• Chelsea Slack

One People, One Justice?

Upon approach of the United States Supreme Court building, patrons see the words “Equal Justice Under Law” emblazoned above the entrance. The Pledge of Allegiance touts “Liberty and justice for all.” The preamble of the United States Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…” etc., etc. Justice was a cornerstone of the American experiment and continues to be a pillar of the American government to this day. But this idea of justice isn’t a new one – it wasn’t a new one when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, inadvertently articulating what would become the mantra of American equality, that all men are created equal. Throughout The Republic, Plato champions the need for justice guided by a moral compass, concluding in Book X saying the just and unjust will reap what they’ve sown in the afterlife. But if the comeuppance for contemptible behavior comes not in life, but after, exactly how attainable is justice? If justice is, as Plato says, morally guided, how can the melting pot of American people gauge the quality of justice in our country, considering the plethora of cultures, mores, religions, and values that exist within our borders? What happens when society is so multifaceted that all parties cannot agree on what is just and fair, as is currently the case in the United States concerning the country’s racial unrest?

We grow up being taught the value of playing by the rules, coloring within the lines, and staying in bounds. But if there are different rules for different people, and right and wrong is interpreted differently for different groups, how can we judge the “good” behavior from the “bad” behavior? If there is only one just way and one right way, shouldn't it apply to everyone? Or, is this idea of one just, right way an absolutely impossible notion? In order for there to be a universal standard of conduct that could be applied across multiple groups and cultures, those groups would need to have a shared moral code. Furthermore, in order for the moral code to work, it would have to be applied fairly and consistently. In light of these stipulations, it seems clear that justice is a subjective, rather than objective, concept. These issues are further perpetuated by their ubiquity. It is impossible to turn on the television, scroll through Facebook, peruse Twitter, or read through any online news site without seeing something regarding the disparity between races. It is everywhere – and everyone has an opinion on it.

Let us address the issue of a shared moral code, which, according to Plato, must inform justice. Generally speaking, the United States does indeed have a standard code of conduct – our legal system. What’s more, the American system of law is largely based upon morality.[1] We know that it is immoral to kill someone, therefore the law reflects our moral judgment and murder is illegal. But, what happens when something that is moral is illegal, or something that is immoral is legal? For instance, Jim Crow laws were enacted in the post-Civil War South to separate the races. And along with Jim Crow came lynchings and disenfranchisement on a gargantuan scale, making the post-Antebellum system one of much more than sheer separation. African-Americans largely viewed this formalized system of white supremacy as unjust, and resistance to the system persisted from its inception.[2] In this case, something that was shrouded in controversy and viewed by many as immoral was, in fact, legal.

Fast-forward to 2016 and Jim Crow is long gone – or is it? Certainly, it is hard to deny that inequality still exists. According to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center, eighty-eight percent of African-Americans surveyed said there is “a lot or some discrimination against blacks.” Additionally, fifty-seven percent of whites surveyed said there is “at least some discrimination against blacks.”[3] And although the majority of both groups do agree that racial bias is still an issue, the discrepancy between the groups’ percentages is significant. There are apparently a lot of people out there who believe racial inequality is no longer an issue – or at least they’re reporting that. Plato actually thought that people are unequal by nature, but envisioned the unequal parties working together in harmony to create a just society. The very fact that inequality has been a topic of discussion for two millennia implies the topic’s impact and omnipresence.

But how could beliefs on inequality be so vastly different, and how does that tie in to a shared moral code, or lack thereof? As reported by Mary Ellen Goodman, who studied a sample of one hundred black and white children ages three to five, by age four, children were not only aware of race, but twenty-five percent were also conveying deep-seated racial beliefs and presumptions.[4] So, the question to be asked is where do children at that young of an age learn these things? It would be a stretch to assume all children who express preconceived racial notions are learning to do so at home – but the point is they are picking it up somewhere. Furthermore, not all biases are formed in childhood or adolescence. Nevertheless, this is where the moral code concerning race relations becomes skewed, and adhering to a shared moral code becomes problematic, since we are dealing with ideals that are deeply embedded, sometimes since childhood. Everyone does not prescribe to our “shared” moral code that all men are created equal, or at a minimum some find it hard to reconcile long-standing prejudices with the reality of modern times.

At the end of the day, the problem still remains of how we can measure justice. By its nature, it would seem that there can only be one justice, since we think of justice in terms of black and white, or right and wrong. Recently, the limits and very definition of justice in the United States has been called into question. Plato says justice is both individual and societal; furthermore, societal justice necessitates justice on the individual level. On the same token, in his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[5] So, can societal justice persist even when some individuals behave in a way that is unjust, or have lost their faith in justice all together? Plato’s concept of justice could be the rallying point.


[1] Kenworthey Bilz and Janice Nadler, “Chapter 3 Law, Psychology, and Morality,” Psychology of Learning and Motivation 2009.

[2] John B. Boles, ed., A Companion to the American South (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), chap. 20.

[3] “For African Americans, Discrimination Is Not Dead,” Pew Research Center, June 28, 2013, last modified May 5, 2013, accessed October 2, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/28/for-african-americans-discrimination-is-not-dead/.

[4] Mary Ellen Goodman, Race Awareness in Young Children (United States: Nabu Press, 2011).

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York, NY: New American Library, 1964).

#rhetorics #philosophy


© 2018 by Chelsea Slack