At a recent town hall meeting on the topic of criminal justice, La Crosse Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez made a simple yet profound observation regarding the inmates of the newly expanded county jail.
“The people who are in jail,” she explained, “are your neighbors; they are the people who live and work among you.”
The observation is simple because it is obviously true; it is profound because it raises a question about the very nature of justice.
Most people think of justice as a system of laws and institutions designed to maintain the social contract. The guiding metaphor is balance, established by law and restored through punishment, symbolized by a blindfolded woman holding a scale.
But another way of thinking about justice is not as a system but as a virtue — a character trait embodied in people and communities.
Plato regarded justice as the greatest of the four cardinal virtues, because it incorporates the other three. To be just, he insisted, requires good judgment (wisdom), sacrifice (temperance) and a willingness to take risks (courage). It consists of living in right relationship with others.
One of the risks of thinking of justice in terms of a system of balance maintained by the state is that the goal is never fully achieved.
This naturally leads to resentment among those who are unable to achieve fair treatment under the laws.
An example is provided in “Michael Kohlhaas,” a novella by the 19th century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The story is about a man whose horses are illegally seized by a nobleman. Kohlhaas’s efforts to get his horses returned to him are met with indifference by government officials, so he resorts to violence, declaring himself an outcast, no longer bound by the laws of civil society.
“I call that man an outcast who is denied the protection of the laws!” Kohlhaas declares. “For I need this protection if my peaceful calling is to prosper ... and whoever denies me it thrusts me out among the beasts of the wilderness.”
Kohlhaas leads an armed revolution that accomplishes his original aim: His horses are restored to him. But, in the end, he is executed for crimes committed in the course of seeking justice.
A story illustrating the other way of thinking about justice is told in the Gospel of Luke. A lawyer, wanting to know the precise extent of his obligations under the Torah commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Instead of responding with a definition of “neighbor,” Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and then asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
By telling a story instead of giving a definition, Jesus turns the burden of defining justice back onto the lawyer. Loving one’s neighbor may be required by the law, but the law itself is properly understood only by those who are able to perceive the stranger as neighbor. The Samaritan, despite being an outcast, acts upon an understanding of right relationship that stands under, and therefore informs, the law.
Kohlhaas declared himself an outcast, a person without obligation under the law, because the law failed to protect his rights; the Samaritan, also an outcast, nevertheless took upon himself an obligation that the law did not specifically require.
Those who have broken society’s laws do not thereby cease being our neighbors. Nor can any of us cease being a neighbor to others because society has disappointed our legitimate expectations.
That is why it is important to acknowledge that the people who are inmates in the county jail are not outcasts but neighbors, an idea you will not find written in the Wisconsin statutes but may find written in the hearts of those who have acquired the virtue of justice.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.