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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.3 (2004) 17-30



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Gandhi and Justice

Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great and saintly Mahatma of India, once made a characteristic but nonetheless provocative statement about justice: "That action alone is just," he wrote, "which does not harm either party to a dispute."1 There have been instances in Western jurisprudence in which that Gandhian—essentially Eastern—understanding of justice sometimes surfaces. Several decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr., in a groundswell of Gandhian activism,2 raised that Gandhian understanding of justice to a position of near-dominance in Western thought. It may be no coincidence that both King and Gandhi suffered the same fate for their troubles. Conventional understandings of justice are not easily undone.

The conventional understanding on which Western systems of justice seem to be based is difficult to pin down, tied in as it is with the conflicted complexities of pluralist politics and jurisprudence. But playwright Jean Anouilh may have captured the essence of the conventional, and still dominant, Western understanding in his play Becket . Anouilh inserted into the script—just prior to the climactic point of the drama—a point of calm before the storm, a brief [End Page 17] colloquy on the meaning of justice. Moments before Thomas Becket is murdered in the Cathedral at Canterbury, he and Brother John, the somewhat feisty and very human monk who served him as acolyte, discussed a premonition of the attack:

Monk: Will it be today?

Becket: ( Gravely ) I think so, my son. Are you afraid?

Monk: Oh, no. Not if we have time to fight. All I want is the chance to strike a few blows first; so I shan't have done nothing but receive them all my life. If I can kill one Norman first—just one, I don't want much—one for one, that will seem fair and right enough to me.

Becket: ( With a kindly smile ) Are you so very set on killing one?

Monk: One for one. After that I don't much care if I am just a grain of sand in the machine. Because I know that by putting more and more grains of sand in the machine, one day it will come grinding to a stop.

Becket: ( Gently ) And on that day, what then?

Monk: We'll set a fine, new, well-oiled machine in the place of the old one and this time we'll put the Normans into it instead.

(Without irony) That's what justice means, isn't it?

Becket: ( Smiles and does not answer ).3

It is a good measure of our discomfort with Western systems of justice that Becket merely smiles and does not answer Brother John. We might have expected Becket, who at that point in the play has developed into a wise and saintly man, to answer Brother John with some saintly wisdom: "No, Brother John. Justice does not mean that. Justice means healing, and reconciling, and showing mercy even though the Normans have shown none." But Becket only smiles. The discomforting truth is that justice does indeed mean what Brother John thinks it means. It is indeed just that a wrongdoer be punished. And that being so, striking back at the oppressor is Brother [End Page 18] John's entitlement and the oppressor's due. Hidden in Becket's wan smile at the end of the colloquy, one sees the image of Normans oppressing Saxons, then Saxons oppressing Normans, then Normans oppressing Saxons, et cetera ad nauseam—all in the name of justice. One might wish there were more to justice than the scale.

Alf Ross, the Scandinavian jurist and apologist for the logical positivist school of jurisprudence, once analyzed the concept of justice as understood by the major Western legal philosophers and jurisprudential schools and was able to discern the major Western components of the concept.4 Beyond the classic and somewhat question-begging Roman concept of giving everyone their due,5 Ross noted the uniform occurrence of an equality notion in the more content-oriented...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 17-30
Launched on MUSE
2004-07-02
Open Access
No
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