The Reading Room

Justice and Truth

Montaigne wrote that “we owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it”. But why is justice so important? What is it about justice that Montaigne considers it among the most important things in a society? 
It is, I want to argue, because justice reflects our commitment to a more fundamental goal of humanity, that is, our commitment to know the truth. In fact, Montaigne laments in his essays that “the truth of these days is not that which really is, but what every man persuades another man to believe”, showing how important the truth is in his conception of the world.
Think about this scenario: two drivers are involved in a car crash. Both claim to be innocent. To decide who should pay for the repair costs, that is, to do justice, we need to know who is responsible for the accident, and for that we need to know how things actually happened. We can hear both versions of the story, but we know they are versions (that is what we call them); the odds are none of them presents the full picture. From those versions, to do justice, we would try to build a better, clearer picture of what really happened, trying to get as close as we can to our ideal, the truth.
In this minor accident driver D and C are involved. Both claim to be innocent. Now let us think about the problem with making D pay when in fact C is responsible (or vice versa). And let us assume for a second that both D and C are billionaires. They have so much money that spending on repairing two cars will not affect their budget at all.
Again, this is a minor accident, so no one was hurt. Furthermore, since they are billionaires, let us assume C and D already have people working for them ready to take care of this type of problems, so that there is not an extra cost in hiring and they do not have to lose their time in reaching an agreement; they can leave while their representatives solve it for them. 
Therefore, in terms of money, it is not relevant who pays, but still, if we make D pay when in fact C was responsible for the accident, we will consider that an injustice. Not that it is the type of injustice the government should prioritize, but it is an injustice. Why? Because when C lies saying that he is innocent, and as a result does not pay (regardless of how significant the amount is relative to his wealth), he is receiving a treatment that does not correspond to reality. We would usually say that C does not deserve to get away with it, or, conversely, that D does not deserve to pay. In other words, it is unjust because the agreement was not made according to the truth. It is our commitment to the truth that makes us feel uneasy.
Now let us think about all the injustices we have in mind when we talk about injustice: from unfair dismissals, racist comments and corruption to harassment, rape, homicides, and terrorism. When we think about someone who perpetrates any of these acts and gets away with it, we immediately label it as unjust because the treatment the perpetrator is receiving (as if nothing had happened) does not correspond to the truth (that this person actually did something, and something wrong).
Now, to be clear, I am not arguing that a murderer is equal to an otherwise respectable citizen who one day is tired, gets distracted at the roundabout and accidentally hits the car in front. And I am not saying they both should be treated the same. There are many differences among them. I am not even making a point about them, but rather about us, those who think about why justice matters, and pointing out a characteristic we dislike in both cases and makes us categorize both as injustices. We see the perpetrator, in both cases, as being unconnected to a concern with the truth. And truth matters.
In fact, it is at the center of our work as researchers. At the heart of the University as an institution, there is a commitment to understand the world and share that understanding with society, that is, a commitment to find, fight for and share the truth. The word justice comes from the Latin iustitia, which means “righteousness” and from iustus, which means “upright”. Is there any way to do what is right without being committed to the truth? So why justice? Because we are committed to the truth.