I write this in response to the guest column “Was justice achieved in George Floyd case?,” May 18), which I very much enjoyed as it presented a position that forces people to think rather than to simply agree or disagree. There is a lot going on in this piece, not the least of which is his conclusion that although the verdict in the Chauvin case was correct, justice was nevertheless not served.
As the columnist, Tommy Druen, observes, “While I believe the correct verdict was pronounced, I am unable to say justice was served in the Chauvin trial. Clearly the wrong was that Floyd no longer walks this earth due to the actions of Chauvin. But there is no way to right that. In this case, justice was not and cannot be served. Wrestle with it as we may, you simply cannot unring a bell.”
Although some readers may interpret his conclusion as resigned, hopeless or even nihilistic, I see it differently.
Druen asks the central question “was justice really achieved?” He rightly argues that the concept of justice amounts to an individual’s own interpretation, invoking Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, pointing out that even their explanations are at variance. As no writings from Socrates have survived, we know his thoughts on justice only through what Plato tells us. Aristotle gives his views in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. Most of our concepts of justice stem from Aristotelian thought, specifically justice as fairness and most importantly that justice consists of proportional reciprocity.
How is proportional reciprocity achieved? Reciprocal fairness would require equality between that those that would have it, and an assumption that proportional punishments truly exist, when in reality neither is the case.
Druen correctly states “Justice does not equate to punishment or revenge.” From this perspective, only restoration to the Floyd family would represent fairness, but in cases of murder this is never obtainable. So we are left with retribution — essentially “punishment and revenge” — concluding that when murder is involved, proportional reciprocity can never be achieved.
Druen correctly draws a distinction between justice, law and morality, reasoning that “I do not believe justice comes from law — laws do not ensure justice. After all, there can be and often are laws that proclaim legality, yet not morality.” In this claim he introduces a critical new term, “morality,” being the extent to which an action is determined to be right or wrong. Morality defines fairness. Druen says “I believe justice is when measures are taken to restore to right what has been wronged.” But how is rightness or wrongness determined? If justice, seeking proportional reciprocity, implies fairness and fairness presupposes morality, then shouldn’t we really be asking “what is morality?”
At the meta-ethical level it can be argued that whatever most of us think morality might be in fact does not even exist. Morality has no mass, extension, form, number, charge or spin. Events happen in the world, their goodness or badness merely labels that we assign based upon our culture and traditions. For example, I see Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck and I hear Floyd’s desperate pleas, but I cannot physically see the “wrongness” of it. By extension, one could argue that if morality does not exist, neither can justice, as justice presupposes fairness, while fairness presupposes morality.
Ideas of right, wrong, just and fair are reasoned subjectively, and can only be determined by us individually. A fair punishment for Chauvin’s actions does not exist. Neither does proportional compensation for Floyd’s family. Chauvin’s actions robbed us of any possibility of fairness.
Reality is more complicated than Leviticus 24:19 — a death for a death serves only death, improving nothing. This is why Druen’s bell cannot be unrung. But perhaps its ringing can at least be constructive if it reminds us that what matters most is how we treat each other, because when it’s all said and done, each other is all we have.
Morality comes from inside each of us. We are what we do. Our choices determine our acts, and our acts become our morals. Chauvin’s act determined his morality, and 12 jurors understood that. We can only do what we can, and I respectfully disagree with Druen’s position that justice was not served.
Given the limited options and inadequate framework of fairness that Chauvin left us to work with, although justice may not have been achieved, it was in fact served.
Jeffrey Laird is a philosopher and retired cartographer. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in Frankfort since 1991. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org