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A Primer on Justice II: Getting Confused with Plato

Getting Properly Confused

I’ve stated in another blog that being unsure, even confused, can be a result even of the experience of the grace of Jesus. I may be wrong, for perhaps I just find too much confidence in one’s beliefs unpleasant. It surely undermines dialogue and therefore also can reduce the chance of befriending those with whom one disagrees. It can also often be a kind of hidden laziness, in which one is unwilling to go through the difficulty of entertaining other positions.

But I’m not talking about dropping confidence for some cheap (false) humility that declares everything to be unknowable. That is merely the same old arrogance, but this time the laziness (in this case, of not assenting to anything) is on full display.

Nor am I talking about being filled with doubt to the point of agnosticism. In this case, I am not talking about belief in God at all, but rather about our understanding of the basic ethical concept of justice.

I’ve already suggested that our approach to justice is fraught with a bad kind of selfishness and emphasis on the retributive elements of justice. Rare is the one who speaks with the awe that, say, justice-as-shalom should inspire. If indeed justice is a state of wholeness and peace, then we should be in awe of it—not simply because it stands far above our approaches to life, but because justice-as-shalom seems to outstrip our understanding.

The Questions of the Republic

Probably the most famous piece ever written about justice is Plato’s Republic. It is an expansive dialogue (in ten books), talking about everything from personal virtue to the decay of good societies into tyrannies to reward and punishment in an afterlife. It remains a brilliant work, almost prophetic in places, from which we can glean much today. But perhaps most important are not really the conclusions to which the interlocutors come, but the way in which the various questions about justice arise. Before turning to Scripture, let’s explore this dialogue, and see how it might help us ask better questions about justice.

In Book I of the Republic, we are introduced to a number of interlocutors, the most important in that book are Socrates, Cephalus (an old, well-to-do man), Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. Excepting Socrates, the other speakers essentially disappear for the rest of the dialogue (Books II-X), being replaced by Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus.

The dialogue begins with Socrates and Glaucon ascending from Athens’ port city, Piraeus, back up to Athens. They are stopped by the various other interlocutors and forced playfully (but still forced) to stay down in Piraeus. They enter the house of Cephalus, who is busy preparing for a religious sacrifice. Socrates engages him in conversation, and from this the conversation about justice arises. Cephalus, upon being asked by Socrates to talk about justice, immediately leaves the conversation to attend to his sacrifice. Polemarchus picks up the argument, using Cephalus’ claim about justice—namely, that justice is truth-telling and paying back to each what is owed to each.

This is not a bad description of justice. Socrates ultimately undermines the second part, for it is clear that there are times when giving back to someone what one owes is improper. Say you borrowed a gun from Bob, and Bob, overcome with rage over a backstabbing friend, asks for his gun. It is his, you borrowed it, and it is owed him, but it does not seem to be just to give it to him at that time.

Polemarchus modifies his answer to mean that “what is owed” is deeper than merely giving people back their stuff: It means that I owe to my friends good things and to my enemies bad things (compare Matthew 5:43). Socrates undermines this claim by leading Polemarchus to agree that a virtue (justice) cannot cause true harm—for true harm is falling into vice. Therefore, justice cannot mean to cause harm to one’s enemies.

At this point, Thrasymachus angrily interrupts the discussion, criticizing Socrates for always asking questions, but never answering them. It is not too long before Thrasymachus offers his own definition of justice: It is that which benefits the stronger. That is, justice is merely a term for whatever is best for the most powerful person. Thrasymachus voices the cynical view that “justice” is merely a means of maintaining the status quo to keep the powerful in control. Consider that a rebellion that fails (e.g. the Civil War) is determined to be unjust, but a rebellion that succeeds (e.g. the Revolutionary War) is considered just.

Socrates undermines this claim too, though in a rather complex way, leaving Thrasymachus embarrassed and angry (for Socrates was apparently the more powerful between the two!).

While when we are at our best, we may reject the claims of Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, I think we struggle to rise out of these conceptions of justice. In many ways, we have not, in the 2400 or so  years since the Republic was written, moved past Book I. And, yes, I include us Christians among those who have mostly failed to move past Book I.

Understanding Justice and Justification: Owing and the Powerful

Consider the way we talk about salvation. The account, in a nutshell, goes something like this: There is a law set in place by God. The first humans (Adam and Eve) broke that law, and we, in concert with Adam and Eve, continue to break that law. God the Son took on human flesh to be the perfect sacrifice so as to appease God’s wrath against humanity for breaking His law, and so giving us the opportunity to be forgiven, if only we believe and are identified with Jesus.

I do not believe this account is false or erroneous. But the way many look at it is false or erroneous because justice is understood in Republic, Book I terms. Consider that if we understand justice as the benefit of the most powerful, then we see that God made up a law that benefits Him, and that He tyrannizes over us to serve Him, without concern whether it hurts or helps us, and then judges us as evil for failing to live as proper servants. While many Christians would nod their hands to this account, it is based on the very bad idea that “might makes right.” It suggests that God isn’t really fundamentally good, but must be considered good simply because no one is powerful enough to overthrow Him. This means, in turn, that power is the fundamental characteristic and the only one that makes one worthy of worship.

Of course, then we can add the Cephalus/Polemarchus view of justice to this: Justice is getting what is owed. Clearly, we are owed punishment. But Jesus gives to God what is owed Him in the sacrifice, so that God lets us off the hook.

