competed in high-school speech and debate for 6 years, ranking at the national level multiple times. As a debater, he has placed first at six tournaments, and second at two others. His life outside of debate is vast: Noah is a music producer, barista, photographer, Eagle Scout, and piano teacher.

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