How do we create a just society? 50,000 years or so at it and humanity still has a long way to go before figuring that out, though not for lack of trying. The four animated videos of “What Is Justice?”—a miniseries within BBC Radio 4 and the Open University’s larger project of animating the ideas of philosophers throughout history and explaining them in the voices of various famous narrators—tell us what John Rawls, Henry David Thoreau, and the Bible, among other sources, have to say on the subject of justice. Stephen Fry provides the voice this time as the videos illustrate the nature of these ideas, as well as their complications, before our eyes.
Imagine you had to create a just society yourself, but “you won’t know what kind of a person you’ll be in the society you design.” This thought experiment, first described by Rawls in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice as the “veil of ignorance,” supposedly encourages the creation of “a much fairer society than we now have. There would be extensive freedom and equality of opportunity. But there wouldn’t be extremes of high pay, unless it could be shown that the poorest in society directly benefited as a result.” An intriguing idea, but one easier articulated than agreed upon, let alone realized.
Much earlier in history, you find the simpler principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” an “ancient form of punishment known as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation.” Any reader of the Bible will have a strong sense of this idea’s importance in the ancient world, though we’d do well to remember that back then, it “was a way of encouraging a sense of proportion — not wiping out a whole community in retaliation for the killing of one man, for example.” While harsh punishment could, in theory, deter potential criminals, “severe legal violence can create martyrs and increase society’s problems.” The rule of law, naturally, has everything to do with the creation and maintenance of a just society, though not every law furthers the cause.
But you’ve no doubt heard of one that has: habeas corpus, the legal principle mandating that “no one, not even the president, monarch, or anyone else in power, can detain someone illegally.” Instead, “they need to bring the detainee in question before a court and allow that court to determine whether or not this person can legally be held.” Yet not every authority has consistently implemented or upheld habeas corpus or other justice-ensuring laws. At times like those, according to Thoreau, you must engage in civil disobedience: “follow your conscience and break the law on moral grounds rather than be a cog in an unjust system.” It’s a dirty job, creating a just society, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And though we may not all have given it as much thought as a Rawls or a Thoreau, we’ve all got a role to play in it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.