Are laws justice?

Are laws justice?

This has been a classical topic for discourses. As a victim, seeing your aggressor criminalised and punished is, of no doubt, a moment of “justice is served”. But for cases we did not fall victim, how we should know if punishing a person is just? Should we simply place our trust on the laws and the prosecutors?

The Christian ideas of Justice

To understand the role of “laws” in the Western culture, we must take a look at the Christian theology, even just at a tip of it.



In the Christian ideas, God has many titles: God the Father, God the High and Exalted One, Theos, Kyrios, et cetera. One of the titles hints us a little bit of “Justice”. It is called “Iudex Iustus”, the “just judge”. In the Latin Bible, the “Biblia Sacra Vulgata” , in the book of Psalmi, at 7:12, it writes “Deus iudex iustus et fortis et patiens numquid irascitur per singulos dies”. The English translation of God’s title is in Psalm 7:11, “God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day”.



This “Iudex Iustus” have become quite a theme for “judgment”. In the hymn “Dies Irae”, the “Day of Wrath”, which is frequently used in requiem and funerals, at verse 11, “Juste Judex ultionis, Donum fac remissionis, Ante diem rationis.” Translated as “Righteous Judge, for sin’s pollution Grant Thy gift of absolution, Ere the day of retribution.”



What are the revelations on this? It is believed that God, is the only “just judge”. Humans, no matter how righteous one is, it is still impossible to know all and give a fair judgment.



The example of Jesus told in the Gospel of John, in chapters 7 to 8, where Jesus said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, is one of the supporting examples of how men are incapable of justly judging.[1]


The ideas behind the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”


This declaration in the heading, was written and passed in 1789, as a result of the initial ideas of the French Revolution. Some may argue of its authority as how the first French Revolution was a failure. But the essence of its ideas might have been preserved in the founding of modern Democracy and Rule of Laws.



The Articles V through X can be viewed at the Wikipedia’s article. Here, we quote some of the highlights:

  • The law has the right to forbid only actions harmful to society.
  • The law is the expression of the general will.
  • It must be the same for all, either that it protects, or that it punishes.
  • The law should establish only penalties that are strictly and evidently necessary…
  • No one may be disturbed for his opinions,… provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.



Yes. The law (of a country) is the expression of the general will, and it is used only to protect the society and the people, and that it is only needed to punish for the sake of public order.



What, then, is public order? Public order is established by the law. It literally means “the order of the people”, as “public” means, the people. With the essence of the Declaration, we could ponder that this public order refers to the protection of the “natural and imprescriptible rights of man” (from Article II, they are “liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression”) and the “free communication of thoughts and of opinions” (from Article XI).




The laws (of countries), as described, are the instruments of maintaining public order. They are not justice. Justice, on the other hand, only exists in theory, where God is the only person who can bring justice.



What, then, about those who did not get prosecuted by the laws, but were actually disrupting public order? What about those who fell without the laws, but had abused power so that someone’s liberty, property, safety and resistance to oppression became compromised? The law (of a country) is “the expression of the general will”. If the law is dictated by an overlord and the “general will” has no say about it, how are we going to even get close to a correct establishment to the law? Under an incorrect establishment, where the hand of justice: the law is crooked, are we still going to argue about justice at all?


[1] Editor: theologically speaking, it is arguable whether men are incapable of justly judging. Catholic theologians like St Thomas Aquinas may argue that men may judge justly and morally even without God, as men share the image of God and have natural laws in their mind. Reformed theologians disagree as they may argue that men cannot judge justly unless they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.