What is Justice?

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

What is justice?  Its definition has been debated for centuries.  The Framers of our country’s constitution made a point of talking about it; although admittedly their emphasis was on protecting individual liberties through the legal process and not necessarily on the moral or ethical virtue.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states …
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The pursuit of justice and a better world was the utopian reason I entered the profession of public service after college.  Perhaps, it influences your work as well.  I’ve focused much of my career on the study of the ethics of justice and fair outcomes.  My reasons may differ from others and they’ve evolved over time with life experience.  However, its full meaning and application still eludes me.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been told by wise people that “life is not fair.”  Yes, they’re right, we can can’t control all outcomes.  But, how do people in my position, people like us, seek justice and fairness in the things we do control in an unjust and unfair world?

Recently, I had the opportunity in Gettysburg and Atlanta to learn about different perspectives on leadership and justice.  Those who led in crisis and those who missed their opportunity.  Those who sought justice and honor in the face of death (on opposing sides that both truly felt they were right).

What is justice?  There’s no easy answer to this question.  Perhaps, it’s an expression of our common recognition of each other’s basic dignity, and an understanding that we live together in an inter-dependent community.  It’s an important virtue that we should all never let fall off our radar.

The monument to the 24th Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.  The granite monument stands just over 14 feet tall.  The 24th lost more killed and wounded than any Union regiment at Gettysburg.

The monument to the 24th Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. The granite monument stands just over 14 feet tall. The 24th lost more killed and wounded than any Union regiment at Gettysburg.