Three Forms of Justice

Beginning ethics classes will teach three forms of justice: 1. Procedural, 2. Distributive, and 3. Substantive. Procedural justice happens when laws or operating rules are changed to correct the harm done to one party by another. For example, voting rights laws attempt to create a level playing field for voting so that everyone has an equal ability to vote. Distributive justice provides a means of correcting a wrong by distributing something of value to the injured party or parties. For example, a class action lawsuit by people living around Pacific Gas and Electric’s disposal ponds for boiler discharge, enabled them to collect monetary damages for brain damage done to children and adults from the hexavalent chromium polluting their wells and groundwater.

Reparations for the evils of slavery and the stain of racism today is another form of distributive justice. My feelings and understandings have changed on this topic over the years. Forty years ago, I used to ask, “Why should people today pay for the evil done by their great grandparents?” It is a question that continues to be posed today by people who would prefer to quash or dodge the whole problem. To ask this question, however, misses the more important point.

If you hand pick a collection of good-willed, good-hearted white people who have nothing but love, affection and good-will for all of humanity including people of color, that collection of people still benefits by the racist policies and systems in which we all live in the United States. Many white people either fail to understand or choose not to understand that white people in the United States benefit from racist laws, policies, and systems whether we (white people) want those benefits or not.

Jesus opposed many similar laws, policies, and systems of injustice in his time too. Systems that forced peasants off their land and gave the money to the wealthy. Systems that oppressed women and kept them from participating in society. Systems that treated children and women as property. Systems that created beggars out of widows and the disabled. Systems that made the blind and the deaf live in conditions not much better than livestock. Systems that chained the mentally ill to the wall.

Jesus challenged the religious elite of his day by asking, “How can you worship a God who desires justice and who wants people to live in harmony when you support all these systems and laws that do the opposite?” For calling out the religious leaders of the temple, Jesus was rewarded with a brutal execution. That’s the way the world treats those who challenge unjust means of gaining wealth. It still happens today. It was not the average Jewish peasant of first century Jerusalem that called for his execution, nor was it the Roman government. It was the elite leaders of the temple.

Substantive justice is the third form taught in ethics classes. It rarely occurs or, if it does, it is imperfect. Substantive justice is what Jesus told us that God desires for everyone. To live in harmony. To live as equals, equally loved by God, and equally forgiven for our mistakes. These ideas of equality, love, and forgiveness are dangerous things. They are diametrically opposite the human tendencies to live in fear of others, to circle the wagons, to built up wealth so that a person or a family can be isolated from others. But Jesus admonished us over forty times in the bible, “Do not fear.”

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