A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

28. Chapter Twenty-Eight


1.         Understanding Injustice


Justice occurs when you do some good or bad – through intention or some other mental act, through speech or some other physical act – and you get back what you deserve in relation and in proportion to that deed. Injustice means that some good is not followed by commensurate good or is followed by undeserved bad; or that some bad is not followed by commensurate bad or is followed by undeserved good.

Thus, justice and injustice are concepts depending on our notions of what deeds are good or bad, and of what is deserved or undeserved in relation and in proportion to them. Our ‘perception’ of justice or injustice has an emotional effect of its own on us. Note first that since justice and injustice are essentially rational judgments, the word ‘perception’ here may be misleading. We indeed perceive the situation, but its evaluation as just or unjust of course depends on a conceptual process.

When we rightly or wrongly perceive justice to have occurred, we feel comforted and pleased. Inversely, when we rightly or wrongly perceive injustice to have occurred, we feel threatened and angered. (Note the acknowledgment that such judgments may occasionally be in error; there is no guarantee of correctness.)

Because perceptions of justice or injustice strongly affect us, it is important to understand these concepts. Such understanding has a calming effect on the mind, and even on the soul. Religious doctrines such as that of Divine justice (under the religions based on Abraham’s monotheism) or that of karma (under Hinduism and Buddhism) were certainly designed to pacify us in this regard. But before we consider[1] these doctrines, a number of philosophical reflections are worth making.

Justice and injustice are not concepts relating to a wholly mechanistic world. Under a universal system of determinism and/or spontaneity, nothing is either just or unjust, everything just ‘is’. Moreover, there being no conscious living being to feel effects or evaluate them, these concepts are irrelevant and inapplicable. In a world with only God – i.e. Someone omniscient, omnipotent and perfect through and through – there is automatic universal justice and no injustice at all.

The concepts of justice and injustice logically both come into play only in a world containing any number of living entities endowed with limited consciousness, volition and powers of valuation. That number could be only one, provided that single entity is not God, i.e. is a mere creature with limited powers (this could be assumed under a solipsist philosophy). But actually, our world seems to have many such entities, with some powers of cognition, freewill and valuation (there are apparently at least 6 billion humans who would fit this definition, not to mention other animals).

This insight – that the concepts of justice and injustice depend on there being some non-mechanistic and less than Divine entities in the world – is valid whether considered in the framework of atheism (as in modern materialism or in early Buddhism) or monotheism (as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It is all the more valid under polytheism (as in Hinduism, in some forms of Buddhism, and in other religions), since such religious form by definition involves numerous competing wills.

If for the sake of brevity we refer to the entities under consideration as entities with freewill (since this power presupposes consciousness and implies valuation), what we want to stress here is that some injustice is inevitable in a world with competing wills[2]. In a world without will at all, there is neither injustice nor justice. In a world with only God having will, there is only justice and no injustice. It is only in a world like ours that injustice occurs – and indeed, injustice is bound to occasionally occur in it.

Once this principle is comprehended, it is much easier to emotionally accept the existence of injustice. The existence of injustice in the world is not because the world is badly constructed or mismanaged – but is a logical inevitability given the existence of a multitude of competing entities with limited powers of awareness and will.

Granting God created the world and us in it, He could not have made it otherwise. To give us some powers of will, He has to abstain from exercising His full power of will (omnipotence). To have freewill is to be able to do good or bad – i.e. not to do the good one ought to do, on occasion; and even to do the bad one ought not do, on occasion. Even if some people were to always do only good, there is every likelihood that some people will occasionally do bad or not do good, or simply make mistakes.

This is equally true in a belief system devoid of God (which many people favor nowadays). In a mostly mechanistic world containing some entities with some powers of freewill, such entities are not likely to act always in a fully beneficial manner. Some people will sometimes inevitably, through wrong judgment or bad will, cause harm to themselves or to others, in a way that bears no rational relation and/or proportion to preceding deeds.

This “inevitability”, note well, is a statistical fact, not implying determinism (otherwise, we could not logically refer to such events as acts of will). However, the intent here is not to reduce all events in human life to luck. It is only to deny that there can be automatic universal justice in our world, and to acknowledge that some injustice must occur, by virtue of the complexity of that world. It is not a statement that all is unjust, but only a statement that justice and injustice both occur.

