Sunday, April 18, 2004

justice, legalism, and reductionism

David Bernstein says that Rantisi (the leader of Hamas assassinated by Israel last week) has been brought to justice. Mark Kleiman disagrees. He says
The point seems to me an elementary one. Since "To bring X to justice" means "To arrest and try X according to law," using the phrase "X was brought to justice" to describe a situation in which X was, in fact, shot down like a dog must be an error. It may be warfare, but it isn't justice.
What is going on here is that Bernstein is taking a realist approach to justice whereas Kleiman is taking a reductionist approach. To Bernstein, justice is a thing that exists as a real thing. To Kleiman, justice is a social construct, a convenient fiction, an illusion. Kleiman reduces justice to something else, formal legality.

If we allow the reductionists to get away with this, then we can't say that Castro commits an injustice when he sentences people to prison for disagreeing with him and we can't say that justice failed when a murderer is set free or an innocent man is convicted. As long as everything was legal and proper --according to Kleiman's view-- justice was done. Of course he is wrong. The purpose of legal systems is to bring about justice, not to define justice. A legal system can be objectively judged on how well it meets its goal of providing justice. Since a legal system can fail to be just, and a specific case in a just legal system can fail to produce justice, justice must exist as a separate thing from the legal system.

Reductionism vs. realism is a type of conflict that pops up all over science and philosophy. Because reduction is almost always motivated by aesthetic intuitions rather than genuine analysis it is almost always wrong. Reduction is attractive, but it doesn't stand up to examination.

One of the more famous examples of reductionism is the attempt in the early twentieth century (I almost wrote "early in this century") to reduce meaning to syntax. Syntax is the form of a sentence. For example in the sentence, "The dog barked" you have two syntactic elements, the subject, "the dog" and the predicate "barked". The subject has two parts, the article "the" and the noun "dog". You can parse a sentence (analyze its syntax) without knowing much about meaning. For example, "The nurg wrachited" has the same syntactic structure: the noun is "nurg" and the predicate is "wrachited". You don't have to know what a nurg is or how to wrachit in order to parse the sentence.

Some philosophers said that meaning doesn't really exist; there is only syntax. They argued that we are used to hearing the word "dog" when there is a dog involved, so we associated the word with the animal, but that there isn't any actual meaning for the word. A big problem with this account is explaining things like translation. If you translate "the dog barked" into Spanish you will get an entirely different sentence. What do these sentences have in common? If you want to only talk about syntax, you have to give a very complex relation between sentences in English and sentences in Spanish detailing what English sentences translate to what Spanish sentences. How do you come up with this relation and how do you know if it is right? Well, the relationship is right if it only translates English sentences into Spanish sentences that mean the same thing. In fact, you can't get rid of meaning, all you can do is try to find a very complex way to talk about it.

Most attempts at reductionism fail on similar grounds. Under examination, you find that the reduction contains some arbitrary element that can only be explained or justified by appealing to the original concept -- the concept that supposedly isn't real.
Mr. Kleiman says in the comments that he was merely making a statement about language usage and not about justice. There is some credibility to the claim that in common usage the phrase "bring to justice" refers to legal proceedings rather than to justice. There are many cases of this sort of usage in language. But there are two problems with his attempt to backpedal in this way. The first problem is caused by the last sentence in the paragraph I quoted above. The phrase "it isn't justice" clearly refers to justice, not to legal proceedings. The second problem with this response is that it leaves Mr. Kleiman the additional problem of explaining why he is making such a big deal over Mr. Bernstein's usage. If it's really only a matter of definition, why poke at it?

Benji, also in the comments, disputes my view that realism and reductionism are incompatible. Of course I just stated that in the post rather than arguing for it and I don't have time to argue it now but I stand by it. Maybe I can get to it in a future post.

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