The first recorded law is claimed to be, “an eye for an eye”. It’s a profound statement. In five words it summarized the essence of justice.
Justice should be based on sound ethical judgement. Ethical matters are evaluated in terms of harm/care in fairness/reciprocity. Justice is typically considered post fact; as a means of reciprocity – correcting the scales to provide some equilibrium.
You may have heard the phrase, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. This phrase is wrong. “An eye for an eye” is a call for retribution but it does not seek to escalate a wrong with more wrong; rather it is a call for cool, rational evaluation of an unethical act – “a wrong” and a call for reciprocal justice.
When you are harmed, you (and your group) do not feel that harm rationally; and your retribution to the individual or group that harmed you would likely be “in-kind with interest”; in other words, you would likely go overboard. That person or group would likely respond “in-kind with interest” and this escalates the original act which creates a downward cycle of violence and instability.
Justice systems are designed to provide 3rd party, objective arbitration; to seek ethically sound justice rationally, “an eye for an eye”. It’s a tit-for-tat system that intends to right the wrong, to even out the scales of justice so no further retaliation is justified by the individual or group originally harmed; or the individual or group punished for the original offense.
In an ethical sense, “an eye for an eye” is ethically just. The tough part is setting up a system of justice that has ethically wise individuals who can rationally evaluate ethical acts; repeatable over time and cultures.
Aristotle is recorded as saying, “Anybody can become angry; that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.”
Aristotle’s keen observations on the human condition were also profound. Anger results from being wronged or a perception of being wronged. Being able to dispassionately evaluate a wrong is paradox; doable but it takes a lot of discipline and emotional intelligence.
When systems of Justice seem out of whack, it’s because they are modeled wrong (i.e. they are not based on a foundation of ethics), and because they are executed by people who lack proper ethical understanding. The first step to having an just society and system of justice is ethical understanding. The second step is to make ethics the foundation of the system of justice. Without ethical understanding; there can be no justice.