“The moral arc of the universe,” opined Martin Luther King, Jr., “bends at the elbow of justice.” His words evoke a powerful image, reflective of an imperative that has shaped the interrelationships of humans throughout the course of history. Philosophers and statesmen from Plato, Aristotle, and Mahatma Gandhi to Washington, Jefferson, and Churchill have waxed poetic about the concept. Its impulse and aspired-to equality of application are foundational to many national and international constitutions and charters.
Symbols of justice, often in the form of Lady Justice (Justicia, Iusticia, or predecessor goddesses), adorn public spaces and courthouses around the world. The Lady stands regal, scale in hand in demonstration of a fair balancing of interests. She wields a double-edged sword, indicative of the equal enforcement of her rulings, often wearing a blindfold, representative of her impartiality or lack of prejudice.
Though much of the timeless discourse and symbolism relate to justice as a matter of state, to be meted out by government, it is inextricably linked to societal norms, dictated and administered by individuals and groups at the grassroots level as well. As Plato observed: “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” It would seem irrefutable, therefore, that justice is a pivotal moral construct upon which every aspect of society and its governance must hinge.
And yet, as with so many humanitarian aspirations, justice is hardly universal in its definition and application. What is it? For whom is it? By whom is it to be delivered? Is it simply a matter of constitutional, statutory, common or tribal law; produced and enforced by those who are not always clothed, as our dear Lady, in the raiment of due process and impartiality? Is it relative, situational, and subjective, as evidenced when people are detained outside of the protections of due process by reason of inopportune geographic migration; when subsistence farmers are left withering on the vine of transitional justice, awaiting court settlements in land grabbing disputes; when one social group retaliates in
eye-for-an-eye kind against another, for the oppression and ravage visited upon its people?
By what logic can we be expected to navigate according to the natural law of justice, then, if the needle of its moral compass fails to fix upon a single guiding principle? For those of us who toil in its worthy traces, we should ask: “Just how broad is the arc of our moral vision?” Are we blindered, as the plow horse, to that which lies beyond the periphery of our own perceptions, or are we able to envision the broader expanse between relative and universal justice, understanding that objective and effort must sometimes be transitory? Perhaps with de Montesquieu’s admonition in mind, we may be compelled to see past our own blind spots, striving to avoid imposition of a cruel tyranny, which too often is “perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”