Words by Alexandra Taylor
It can be tracked by the genealogy of morals and yet we still face the age-old conundrum: who decides on the definition of Justice and how it should be implemented?
The breathless little light flickered, dancing shadows on the cold slate. Wallpaper peeling at the edges appeared to lurch and lunge at the iridescent glow; but it flitted beyond reach, toying with the jaded grey. She leaned in closer, the candle’s reflection wriggling restlessly under her intense scrutiny. The smallest lick of air seemed to catch it off-guard, at one moment calm the next frantic. Mesmerizing to watch. Justice is... The thought provoked a ruminant scowl; is it a flame? It wanes with the changing of the winds. It commands attention with tyrannical strength whilst caressing softly, loving tenderly. It is the heat of the moment and a burst, a flash, ash and cinders alight... Justice is a splintered kaleidoscope of ideas; so how can one settle on a single train of thought? It exists as several notions that stem from a myriad of feelings: it is at once ethnocentric and all embracing. It can be tracked by the genealogy of morals and yet we still face the age-old conundrum: who decides on the definition of Justice and how it should be implemented? It is an ethic so widely recognised, a concept so consistent in the edifices of society; it is anchored in the minds of all beholders and, when rooted, holds stoic within the raging sea. Aristotle claimed that Justice consists in what is lawful and fair, with fairness involving equitable distributions and the correction of what is inequitable. Yet how can you distribute fairness? If ‘goodness’ is just and ‘badness’ is unjust then is the synonym of Justice ‘moral’ and Injustice ‘evil’? But how do we know what decision is good? The white tip of the burning spark slid softly out of focus as the girl’s line of sight lifted to take in the glowing scene beyond. Buzzing with the hum of a thousand flickering wicks the dark room sang a sputtering tune. And amidst its choral service the flames, triggered by the movement of the girl’s robes, jaggedly darted in every direction to match the crackling of the beats. The girl had been taught to understand that each light represented a vision of Justice. The multitude of wax sticks waning never ceased and it was her job to keep the room alive,feeding the fading fires with the source of their companions. Recently, however, she’d been straining – taut to crack. Dark shades of sleep deprivation painted her face a mottled, technicolour sheen and her fingers stung, blistered and callused with newly formed burns. Across the room candles wilted and shrunk. Instead of helping the nearby gasping wisps the surrounding flames shied away in aversion. A complex relationship between communal and personal ethics was forming. These aren’t idle machinations: they are the workings of a world drifting away from universal Justice towards the individual and self-righteous. Justice is just is... But all rivers come from mountains reflected the girl. The origin of Justice must derive from a single source! An expectation, a promised reward, an unequivocal wish. This promise, this non-event, eternally heralds the individual towards reward or punishment: benevolence or resentment, indignation or concern, ardent optimism or extreme anxiety. Whilst the source remains singular, there is no one emotion that is the essence of Justice. But predilections that are hard-wired in our brains sway our moral judgement. Ponder the following thought experiment proposed by moral philosophers: Case 1: You are the conductor of a train that’s out of your control; it’s hurtling towards five men working on the track. As you speed towards this tragedy, you realise you can divert the train down a second track, which only has one man working on it. The choice is yours. What do you do? Case 2: Suppose you aren’t the train conductor but are standing on a cliff watching the train careen toward the five people. Next to you is a man whose sheer bulk could stop the oncoming disaster. If you shove him so that he falls on the track the train will kill him but in the process you’d save five lives. What do you do? Did your emotions heighten when presented the latter of two cases?
We rely on our biological dispositions to help us deal with the pressing demands of ethical decision-making
Neuropsychologist Joshua Greene discovered that the different scenarios stimulated opposing sections of the brain. Whilst case 1 inspires cool calculation, case 2 sharply prods awake one’s emotions...the thought of allowing someone to die, albeit to save the lives of five people, alters the response – even if the outcome is the same. We approach all scenarios with our moral compass firmly intact. We rely on our biological dispositions to help us deal with the pressing demands of ethical decision-making but how should we act and what kind of people should we strive to be? If more people acknowledge and aid the homeless, the migrants,the refugees, the invisible; if more people took a stand against sexism and domestic violence; if looted and stolen cultural property was restituted to source countries or private ownership without qualm; if more people altered their lifestyles for the restorative betterment of a severely damaged world; if racism was abolished at a political level; if the perpetrators of gross human rights violations such as genocide, terrorism and crimes against humanity were put beyond the reach of legal justice then Justice would no longer be just is. Our honed intuition reflects the integrities of our characters. For the broader issues of crime, equity, policy we turn to those who have authority, the power, to grant such promises. Yet our fairness, our honesty, depends on the traits we exhibit at home, at work, at school. Justice is... Justice is just is until we learn to accept responsibility and stand for what is intuitively right. The girl noticed a darkening in the far corner of the room: a flame about to go out. Panicked, she launched herself over the thousand candles that lay between her and the dying light. As she flew through the air the realisation that she wouldn’t make it in time clapped against her consciousness. But just as the light drew its last breath a neighbouring flame surged with newfound strength. A paroxysm of heat outpoured through the room. Shielding her eyes from the glare the girl ducked behind a raised arm as the swell rushed towards her. When she looked up there was no longer a darkness. The corner swelled happily, every wick ablaze in vigorous hope. Considering the glow that had only a moment before been about to go out the girl ventured cautiously that perhaps she ought to trust the fires, just a little. For surely no action can be virtuous, or morally good, unless some motive in human nature cradles the will to produce it... And the breathless little light flickered on, dancing shadows on the cold slate.
Alexandra Taylor is a 2019 Fellow of the International Specialised Skills Institute. She earned her Masters in cultural materials conservation from the University of Melbourne and her B.A./B.F.A (Hons) in English and Ancient History with a specialisation in Fine Arts honours at the University of Auckland. Alexandra has just completed a postgraduate certificate on Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art in Umbria, Italy.
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