Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Whose Justice

If it hasn't become obvious already, one of the areas that fascinates me is the extreme edge of what is generally considered a constant. That is, after all, how you figure out if absolutes are actually absolute, or just generalities in disguise.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a book I need to pick up a copy of: Tunnel in the Sky, a Heinlein novel that is in my opinion perhaps his best. In the novel, a crowded Earth is colonizing the galaxy using hyperspace gates which can open up a temporary portal between a terminal on earth and the target planet through which you can step, just like doorway or large gate. Whole wagon trains of settlers head out to colonize primitive planets and start new outposts of humanity. The main character is in a survival training class, the final exam of which is to be dropped off on an uninhabited (by humans) planet for a few days -- and survive. However, something goes wrong, and the return gate never opens. The students (a number of classes from different high schools and colleges were dropped at once) that have survived long enough to realize that they've been abandoned set up a self sufficient colony, marry, have children, etc.

What's interesting about the novel is that Heinlein tries to deal thoughtfully with the difficulties of a group of modern men and women used to the rule of law being forced to start from scratch. You can't call the police here, there are no pre-existing laws, and not everyone is intent upon playing nice. Nor is everyone in agreement on how to rule their colony. One student suggests they adopt the Virginia state constitution, another asks what exactly the point would be.

There are a whole host of moral issues that we're used to thinking of in the context of everyone belonging to a clearly acknowledged state. Just a few weeks ago we heard the reading in which Christ told the Pharisees to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". Christians are expected to follow just laws and pay their taxes, even when the ruler is as morally dubious as Roman rule in Palestine.

Yet, when does it become morally necessary to pay your taxes? In origin, taxes were essentially protection money extorted by a local strong man who might or might not protect you in time of danger, but would definitely burn down your cottage and steal your daughter if you didn't pay up when the time came. Do petty warlords count as Caesar? Are you obliged to obey their laws?

The American side of me wishes to say "No" that only government to which one consents is lawful. Yet the Jews of Jesus' time clearly did not "consent" live under Roman rule. And yet Jesus advised them to pay taxes and follow the law.

Similarly, private administration of justice of the "I know you did it, so I'm going to punish you myself" type is generally considered synonymous with revenge, and thus wrong. but if there is no other government out there, does private administration of justice become right? Are punishments that an individual or head of household might impose different from those a government might justly use?

Capital punishment springs most readily to mind. In Genesis, God orders that no one kill Cain for his crime, but banishes him. Indeed, many societies that lived in small isolated groups (Greek city states, the Norse, various Native American and African tribes, etc) seem to have used banishment as the ultimate formally imposed penalty, while outright killing might be more a matter of personal revenge. The formula seems to have been: "Go away and never come back. If you're seen here again, we will kill you."

Perhaps, in the same sense that John Paul II argued that capital punishment was no longer necessary for a developed nation with an adequate penal system, it might also be argued that in a society so undeveloped that banishing someone didn't simply mean foisting him on the next township over, capital punishment is also not morally necessary -- except, obviously, when banishment was broken, which might rightly be considered an act of aggression and dealt with accordingly.

Clearly, none of us are likely to be stranded on a primitive planet to start our own civilizations, but these questions also help us look at what exactly justice is.

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