And indeed, that is how we see the world in common sense, as a mixture of both. It is precisely for this reason that we have notions of both justice and injustice. Given this as an empirical fact, two questions arise.

The first question is: even if injustice appears to occur in the short run – might not justice be restored later on in life or in an afterlife? Such an assumption is a premise of many religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is belief in a natural system of “karma” – through which every good or bad deed is automatically eventually (in this life or some later one(s)) compensated. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a similar faith in future reward or punishment, except that it is made dependent on the will of God, who may choose to mercifully withhold retribution.

In the latter case, God’s behavior towards us is conceived as dependent on our later behavior (regret, repentance, etc.), and on our prayers. There is also, to a lesser extent, in all these religions, a doctrine that one person may sometimes take on the suffering of others and so lighten their load somewhat. In this context, it is considered useful in some religions to direct prayers to saints[3].

On a more secular plane, the awareness that justice is not automatic and some injustice is inevitable gives rise to private and public efforts at redress. Individuals sometimes reward a good deed or avenge a wrong by someone else. Societies usually establish elaborate justice systems, to ensure some of the injustices that do occur are compensated in some way.

Note well: if we believed that natural justice and/or Divine justice ensures appropriate retribution for all good and bad deeds, there would be no point in human acts of justice or a societal system of justice. On the contrary, such interference on our part could create confusion. It is precisely because we understand that justice is, at least in part, a human moral responsibility that we elect parliamentarians to enact laws, and appoint judges and a police force to implement these laws.

This leads us to the second question: what to do about injustice? From a spiritual development point of view, it is of course essential to demand a maximum of justice from oneself (towards self and others). One should also help others obtain justice, whenever and to the extent possible. But to expect constant and full justice, or worse still to demand it, from others (towards self) is not very wise; it is to condemn oneself to unnecessary conflict and suffering.

One should as much as possible disregard the misdeeds of others towards oneself, and move on. To get entangled in concerns like revenge is a waste of valuable time, a distraction from more important spiritual pursuits. One should realize the “samsaric” nature of this world we are in: it is so made that one cannot hope for 100% justice within it. So, it is best to accept things as they are, and take things in stride, as far as possible. One can train oneself to be “above it all” – and become relatively immune.

Of course, in some cases it would be wrong and even suicidal to accept injustice. For instance, it would not be wise (for others’ sakes, if not one’s own) to allow a murderous dictatorship to pursue its course. On the other hand, often our vexations are due to envy or excessive desire. For instance, one may get upset at not getting as much salary as one’s colleagues at work. Follow the golden mean.

A word about the concept of “social justice” is appropriate here. This concept is based on the naturalist idea that all humans are born “equal”, and the context they are born into (genes, family, social milieu, wealth, etc.) is a matter of good or bad luck. This could be construed as a relatively materialist notion, which is less emphasized by people who believe in karma or in Divine management. But that does not belie it.

Often, it is true, people who demand social justice (meaning mainly economic equality) are simply envious and wish to obtain unearned benefits. On the other hand, it is true that “we are all in it (this world) together” and we can by judicious effort make it a world with maximum opportunity and minimum suffering for all. This is the real premise for social justice: it is ultimately good for everyone. Helping others does not impoverish the haves, but enriches them by improving the world surrounding them and inside themselves.


2.         Forgiveness


It is not always easy to forgive those who have caused us some tangible or assumed harm. Yet, forgiveness of some sort seems in ordinary circumstances wise, if one wants to avoid wasteful entanglements. So, it is worthwhile reflecting on this topic. Forgiving means abstaining from demanding reparation for damage sustained; or again, refraining from seeking revenge.

Forgiveness varies in kind, with regard to the victim’s attitude towards the offender:

  • One does not punish someone one believes culpable.
  • Or one ‘understands’ the culprit, considering him or her at some level or to some degree less guilty than he or she strictly appears to be.
  • Or one is willing to relinquish judgment, going so far as to let the matter drop and forget it altogether.

Forgiveness may take different forms:

  • Conditional pardon: this is not forgiving without first receiving at least a sincere apology, an acknowledgment of guilt and promise not to repeat the offense, so that one is not taken for a ‘sucker’ and ‘screwed’ again.
  • Unconditional pardon: this is graceful forgiving, not dependent on a prior sign of repentance from the offender, considering that such grace may eventually cause his or her conscience to realize the harm done and the debt owed.
  • Pragmatic pardon: disregarding the offense, moving on to other things. This may mean avoiding the offender thenceforth, or resuming interactions with him or her as if nothing happened. One may take such an attitude out of practical necessity; or so as not to remain blocked by hate, dropping the matter to be emotionally freed of it.

