• RL Johnson, J.D.

Law for Life: Justice is Truth in Action*

Updated: Aug 18, 2020


Man defines justice as the practice of giving to others what is their due or doing that which ought to be done. The business of acting rightly or giving others their due is left to the courts. In court, no truth can exist independent of a fact. Facts are bits of observable information. It is upon the relevant and admissible facts that the business of divining justice depends.

I used the term divining deliberately because ontologically, our notions of truth (i.e., facts and by implication, justice) are at best merely perspectival. For instance, if 360 people circled an elephant, each—if deemed competent—would attest to a slightly different view of the elephant. In this way, the fact-finder (i.e., the judge or the jury) does not get the full picture unless and until each of the 360 observers present his or her unique viewpoint. But, our eyes fail us, our minds project illusions, and our personal biases interfere. Alas, we are imperfect beings incapable of either pure objectivity or omniscience.

In epistemology, an object for-itself—or for the observer—refers to how a thing appears to us. By contrast, the same object in-itself denotes the object’s intrinsic existence apart from our perception of or our relation to the object.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was the first to carve out the ‘in-itself’ ‘for-itself’ epistemological distinction. According to Kant, if “we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them,” then we cannot have a priori knowledge about things whose existence and nature are entirely independent of the human mind, which Kant calls things in themselves (Bxviii). In Kant’s words: “[F]rom this deduction of our faculty of cognizing a priori [...] there emerges a very strange result [...], namely that with this faculty we can never get beyond the boundaries of possible experience, [...and] that such cognition reaches appearances only, leaving the thing in itself as something actual for itself but uncognized [sic] by us” (Bxix-xx). Guyer, P., and Wood, A., (eds.), 1998, Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thus, as imperfect beings, “we can never get beyond the boundaries of possible experience[.]” As such, we can neither fully apprehend an object in-itself nor for-itself. Nor can we operationalize the so-called truth with a capital T. That is, truth with a capital T is God’s Truth. Indeed, it is written:

“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the

bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do

not know the work of God who makes everything.”

Ecclesiastes 11:5 (ESV)

And,

“who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number. Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.” Job 9:10-11 (ESV)

Consider also the following:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV)

Nonetheless, the practice of law is all about the pursuit facts. Facts that must be applied to man-made rules. Thus, the law is necessarily imperfect because fact-finders (i.e., judges and juries) are completely dependent on things observed by people. People who—by the way—must be deemed competent to testify in court in the first place.

Man’s Law v. God’s Law

If all of the rules and codes of conduct either explicitly stated or extrapolated from the scriptures were placed alongside man’s laws, God’s laws would not even approach the length, complexity, confusion, and contradiction that man has wrought for himself. Incidentally, is this proof of the failure of humanism? I think so, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Understanding our justice system’s imperfections has not discouraged Congress, government agencies, and state and city governments from making up new rules aimed at meting out fairness and divining justice. That is, acting rightly or giving others their due. Indeed, our incessant compulsion to make new laws is, in part, the result of getting it wrong continually. On the other hand, rather than admit ignorance, we say the other guy either got the facts wrong or misapplied the law. The latter is seen, say, on review or appeal when it is discovered that some guy who just spent 20 years in prison based on obsolete science was wrongfully convicted. Thus, it is written that we should trust in the Lord with all our heart, and lean not on our own understanding. Proverbs 3:5 (ESV).

So, is God’s law better? Doctor Einstein said that "[t]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible[.]"[1] Einstein has also been made to say that “[t]here are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Looking at these statements together with statements like “God doesn’t play dice with the universe[,]” I think that it is fair to say that Einstein seemed to believe that precise mathematical laws govern the natural world.[2] Stated differently, by me, saying that God created the universe is no more absurd than saying that nobody created it.

Thus, once we concede that whoever or whatever set the laws into motion understood infinitely more about how it all works than we do, we appreciate the Proverb:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on

your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5 (ESV)

In the final analysis, even the secular humanist must concede that whether we act justly turns less on whether we properly applied a given set of facts to a statute or rule and more on how we treat each other. Jesus did not leave us with a comprehensive code of conduct that, properly understood, can be applied to our every errant deed. He did not need to. Jesus told all the we needed to know:

  1. Treat people the way you wish to be treated [Luke 6:31 (ESV) and Matthew 7:12 (ESV)]

  2. The vulnerable belong to the kingdom of God [Luke 18:16 (ESV); Matthew 19:14 (ESV); and, Mark 10:14 (ESV)]

  3. What we do to the vulnerable, we do to Christ [Matthew 25:40 (ESV)]

Thus, people of all vocations, especially lawyers must strive to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” Isaiah 1:17 (ESV).

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* The slogan, “Justice is Truth in Action” was coined by Joseph Joubert, D.C. (May 7, 1754 – May 4, 1824). Joubert was a Christian, French moralist, essayist, and one of the most profound and original French thinkers of all-time. Between 1768 and 1772 he was educated at Toulouse School of Christian Doctrine Fathers, or Doctrinaries (in Latin Congregatio Patrum Doctrinae Christianae), a religious institute of male consecrated Catholics. At the end of his studies, Joubert entered the order. He was justice of the peace in Montignac between 1790 and 1792 and Inspector General of education in 1808. Biography of Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), TheBiography [Accessed 1/7/18] <https://thebiography.us>

[1] From Physics and Reality (1936), in Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York: Bonanza, 1954), p292.

[2] For a thoroughgoing denial of Dr. Einstein’s theism, see for example, Natarajan, V. (July 2008). What Einstein meant when he said “God does not play dice ...” Retrieved from https://arxiv.org/pdf/1301.1656.pdf

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