This approach isn’t bad, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Is salvation merely getting out of hell? Or is it more than that—being included in Christ, in the overcoming of death, being made like Christ, so that we might “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? Surely, this is more than God getting what is owed and our not getting what we’re owed.[1]

Of course, perhaps I’ve made a mistake here. Perhaps, justice explains why we’re in trouble, while mercy explains why we’re not in trouble anymore, and, say, grace explains why we’re getting so much more.

But that means that justice is something we don’t really want…except against our enemies. It also means that God’s mercy is fundamentally at odds with His justice. Of course, we usually accept this idea, claiming that His mercy led to Jesus on the cross so as to appease His justice. Again, I think this is not really wrong, but simply does not go deep enough to understand justice.

A Focus on Recompense: Justice vs Mercy

Let me see if I can explain the problem a little more clearly. It might be easier if we look at a society, rather than God for a moment. Consider a man who has been found guilty of a capital crime—say he was a mass shooter, killing numerous people in a crowded mall. There is really no question that the man did it—it has been confirmed by eyewitnesses, recordings, and DNA evidence. The man writes a letter admitting that he had done wrong and feels bad about it. Upon hearing of the letter, the President decides to pardon him.

Has the President acted justly or mercifully? It seems clear that he has acted mercifully toward the man, but this mercy has reduced the level of justice in our society. For justice seems to relate to how the entire society functions, while mercy is for that single individual. Too much mercy and society will be overrun with crime. Too much justice, and we are all in prison.[2] And so in a society, one must balance mercy and justice. They are opposites and a well-functioning society will have to learn to balance them reasonably well.

God, if granting too much mercy, allows the unrepentant a place in the kingdom. If enacting too much justice, puts everyone in hell. Mercy seems directed toward universal eternal reward, while justice seems directed toward universal eternal punishment. Put another way, justice seems aimed toward appropriate recompense, while mercy is aimed toward cancelling negative recompense and/or increasing positive recompense. That is, His mercy and justice are pressing in opposite directions and must be balanced.[3]

That strikes me as a bad view of God’s justice and mercy. It is a helpful analogy, but seems to make God at odds with Himself—such internal division being a problem, I think, of sinful humans.

Recognizing internal division—having our motives battle one another—as a problem for limited, sinful creatures gives us some direction for understanding what kind of thing justice might be, or at least what it is not. For surely God is not divided in His thoughts or motives. If He were, He would not be unchanging and ever-faithful—for the result of a divided mind and warring motives is faithlessness, constant changing, and so forth.[4]

It seems to me that if justice and mercy are about recompense, then they must be opposed. And since I do not believe that God’s desires are so divided, I think it reasonable to believe that recompense is not really what true justice and mercy are about.

This does not mean that concerns over recompense have nothing to do with justice and mercy, but simply that the best we can establish regarding recompense will never achieve the heights of that true justice that is a description of God’s character.

Of course, we should not fall into despair and forgo the pursuit of justice and mercy as we presently understand these terms. But we absolutely should seek to understand as best we can the nature of God’s view of justice and, it would seem, try to bring our society’s view of justice better in line with His perfect justice.

But we cannot really determine what is involved in bringing our society’s justice closer to God’s justice, or whether it is possible or desirable to do so, until we begin to gain an understanding of what God’s justice looks like. That will be our aim in the following post.

[1] Some are probably thinking that I’m mixing up justification with sanctification. Yes, I am. After all, the Bible does it. It is merely our systematic attempts to divide things up into conceptual parts that leads to the division. We can talk about inhaling and exhaling as distinct acts, but in everyday life, they depend on one another and cannot be separated (without killing the person). Perhaps our obsession with justification (inhaling), our persistent analyzing, debating, evangelizing, analogizing, making relevant of salvation-as-justification has undermined our grasp and concern for sanctification (exhaling). We’re full of grace and yet still sucking in air as one suffocating, not realizing that it is the outward flow of “good works” (sanctification, a life directed by God glorifying purpose) that fills the body with new life.

[2] If we paid for every crime we committed—many of which we may not even know we’re committing—we’d all be in trouble—many of us simply for speeding.

[3] Obviously, they would have to be balanced by some other consideration. That is, God’s motivations would have to be driven fundamentally not by justice or mercy, but by some other thing(s). As noted in the footnote below, perhaps God’s glory is this other consideration that decides how to bring balance.

[4] Of course, this undivided mind of God regarding justice and mercy can, perhaps, be solved by appealing to a simple claim that God chooses a set group to receive mercy and the rest to experience the full weight of justice, and that this decision was from eternity (that is, God experiences no clash within Himself because He has never not decided how many will receive mercy, for—it would seem—this precise amount would result in the greatest glory for Himself). While this approach makes so that God is unchanging, faithful, etc., I am not entirely sure that it really deals with the warring nature of this understanding of justice and mercy. In any case, I will not follow this line of reasoning because I believe it is too easily accepting of a human idea of justice-as-appropriate-recompense and opposed to mercy-as-inappropriate-recompense (that is, even though God is not experiencing division within Himself, justice and mercy are still opposed within Him).

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

About Wm. Travis Coblentz

Travis Coblentz is the Executive Director and philosopher for Tactical Faith. Dr. Coblentz sits on the board and is a great asset in the Birmingham, AL area. He is also an Adjunct professor of philosophy at UAB.