These are some aspects of forgiveness and common motives concerning it. Note that to forgive is not necessarily to forget. Even when one forgives, one may nevertheless vow not to forget, so as not to be victimized again. In such cases, one remains on guard against a proven danger, ready henceforth to defend oneself.

In this context, a reflection on the Christian statement “forgive them, for they know not what they do”[4] is in order. Such a motive for forgiveness may be considered self-contradictory, insofar as forgiveness presupposes some responsibility, which presupposes actions that were to some degree voluntary and conscious – if they were totally unconscious and involuntary, there is nothing to forgive, i.e. the concept of forgiveness is not applicable. One can still consistently say “don’t be angry, for they know not what they do”; for one might well be angry at a natural phenomenon, and seek to calm one’s anger, although one has no one to resent or forgive. Of course, it is also consistent to say: “forgive them, for they hardly know what they are doing”, implying a bit of self-awareness – but one must consider to what extent “they” have chosen to be so unconscious. But in any case, one should not forgive by fooling oneself into doing so.

Forgiveness is usually the wisest course, because anger and hatred are attachments, i.e. weaknesses. One should not let one’s enemy have this hold on one – i.e. weaken one and make one swerve away from serenity and nobility. It is bad enough that one has been wronged; it is preferable not to make matters worse for oneself by getting overly hung up on the episode. Let it pass, so far as possible. However, some crimes are unforgivable and it would be a crime to forgive them. Sometimes, one refuses to get involved in punishing guilt, out of laziness or selfishness. One then descends into advocacy of moral relativism or amorality, to justify one’s inaction. No, one must conscientiously fulfill one’s responsibilities, where applicable. Thus, be neither hotheaded nor indifferent, but find the right balance between mercy and justice.

Meditation both requires and produces forgiveness. One cannot advance far in meditation, if one is not willing to “let go” of unpleasant experiences. Also, the more one advances in meditation, the less are unpleasant experiences of any interest or importance. The mental influence of negative events diminishes, so that they appear less negative and so, when applicable, more easily forgiven.

General forgiveness. The Buddhists have a concept of “metta”, which emphasizes universal love and compassion – even towards one’s enemies, even towards people who have committed great crimes. This is of course a concept of total, immediate and unconditional forgiveness. The idea is that, through such magnanimous non-attachment to hatred and revenge, one becomes able to change people for the better and forge peace. It is argued that if one hangs on to resentment one only keeps the spiral of violence going.

I find it hard to subscribe to such a view, which in today’s morally confused world is serving more and more as a justification for passivity to injustice. It is the sort of upside-down view that places Nazis and Nazi-hunters – or Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense– on the same moral plane. The net result of this Buddhist idea is that victims are reproved for complaining or defending themselves, and their aggressors are tolerated and appeased no matter how heinous their crimes.

Permit me to doubt that such an attitude can lead to world peace, or social peace, or inner peace. It is, instead, a formula for suicide and utter anarchy; justice has to be enforced at some level, or injustice is bound to reign. By failing to resist crime, we weaken the innocent victims and make them more and more vulnerable, and we strengthen and encourage thugs. Justice must be swift and firm, to make clear to all potential criminals that there is no profit in their antisocial behavior, and thus to protect the innocent as much as possible.

As for the universal compassion enjoined by Buddhism, I wonder whether it is fair to describe it as a high-minded virtue. If we examine the motivation involved within the individual practitioner, who in meditation trains himself to forgive and love his enemy, or anyone he perceives as evil, we see that: in the hope of gaining personal spiritual elevation or liberation, he is willing to be indifferent to the suffering of the victims of criminals, or even to reach-out in a friendly manner to criminals. This is best described as a selfish cop-out or sell-out.

However, if we avoid extremes, ‘metta’ is certainly commendable. An almost general loving-kindness can be cultivated by reflecting on the fact that we are all in this difficult world (samsara) together. We are all poor sods who landed here all of a sudden, not knowing from where and not knowing till where and when. This is our common lot. Some of us may seemingly have a luckier fate, but all of us experience some difficulty. One should not be too judging. Perhaps if I was born and raised in the place of this other person, I would have come out worse than him or her.


