Sophistical or Socratic

Judged by numinous power the word “justice” is close to “God” and so appeals to it have a  corresponding ability to influence behavior and inflame passions. The appellants, however, have fallen into two camps for as long as they have been making their cases: the Socratic and the Sophistical.

As a term chanted by protesters JUSTICE! rarely suggests the Socratic ideal. One telling point is that it has no relation to procedure or law. JUSTICE DENIED! Okay, but what exactly I should be outraged about? Was the prosecutor negligent? Was the defendant charged under an inappropriate statute? Is the law badly written? Oh, IT’S THE SYSTEM! What about it? Jury trials? Rules of evidence? Presumption of innocence?

“Blaming the system” charges it as sophistical in the sense we’re invoking now, that is, it is at bottom just an exercise of prejudice, irrational desire and raw power. But our protests against this can only call for one of two things: either we want to make the system more dispassionate, tied to law, dedicated to clearly defined procedure and, in general, more dedicated to a rational ideal or we want to replace their prejudices with ours

Describing this last sort of justice as sophistical is accurate but prejudicial. As experienced, this sort of justice stirs both your own blood and many others’. It has much more of a no-nonsense realist feel to it since it sees with angelic clarity that so-called justice systems are really just systems of prejudice and power. It appeals to rational desires for certitude and clarity in the face of the messy, dialectical, permissive and slow systems that aim at Socratic justice. After all, we know justice on the basis of seeing a news report, or even less! No need to hear both sides of a story and consider how they measure up against a pre-written text of law – our vision and our passion sing in perfect concert to a single, obvious conclusion!

Socratic and sophistical justice have substantial overlap: they agree that a perfect person would have a perfect unity of reason, spirit, and emotional responses to the world; they agree that the raw infliction of power upon (at least some) persons is always wrong; they agree that justice is the will of the rightly disposed and just person. But in the details they completely diverge – the Sophist thinks he has perfect unity of reason and emotion right now, before any training or painful, years-long rewiring of the brain; he divides the world up into those who deserve protection from raw power and those who don’t; and he never questions that his own heart is already perfectly aligned and well-disposed to decide on justice.

And, obviously, if I claimed that these sorts of justice divided persons neatly into two identifiable, stable, ideological groups it would just be more sophistry.


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