no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)

As a political philosopher, I’m trained to think about justice versus injustice. Both terms are controversial. It would be hard to find two people (even two who might share the label be labeled “social justice warriors”) who define “justice” exactly alike. We each put together our own recipes using various combinations and flavors of liberty, equality, happiness, solidarity, sustainability, rights, voice, agency, status, security, and other values that conflict in practice. Injustice is equally complicated, and it may not mean the mere absence or negation of justice. But although the polarity of justice/injustice does not generate consensus, it structures many of our debates.

There’s another polarity that plays an analogous role for people who have been strongly influenced by Gandhi or the Civil Rights Movement: for instance, people who work in Peace and Conflict Studies.  This is the polarity of violence versus peace.

Again, both terms are complicated. Just as it won’t really work to define “justice” as equality (Equality of what? For whom? Equality and nothing else?), so it doesn’t work to define violence as physical assault, or peace as the absence of violence. Like justice, peace can provide the framework for a discussion in which various definitions are proposed and defended.

The following schematic diagram depicts these polarities as two different axes. It implies that it’s conceptually possible to have an unjust situation of peace or a just case of violence. Consider, for example, the imprisonment of a former dictator. He is arrested at gunpoint and forced into a cell (violence) but that’s a manifestation of justice. This case belongs in the bottom-left quadrant. On the other hand, situations of political quiescence involve living in injustice without any conflict: the top-right.

Some would argue that (true) justice is (true) peace; and injustice equals violence. Then the schematic is wrong; there is just one continuum whose ends should be labeled “Peace/Justice” and “Violence/Injustice.”

Or it could be that peace is a component of justice but not the only component. Perhaps you can’t have perfect justice with violence, but you can have a violent situation that’s more just than a peaceful situation would be, if the former scores higher on liberty, equality, or some other value.

My general instinct is to resist smooshing values together, because then we fool ourselves into ignoring tradeoffs. For instance, I don’t like to load lots of values into the definition of “democracy.” I prefer to define it as a system for making binding decisions in a group that affords everyone roughly equal influence. Then we can ask whether democracy requires or implies other values, such as social equality or freedom of speech, or whether it conflicts with these values. The same logic would encourage distinguishing between peace and justice as two different goods.

I have not made up my mind on this question, but here’s a text with which to think about it. Dr. King visited Joan Baez and other anti-war protesters in prison in Santa Rita, CA, on Jan. 14, 1968. Addressing a crowd outside the prison, he said (in my transcription from the audio):

There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice. People ask me from time to time, ‘Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?’ They go on to say, ‘The two issues are not to be mixed.’ And my own answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.

The first sentence might mean that peace and justice are always causally connected: one is necessary for the other. But then it becomes clear that King’s struggle for Civil Rights is about “justice,” and his opposition to the war is about “peace,” and he wants to connect these two concerns because they are both “moral.” That implies that justice and peace are two distinct components of a larger category: what is moral or right. Finally, King defines the specific war in Vietnam as unjust, leaving open the possibility that a different war (e.g., the US Civil War?) might be just. In that case, peace in Vietnam is a necessity of justice but not because it will bring about peace; only because the war is an injustice.

At another level, of course, King insists on peace as a strategy for justice. Active nonviolence is an ethical and effective method in a wide range of circumstances, with a better record of success than violent insurrection has. But analytically, we could still distinguish between peaceful and just means and between peaceful and just ends and then ask when any of these four go together.

See also:  the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolencesocial justice should not be a cliché; and we are for social justice, but what is it?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • I find myself revisiting King’s (earlier) ‘A Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ when questions of peace, nonviolence and justice emerge. He addresses situations that elicit violence in the pursuit of justice as predictable when the themes of “negative peace” prevail. Namely when white moderates, in particular, provide mostly superficial lip service at best, while they more-so misjudge tension, which is part and parcel of change, as fuel for violence. And that applauding or aggrandizing faux “peace” or “order” that masks injustices to preserve them is as, or more, immoral than violence in the pursuit of justice. He warns that if whites continue to mischaracterize non-violent methods, and this persists as their reason or excuse for rejecting or avoiding active engagement in social justice efforts, then real violence is all but inevitable–

    “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” (…) Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

    (…) we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (…)

    (Y)ou assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? (…) We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.

    (…) And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare. So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? (…)

    I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.

    It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? (…) I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. (…) As T. S. Eliot has said: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.'”