3.         Actions and Reactions


The consequences of actions. All human actions have some sort of consequence; that is evident and not open to debate. However, discussions arise as to whether our actions always, necessarily have just consequences (for good or bad, as the case may be), or whether they may have unjust or non-just consequences (i.e. more or less than exactly what is deserved).

According to the “karma” theory of Buddhism (and indeed Hinduism), justice is ensured quite naturally. Actions automatically cause eventual symmetrical reactions, although the agent of the action (i.e. the doer of the deed) may have to reincarnate after death to receive the whiplash (i.e. for the “law of karma” to hold). But Buddhism has not clearly described this reincarnation process, nor provided convincing empirical evidence for it (some sort of demonstration of continuity between purported incarnations). Note that ultimately there is no mercy built into this conception, except perhaps for the mercy that individual humans[5] might choose to exercise.

In Judaism (and similar religions), justice is conditionally ensured by Divine intervention. God sees the misdeed and reacts to it as He wills, in strict justice or with mercy. This conception could either mean that God always takes complete charge of the connection (so that without Him human actions would have no necessary consequences), or more probably that He has instituted a natural action-reaction justice process that He may on occasion override with mercy. Here, then, the reactions to our actions are not (or not entirely) preprogrammed, but depend on ad hoc decision by God case by case. Obviously, such decisions involve some degree of willful choice by Him, else they would never mercifully derogate from justice.

In Judaism, as in Buddhism, the ethical account may be settled within the present life – or it may have to be dealt with in an afterlife. For it seems evident empirically that not all accounts are settled in the present life, else we would not have the impression that some evil people sometimes get away with evil and even enjoy more than they deserve and that some good people suffer unjustly or remain unrewarded for their good deeds. Both lines of thought, therefore, tend to agree on the existence of a ‘heaven’ and a ‘hell’ of some sort after the current life. These might be distinct places, or they might merely characterize specific conditions of rebirth within this same world.

Thirdly, of course, there is the philosophy of Naturalism, based on realistic assessment of empirically evident phenomena without assuming anything beyond them (i.e. a vague and unproved reincarnation, let alone Divine intervention). This hypothesis considers that good or bad deeds do sometimes impact on the universe and are absorbed by it, without respectively benefiting or harming their doer. This view is also logically credible, although least satisfying to our native sense of right and wrong. It is (I presume) the view held by most people in the West today.

I cannot pretend to logically prescribe one of these views to the exclusion of the others. They are all theories, all to some extent based on facts and all involving proposals that inductively go beyond these facts. Who can say for sure which one is objectively correct? I can however, echoing Pascal’s Wager, say that people who ignore the Judaic or Buddhist warning of eventual retribution if we do not do right and avoid wrong may conceivably eventually find themselves in dire straits. Comparatively, nothing much is risked by not opting for the Naturalistic thesis – the only ‘loss’ is not being able to do whatever one likes or not-do whatever one dislikes, i.e. a more limited range of possible action.

Based on this reasoning, it would seem wise to act as if justice exists (i.e. even though one cannot definitely prove it), and do good and avoid doing evil. Moreover, it would seem wise to hope and pray for God’s mercy (again, even if there are no guarantees one will get it). One might otherwise, to repeat, eventually have some unpleasant surprises.

The concept of karma. The Buddhist (and likewise Hindu) concept of karma is inconsistent and imperfect in various respects.

For a start, it presupposes a world that has existed eternally, so that every event in one’s life has a karmic precedent in previous lives in infinite regression. But this is contrary to modern ideas in astronomy and biology, according to which the material world has an undifferentiated beginning (quarks or earlier) and life has a start (on earth at least, some four billion years ago). The Buddhists may of course reply that such apparent beginning is a mere continuation of existences in previous material worlds or of previous purely spiritual existence(s).

Actions do indeed have consequences, but these are perhaps not always very ‘just’ (in all appearance). The hypothesis that actions always ultimately have just consequences involves an act of faith. It is an attempt to make the world more ‘reasonable’, an attempt that sometimes only produces painful disappointments and disillusions. We have to be honest and ready to accept that Nature is apparently sometimes just but not always so. This unpleasant observation might be mitigated through a karmic (or monotheistic) theory, but at the empirical level it is indubitable and best kept in mind.

