Essential Questions: Vigilantes: What is Justice?

What is justice? seems an obvious essential question.

A google search on the word leads me to think that most people who feel prompted to talk about “justice” these days tend to mix the concept with ideological desires, replacing the good old word with an enlightened-sounding phrase: “social justice” or “reparative justice.”

Maybe it’s a measure of our success as a society that so many people now seem more concerned with “social justice” than with “justice.”

The PBS Newshour website includes a statement of the ”core values of American constitutional democracy.” This statement makes economic equality the most important part of both “justice” and “equality.”

JUSTICE: People should be treated fairly in the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society, the correction of wrongs and injuries, and in the gathering of information and making of decisions.

EQUALITY: All citizens have: political equality and are not denied these rights unless by due process of law; legal equality and should be treated as equals before the law; social equality so as there should be no class hierarchy sanctioned by law; economic equality which tends to strengthen political and social equality for extreme economic inequality tends to undermine all other forms of equality and should there fore be avoided.

The first thing the reader learns in looking for a definition of justice is that benefits should be distributed equally. This implies that some group should be in charge of distributing the benefits of society. Whatever else might be said about this idea, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t what the authors of the Constitution had in mind when they said that the Constitution’s purpose was to “establish justice.” They had in mind something more fundamental than redistributing money.

Something that I think comes in view when we consider what early Montanans were facing when they formed vigilance committees. Our history gives us a rich story with which to think about the core concepts of American constitutional government.

The circumstances along Grasshopper Creek and in Alder Gulch provide the chance for a vivid case study of the problems we encounter in trying to establish justice, as well as the relationships between justice and community. There was no functioning government in the area--no police, judges, or jails--but there were violent bullies and criminal gangs, who had their own theories about redistributing wealth.

The actions that unfolded there are worthy of serious examination, illustrating not only the trouble we face when we do not have institutions dedicated to enforcing justice, but also the trouble we face when those institutions are constained by such principles as a separation of powers, public trials, evaluation of evidence, and juries.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/02 at 01:01 PM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project

What are your plans this year?

What single thing do you hope to accomplish or make progress on this year?

This might be a tangible goal, like creating a finding aid for all the oral history tapes you’ve collected.

Or it might be a skill thing, like figuring out how to incorporate a blog into your teaching.

Or it might be a pedagogical thing, like figuring out how to engage younger or more troubled students.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 09/03 at 01:00 AM
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2004 Montana Heritage Project
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