Injustice directed towards an individual creates a specific psychological response. This response includes anger at the perpetrator, moral indignation, resentment, a sense of futility, a desire for revenge, disillusionment, and general malaise. It can shape a person’s entire life, and destroy his or her wellbeing permanently. The injustice can be of two kinds: retributive and distributive. The victim can be blamed and punished for something he or she has not done, or punished disproportionately, or not given due process; or the victim can be subject to unfair distributions of goods to which he or she is entitled, by natural right or contract. Though both types of injustice occasion the psychological response mentioned, the former is apt to occasion it more strongly and deeply. A person wrongly blamed for something, especially where the blamers show bias or negligence, or basic disregard for justice itself, is liable to induce a state of extreme agitation and outrage. In addition to the unjust treatment the victim has received, he or she must also deal with the sense of anger, outrage, resentment, and so on. Clearly, to treat someone unjustly is the very height of culpability, and anyone guilty of such injustice must be held accountable, especially if they have been placed in a position of authority and power over others. This is why we rightly deplore corruption in the judicial system or in quasi-legal tribunals, as well as negligence and plain stupidity. Hatred of injustice is both necessary and unavoidable.

We don’t feel the same way about other crimes against the person. If someone steals from you or strikes you or breaks a promise to you or lies to you, then you may well be upset and angry, but you don’t experience the same degree of psychological upheaval. The reaction to injustice is in a class of its own, sui generis, and not so easily shrugged off. The psychological impact is more profound and enduring. It creates a feeling of pointlessness, deep distrust, and personal isolation. This is particularly true if the injustice is repeated and systematic—if it is sustained over time in numerous unjust acts (racial discrimination, especially embodied in the law, is the obvious example). It is bad enough to blame and punish an innocent person once, but to keep on doing it is exponentially worse, especially when opportunities for just restitution arise. Then the victim is apt to feel that the system is stacked against him, that there is no escape from injustice, and that life is not worth living in such conditions. Suicide can then seem like the only possible escape from systemic injustice. This is a profoundly terrible thing to do to someone—very different from the normal run of crimes and misdeeds. While it is possible to forgive someone for stealing, lying, hitting, and so on, it is extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to forgive someone for blatant and repeated injustice. A sense of injustice destroys personal relations between people. You cannot remain friends with someone who has treated you unjustly, nor can you respect him or her thereafter.

I take it these points are obvious, if painful to contemplate. One of the less obvious consequences of injustice is that it becomes almost impossible to treat the person who has been unjust to you in a just manner. You feel that your unjust persecutor has sacrificed the right to just treatment from you. Here injustice differs from other crimes: you don’t feel that being lied to or stolen from or struck justifies doing the same thing to the person who has done these things to you. But you do feel that injustice justifies injustice in return: “Why should I be just with you when you were so unjust with me?” Is this just psychological weakness or is it something more profound—more conceptual? Is it just “hitting out” or does it reflect something about the nature of injustice? True, you may manage to set aside your (correct) sense of injustice and treat the perpetrator justly; but you feel that this requires a special, almost superhuman, effort—as if the other person does not deserve just treatment from you. Their right to justice from you has been undermined by their own manifest injustice towards you. That is why they must be judged by someone other than the person they have wronged—by an impartial judge: because the victim of the injustice simply cannot be expected to treat them justly. Everyone has the right to be treated justly by me, but not if they have treated me unjustly; then someone else must be brought in to serve the cause of justice (hence no vigilante justice). No one can be left at the mercy of those they have treated unjustly. But the victim of an act of theft, say, is not likely to steal from the thief, or to suppose that it is morally permissible to do so. Acts of injustice, however, are affronts to morality itself—a rejection of the demands of morality—and we feel that such actors deserve special condemnation. The corrupt judge is worse than the guilty criminal, because the judge is charged with, and accepts, the role of arbiter of justice. To imprison a person unjustly is the ultimate crime; and the person imprisoned is not expected to deal leniently, or even fairly, with his unjust judge. Injustice thus breeds injustice in the victim, even if he or she tries to “rise above” it.

But there is a further consequence that is even more disturbing: the tendency to generalize injustice. If a person has been made the victim of injustice, especially if it is repeated, systematic, and unrepentant, then he or she is apt to abandon justice as a general rule of conduct. The victim thinks: “I have been treated unjustly, so why should I treat others justly?” By contrast, the victim of theft does not think: “I have been stolen from, so why should I not steal from others?” It is not entirely clear why there should be this asymmetry, but it seems to exist and to be entrenched. It may have to do with the general sense that injustice is itself a rejection of morality, not merely a violation of it. We say of the grossly unjust agent that he or she “doesn’t know right from wrong”, but we don’t tend to say that about other miscreants. We take injustice to be a more profound moral failing—and rightly so. It brings morality more fully into question, so that an unjustly treated individual feels less constrained by it.

