The Four Levels of Justice in Society
Each has its sphere of concerns and its forms of redress.
There are four levels of justice in society: personal, civil, criminal, and societal. Each of those levels of justice has its concerns and its forms of redress. The concerns can greatly overlap, but the forms of redress are more constrained within each distinct level of justice. Let’s take each level in turn.
Personal justice refers to our casual interactions with one another in our day-to-day lives. The rules of conduct in those interactions are determined by a society’s ‘ethos’, its generalized idea of how people should treat one another. In some societies that ethos can be quite formal and explicit, but in others it is much ‘looser’.
In the U.S., where I live, it is generally left to the individual and a person’s own moral code to determine how that person’s interactions with other people should be governed. That obviously leaves great leeway and much room for people to feel perfectly justified in very different ways of behaving. When personal injustices are perceived within the level of personal justice redress is limited to a personal action of some kind. It might be lecturing, cursing, threatening, or actually effecting some form of material revenge.
When instances of perceived personal injustice rise to the level at which one of the parties gets the legal system involved, yet no law has been broken, we have reached the level of civil justice. There the concerns, procedures, and potential outcomes are formally specified by society. The instances involving the level of civil injustice can range from the rather trivial to the most serious forms of injustice. Civil actions can even be a substitute for instances in which a criminal wrong has been improperly adjudicated according to one or more people involved. Redress is usually in the form of restitution, in the form of monetary payment.
That brings us to the third level of justice, the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system involves enforcing the laws of society. Restitution can be part of the outcome, but usually redress is limited to punishment. Punishment is intended to serve as a deterrent for that person or others to break the law in the future and often to remove the wrongdoer from society for some period of time (as punishment and to protect society from that particular lawbreaker for that period of time, at least).
With the fourth level of justice we move from commonalities to my own take on these matters. Societal justice refers, I’m saying, to the just structure and functioning of the political process and the economy.
Every society has those two processes. In every society some rule or principle or ethic, etc. governs them. That is often referred to as the ‘organizing principle’ of society.
In Modern nation-states the organizing principle is usually embedded in an ideology. It can also be embedded in a theology. Another possibility is that the organizing principle is ‘rule by the most ruthless’. That is usually the case in a personal dictatorship, but it can also be the case in ostensibly ideological or even theological nations.
Even in the most egregiously ruthless nations whoever has been in charge has almost always insisted that ‘justice’ was the goal of governance. Conveniently, anyone who disagrees with whoever is in charge is thereby attacking ‘justice’.
I have no doubt that nations governed by the ideology of Liberalism have been to this point the most just nations. All have fallen short of the ideals of justice within Liberalism, but under the topic of ‘societal justice’ any other form of governance within any nation isn’t even worthy of discussion.
The ideals of justice in governance given in Liberalism are therefore the extant standard for societal justice. Coming up short of those ideals, presently or historically, defines societal injustice.
Redress could possibly include restitution, though it is more complicated as an issue of justice than some advocates for it seem to realize. What kind(s) of injustice, and to what degree, would trigger a form of restitution? What form? How much? Etc.
Above all, for societal injustice redress means adjusting those processes so as to come closer to those ideals for the present and future. For progress in governance to transpire that must be a constantly ongoing process.