Next, consider that logically there has to be a first crime (an aggression, or whatever), and an innocent victim of that first crime. For if we believe in free will, the crime is a gratuitous, ex nihilo, choice, and its victim is innocent. If we claim that the victim is on the receiving end because he (or she) did the same or a similar crime before (in this or in a previous lifetime) – we are effectively saying that he is not innocent, but deserves the victimization this time round. We should then congratulate the criminal, for committing an act of justice, punishing an evil person, closing the karmic circle (inevitably, according to the karmic premise). Thus, the karmic theory turns a victim into a criminal and the real criminal into an enforcer of justice!

Moreover, the real criminal cannot then be deserving of bad karma later on for his action (since it was de facto a ‘just’ act), whether he chose his action freely or was deterministically pushed to do it (by the force of universal karmic law). He is largely exculpated. At most, he could be faulted for his inappropriate motive. In that case, the infinite cycle of karma is interrupted; i.e. there is no reason to expect him to be in turn a victim later on. This is the inherent inconsistency in the eternal karma viewpoint – it logically eliminates itself. The concepts of victim/criminal are only relevant in a freewill-doctrine context. The concepts are stolen in other contexts.

In my view, there are truly innocent victims of crime, first-time events of crime, and criminals truly guilty of crime. To explain away crime by karmic/deterministic views is to effectively accuse without any evidence (i.e. ‘on principle’) the victim of being an ex-criminal (and so deprive him of his dignity as a victim) and to praise the criminal for effectively doing justice. The proposed explanation produces confusion: it reverses the roles of the protagonists. It is an ideological viewpoint and a patently unfair one.

We may suppose that the karma theory was introduced as an explanation, to console people shocked by the injustice of physical aggressions, and other such events in the world. It obviously has some ‘grain of truth’ in it: there is indeed some ‘karma’, in the sense that some human actions apparently have consequences that are satisfyingly just (for good or bad) in our eyes. The problem is that not all human acts manifestly have such appropriate consequences; some seemingly have inappropriate consequences, either neutral or contrary to ethical expectations/demands. Thus, the theory cannot be inductively proved by generalization, only at best by adduction.

We may also object to the universality of karmic explanation by pointing out that not all suffering is due to victimization by someone else. This means that we cannot lay the blame on a similar crime by the sufferer, as it suggests. I am referring here to accidents and natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, epidemics, famine and the like). Since in such cases there is (usually) no human action at root and indeed (again, usually) no human action could have prevented them, we cannot establish a causal connection and claim the untoward event happened because the victim deserved it (and even less that the victim can be inferred to have deserved it because the event happened!)

Karmic theory would have to claim equivalencies, i.e. work out some sort of conversion or exchange rates, between certain human acts and various accidents and natural disasters. Such intractable theoretical complications mean that karmic theory lacks technical precision (that is, it is not sufficiently fleshed-out, as required by epistemology) and is very hard to substantiate. Furthermore, we should not only look at bad natural events, but also at good ones – and how would we establish that someone Nature has well taken care of deserved it?


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 5, chapters 11-13.



[1]           Or reconsider them – for I have commented on this topic in many of my past works. Here, I seek to bring additional clarifications.

[2]           The word freewill involves a redundancy. An action that is not free would not be referred to as ‘will’ – but as a mechanistic ‘event’. Will is called free only to stress this obvious fact. Thus, will and freewill are synonyms.

[3]           No one in Judaism prays to living or dead people (e.g. Moses or some Rebbe). Likewise (to my knowledge) in Islam (they do not pray to Mohammed). But prayers to saintly people and to people presumed to be gods incarnate are common in other religions: Christians pray to Jesus or Mary, Buddhists pray to Buddhas or bodhisattvas, and Hindus even pray to their flesh and blood gurus.

[4]           As I recall, this was uttered by Jesus against the Jews or the Romans involved in his crucifixion, somewhere in the Christian Bible. This dramatic event was sadly used for centuries as a pretext to bash “the” Jews in general. That is to say, the “forgive them” statement was paradoxically interpreted as a call not to forgive!

[5]           Or their more enlightened counterparts, i.e. Buddhas, bodhisattvas or devas (“gods”).

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