And here I think is where the special evil of injustice shows itself—the thing that sets it apart from other crimes and misdeeds: it creates chains of injustice. Suppose A is unjust to B and that B forms the psychological response I described; then B will be apt to be unjust to C, even when C has not been unjust to B. But then C has become the victim of injustice, and will in turn be likely to be unjust to D; and so on. One act of injustice (or a series of acts directed against a particular individual) will generate a chain of unjust acts, all mediated by the psychological response I described. It doesn’t work like this with stealing, lying, and so on. Injustice has the power to propagate itself through a population, like a contagious disease, hopping from one person to the next. Previously just people are thus turned into unjust people by being themselves treated unjustly—all because at the beginning of the chain an innocent person was treated unjustly. Injustice begets injustice, while theft does not beget theft. Of course, if the theft is felt to involve injustice, then theft will generate the same kind of chain; but not otherwise. If a rich man steals from you, you feel an injustice that does not apply to a poor thief—though you may still deplore the poor thief’s action. We do not hate the thief qua thief, as we hate the unjust agent—he or she we regard as morally bankrupt. Is there anything worse than a “hanging judge” who blatantly ignores evidence and follows discriminatory policies? What about a judge who knowingly sentences innocent people to death for kickbacks from the makers of electric chairs, or because she wants to look “tough” for political reasons? That is evil of a stunning magnitude.

Chains of injustice ramify and proliferate. They can spread through a whole population. They can be transmitted down the generations. And they may be triggered by a single isolated act of injustice. The injustice chain is particularly dangerous in the case of children. If the parents have been treated unjustly, they will be apt to treat their children unjustly; but children will experience the injustice in a sharp and undiluted form, without any possibility of rising above it. It will inform their entire worldview: the world will be seen as an inherently unjust place, with talk of justice meaningless and pointless. And so injustice gets passed down the generations. How many unjust acts in the world are explained by the existence of one of these chains? Here we should distinguish between the instigator of a chain and a link in a chain. If A is not himself a victim of any injustice, and yet acts unjustly, for reasons of self-interest or political expediency, say, then A is an instigator—he or she sets the chain in motion. Such a person is far more culpable than one who is a mere link in a chain instigated by someone else—the link merely inherits injustice without creating it ab initio. The link is a victim of injustice as well as a perpetrator of it, and he is the latter because (or partly because) of the former. The instigator, however, has brought a potentially endless chain of injustice into the world: not just the initial unjust act, but also all its ramifying consequences. The instigator has created the disease, not merely been one of its carriers.

The evil of injustice therefore far outweighs the evil of other kinds of immoral act, not just because of its intrinsic evil (though that is considerable), but also because of its tendency to grow and spread. You can see how it could infect an entire population, as well as succeeding generations. It deserves the name “Original Sin”: it is a sin that begets other sins. Those guilty of it, especially the instigators, deserve special condemnation, special contempt. Everyone should, of course, be conscious of the burdens of justice, and employ every means possible to ensure that justice is done. All unjust acts should be rectified fully and promptly. Restitution should be mandatory. There is simply no excuse for injustice, as there can be for other kinds of immoral act. Injustice should not be tolerated or excused, but rigorously punished (not only by law but also by social censure). The shame attaching to injustice should be unique and profound. No one should turn a blind eye to it. Ever.

What can be done to prevent chains of injustice from forming? Don’t instigate them, obviously: but what do we do if some people insist on being injustice instigators? It is all very well to exhort people not to make the same “mistakes” as those who have treated them unjustly; but that may not be very effective advice for someone who has been made bitter and cynical by the injustices done to them. You can’t expect people to be saints if they have been systematically abused. A person who has been sent to jail, knowingly and cynically, for a murder he did not commit is not likely to view the world kindly. Someone who has known nothing but injustice is unlikely to treat others justly. What is necessary is firm public support for justice, above all other values, and an intolerance of injustice—people should be rewarded and punished according to their capacity for justice. No one should be left in a position of judicial power that has acted unjustly. Also, it is necessary for justice to be seen to be done, not merely to be done: justice must be celebrated and recognized, spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. Injustice, for its part, should be despised and reviled for what it is. The word fair should be on everyone’s lips, and be the (or a) basic moral word. The nerve of justice should be forever taut.

Utilitarianism has a lot to answer for here: it shifts moral praise and blame from justice to consequences, so that an unjust individual can always plead that he or she was just trying to maximize the good—this being regarded as the ultimate aim of morality. An unjust act is thus excused by claiming that it will likely lead to greater happiness all round. This is an insidious way of thinking, almost bound to lead to corruption, and anyway ignores the ramifying effects of injustice—and hence is not defensible even on utilitarian grounds. Fairness is what matters, not the expectation of generalized happiness. If people feel that they will not be treated fairly, perhaps precisely because they have not been, then this will rot everything from the inside out. The psychological effects of injustice, and the resulting chains of injustice, are so damaging that injustice must never be allowed to stand. Injustice is the worst of moral failings.


Colin McGinn

5 replies
  1. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    Just last week, a major employer boasted of its support for ‘national mental health (awareness) day’ (10th October in UK).
    Its poster, emailed to every worker and posted throughout its office spaces, gives putatively well-meaning hints as to how its employees may actively and properly support the mental welfare of colleagues. The document contains a list of “triggers”, potential symptoms of mental ill-health which everyone is encouraged to be vigilant about and “step in” to remedy if witnessed (as if amateur intervention is invariably efficacious).
    One of these “triggers” is “being fixated with fair treatment and quick to use grievance procedures”.
    However, it seems to me that if we should be fixated on any guiding principle then it would be difficult to pick a fairer one than fairness itself. Moreover, to (re)describe a concern about the value of fairness as if it were a sick obsession or “fixation” is to attempt to skew (perhaps for understandable, pragmatic or even naïve reasons) the sine qua non of fairness, as it functions as a sort of moral beacon.

  2. Alan
    Alan says:

    Indeed. Grievances are psychological. Fairness isn’t. One can even instigate injustice in pursuit of ‘fairness’ if fairness itself isn’t firmly in the crosshairs of one’s intentionality.


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