Sometimes, when you grow up, the stuff you discussed in Philosophy 101 actually seems to matter.
The nature of reality. It’s a big question. The more you think about it, the more questions you ask, the more you seem to get bogged down in abstractions bordering on absurdities.
There are the physical things, the tangible things. We see them, feel them, smell them, touch them. Our senses tell us they are real. We treat them as real things. They litter our living spaces and we stub our toes on them. That hurts, and we know they’re real.
Then there are these other things, but they seem more like ideas than real things. Our minds seem to perceive them, but our senses do not. Justice is one such thing. So is love. And so on.
In antiquity they had a mental framework for all this that is odd for us, who are emerging from an era of dogmatic empiricism. The mind was higher than the senses, the ancients thought; thus, they reasoned, what the mind perceives is more real than what is perceived by the senses alone. If my mind perceives love, or truth, those things are more real than the table I stubbed my toe on this morning.
There’s no such thing as justice? This is a strange claim, but an oft repeated one, coming from a blog that calls itself “Simple Justice”.
In the latest installment Scott Greenfield recounts one of those tragic cases we read about or hear about at the courthouse: a drunk driver, a terrible crash, several people dead… The drunk driver survives, is caught, prosecuted sentenced. In this case 51 years in the slammer for a 23 year old. Effectively a life sentence.
The victim’s family? They wanted the drunk driver dead, not imprisoned. But of course even that is not enough. The collision left three dead, one maimed. The drunk driver has only one life he can forfeit, even if that sentence was imposed. On the question of harm done, the scales don’t balance no matter what anyone does.
“Nothing will return the life of a lost child, no matter what caused the death. There is no comfort to be found. There is no justice.”
So says Scott.
The drunk driver’s attorney gives a good speech at sentencing. A really good speech.
Then the commenters weigh in, and there’s a remarkable exchange. “Mary”, wanting severe punishment for drunk drivers, tells of the long ago loss of her two children, aged 3-1/2 and 10 days, in a crash with a 17 year old drunk driver. What a horrible and sad story. There’s nothing like losing a child, especially a young one. It is emotionally excruciating even to imagine it; to actually experience it, well, there are no words. None that I can think of, anyway.
But them in response to Mary, “Mike” is more than a little harsh:
“I’ll wager that everyone reading this site has driven under the influence – which based on the “science” of drunk driving is just a couple of drinks.
Yet here we are…free birds screaming for death. That makes me wonder something.
When we drove after a couple of drinks but did not kill someone, were we evil?
You mourn the adults you’d never known. You could spend your hours serving others. There are living children and women and others who need comfort.
And yet all you do is focus on the dead.
What you will not admit and what people lack the courage to say is that your obsession over loss is petty, selfish, and ultimately centered on hate rather than love. It’s hateful.”
Harsh. But doesn’t Mike have a rather good point?
Hard cases make bad law, said Oliver Wendell Holmes. Not that I’m a Holmes fan. When it comes to denying that there’s any such thing as justice, Scott Greenfield is Holmes’ stepson, but there he goes with the hardest of the hard cases: Probation? 5 years? 51 years? Life – or death – plus cancer? None of it will bring back the dead. In one sense, none of it would be enough. In another sense, since the retribution is so pointless and without practical benefit to anyone, why even do it at all?
Since justice is often elusive, we learned over centuries to temper the sense of justice with mercy. There, but for the grace of God, go I, we sometimes say. We should say it more. That’s what the drunk driver’s attorney said. That’s what Mike said.
But Scott says something different. This all proves, he says, that there’s no such thing as justice. And that, frankly, is bullshit.
We cannot achieve perfect justice, true enough. But we cannot achieve perfect anything. That does not render what we do achieve meaningless, and it doesn’t make justice, or for that matter courage or love or truth disappear.
The ancients were right on that score: the realities perceived by the mind are every bit as real, and indeed more real, than the realities perceived by the senses. When we deny this in our haughty, shallow, flippant and passe 20th century baby boomer insouciance, we move our civilization towards a regression to a more primitive level than the Greeks had already achieved by the 5th century BC. Why would we do that? Why turn our backs on what we already know, and have known for centuries?
It’s revealing that in the end commenter Mike, for all his harshness, has something to offer both the victims and the perpetrators – love, not hate – and Scott ends up in a void: there is no justice, nothing will bring your children back. Death. Meaninglessness. Nothingness.
Scott could do a lot better and usually does in other contexts, but he’s wedded to a dated, largely affected, glib and mindlessly dogmatic baby boomer nihilism. It’s a habit of thought that serves no good purpose and he would be well rid of it. He doesn’t really believe it anyway.
Then he can join the 21st century where the rest of us live.