Arrow keys on computer keyboard

I was ripped off. The chap at the laptop shop owes me £40 for a deposit on a repair.

There’s no point in warning you not to go to that shop, as it won’t be re-opening. He’s in prison now. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.

It made me angry. But I wasn’t angry the way I used to be, back in the 1970s. In those days I was a student, then a curate, and every penny counted. A car was out of the question. My only way of getting around to do my job – and come to that my only way of getting away from it – was my bicycle. I had four bicycles stolen. The losses had a major effect each time. I was furious. If I could have got hold of the people who did it, I would have… well you get the idea. Adrenalin splashed around.

This time it was different. The loss of £40 doesn’t have a big impact on my life. If my pension was £40 a year more or £40 a year less, to be honest it wouldn’t be a big deal. My present inability to ride a bicycle makes a much bigger difference. Still, for a few weeks, while I was still expecting the repair to get done, I was bothered. He had undertaken to do it within a week, and as the second and third weeks went by I felt unjustly treated. He hadn’t done the job so I wanted my £40 back. It was rightfully mine. Grr.

Comparing this loss of the deposit with the earlier losses of the bicycles, there is a similarity and a difference. The similarity is that justice, as defined by British law, treats them the same. In both cases it was against the law to deprive me. This fed through to my emotions; in both cases I felt angry because I was powerless in the face of evil actions which succeeded in their aim.

The difference is in the practical effects. In the earlier cases the inability to use my bicycle stopped me doing other things as well. There was a big impact on my life. In the recent case there was no significant practical effect. It was easier to see the wisdom of Augustine’s view that, by being upset about the loss, I was being too attached to worldly goods. The physical loss was outside my control, but my feelings were not.

In law the two losses are unjust in the same way. Yet there is something wrong with any theory of justice which treats them equally. To treat them equally just encourages people who have more than they need to kick up an unnecessary fuss when they are deprived of some; for example, it encourages people to complain about the amount of tax they have to pay.

So what is lacking in a notion of justice which treats the two as equal? Is justice unjust? Can we pass judgement on our justice? Is there a better justice?

What matters in law is whether the rules have been broken. If they have, an act of injustice has been performed. Behind justice, then, lie the rules. If justice only means adherence to the rules, then the rules transcend justice; but I doubt whether many people would find this convincing. We expect the rules to be just rules: in other words there must be an account of justice that transcends the rules.

So what makes for just rules? In Plato’s Republic one of the arguments put forward is that justice means giving everyone their due. The argument was presented in the context of an unequal society: slaves are due certain things, citizens another, foreigners another again. This view, while challenged by Plato, remained popular in Europe throughout the Middle Ages: it was your status in society that determined what you ought to have and what counted as having too little or too much. This view has been ousted by modern individualism, which can go one of two ways. Because we are all equal individuals, justice means either that we are all due the same or that we are all, equally, free to negotiate in the open market, win or lose, and bequeath our gains and losses to our children. Hence the divergence between socialism and capitalism.

In all three cases – status, individual equality and individual negotiation – the theory of justice determines what kinds of rules would be just. How do we choose between the three? In practice societies decide. They usually decide in favour of whatever they have got. When they change they do so either because a system has collapsed or because – as at present – those in favour of change have gradually gained enough power to make it happen.

Societies do not stand outside all systems and reflect dispassionately on which system of justice is most just. This is why Plato was right: there must be some truth about justice that transcends all our institutions. Otherwise all our talk about justice is mere self-interest modified by the values we have learned from our society. Personally I do not think in terms of Plato’s ‘forms’. I think in terms of a creator God who makes it possible for us to cooperate in living happy and fulfilled lives. For this reason I think just rules would be rules to make this happen, and of the three systems mentioned above the second would come closest.

This leaves me wondering whether I have suffered any injustices at all. The present distribution of wealth is extremely unjust, and the law upholds it. When I complain that the rules have been broken to my disadvantage, they were unjust rules anyway. I do not know anything about the people who broke the rules by taking things from me: perhaps, in the light of God’s justice, I might have owed it to them anyway, for all I know.

But please don’t take this as an invitation to steal anything of mine. I’m not that generous.