Nick Boles explodes. The British Government isn’t addressing the crises in housing and health, says this Conservative Member of Parliament. But, as the Guardian describes his mood, ‘the Worboys decision was the final straw’. The Parole Board has decided that John Warboys, a 60-year-old taxi driver jailed in 2009 for assaults on 12 women, should be released. The Government could have challenged the decision but has decided not to. Grr.

What would justice for Warboys be? This post leaves aside the personal details, like the likelihood of him reoffending, and asks about the nature of justice.

Success values

I begin with a brief history. Some cultures have preserved records from a past when they spent their time fighting each other. In that ‘heroic’ culture what is most valued is combat, winning and getting revenge. Collectively, the important thing is that we won. Individually, the heroes are the ones who succeed.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are good examples of heroic culture. Loyalty to one’s community and friends is valued even when they break the rules. Gods do the same: they protect their favourite humans even when they committ crimes. Us against them.

This kind of language still resonates with many people. Donald Trump uses it. Applied to criminals like Warboys, it generates an intense emotional desire to inflict pain on him. Revenge. However long he spends in prison, some people will want him there longer.

Conservative values

As societies settle down their values change. The individualist determined to win at all costs becomes a liability. In tracing the changes, Mesopotamia and Egypt provide texts that go back a long way.

At one stage, with little or no awareness of personal freedom, what was good and just was whatever happened. Later, awareness of freedom led to a distinction: what was good and just was what was normal.

In Egypt the word Maat meant both the process of justice and the goddess of justice. Maat provided order and regularity to the world and directed human society through the king. Because the king was Maat’s representative, whatever he decreed was justice. In principle, there could be no limit’s on the king’s power.

In Mesopotamia the dominant account of humanity was that the gods had created us to work for them by maintaining temples and offering sacrifices. The chief god had established the world order and appointed the king to maintain it by ruling his kingdom. A Sumerian proverb states:

The man who sows crops should sow crops; the man who harvests barley should harvest barley.

Here was a conservative account of justice. It was about preserving the community as it was. Applied to individuals, it meant giving each their due. These societies were very hierarchical; what was due to you depended on your status.

This idea of justice does not give us revenge. Instead it gives us retribution. What is due to the criminal is punishment. Retribution is driven not by anger against the evildoer but by a measured desire to redress the balance upset by crime. When the due punishment is completed the matter is at an end.

Here we get a clear structure. Justice is whatever the king says it is, and the king’s authority comes from the supreme god.

The trouble is, kings are actually humans. They have human weaknesses. They abuse their power.

Progressive values

Judea, when deprived of its king, revived an earlier tradition of a more democratic society. Philosophical justifications were placed at the very beginning of the Bible. The first chapter of Genesis stresses that the purpose of humanity’s creation was not to serve God but simply for humanity’s sake, as a blessing. The second chapter reinterprets the Mesopotamian concept of the king being the ‘image and likeness’ of the supreme god. Instead, humanity becomes the image and likeness of God.

Priests collected laws, restricting the king’s power and ensuring that the necessities of life were available to all. Prophets used them as a standard for judging the justice of the nation and its king. In this way the authority of the king was replaced by the authority of God’s laws.

Otherwise the authority structure remained the same: it is the supreme god, the designer of the world, who establishes what constitutes justice.

The content, however, is changed completely. Because the world has been created to bless everybody, establishing justice means making sure everybody receives the blessing. A just society is one where everybody’s needs are met. The Hebrew prophets railed unceasingly against kings who failed to meet them.

This account of justice is progressive rather than conservative. It seeks not to keep things the same, but to change things in a particular direction. From this perspective, justice for criminals like Warboys is no longer about what he deserves. Instead it is sucked into the question of how to establish a society where everybody receives the blessing for which God has created us.


Ancient Greek literature gives us more thorough analyses. In Plato’s Republic Socrates debates the meaning of justice with a variety of other people.

First Polemarchus presents the traditional view that justice is ‘to give every man his due’. Next, Thrasymachus argues that justice is defined by the powerful and thus expresses their interests. This account is familiar to us today, but is different from what I have described so far.

The difference is that the authority of the gods has been abandoned. In classical Greek thought, Homer’s account of the gods was still too influential. Gods behaved like the worst-behaved humans. The philosophers and tragic poets debated what to make of them. Plato provided the first convincing account of justice.

To do so, he by-passed the traditional gods. Through the mouth of Socrates, he argued that there are truths about justice that transcend both convention and the interests of the ruling classes. He located them in the ‘forms’.

What are these forms? They are sometimes pictured as blueprints: patterns for how things are designed to be. When it comes to ethical concepts like the nature of justice, they function as moral standards: they tell us that because the forms are what they are, true justice is what the forms tell us it is.

Secular justice

Plato had to by-pass Homer’s gods because they were too immoral to function as authorities on justice. Even more immoral was the God of Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the time of the religious wars. According to the dominant doctrines of Catholics and Protestants alike, the vast majority of humanity was destined for indescribably intense punishment after death, for eternity.

Once again it became necessary to establish principles of justice that owed nothing to the divine realm. Plato offered the best model. Since then ethicists have proposed a variety of secular principles for justice.

I don’t think any of these secular attempts work. When modern atheists appeal to Plato they treat him as though he was an atheist himself. He wasn’t. It is one thing to by-pass Homer’s gods, another to treat Plato’s forms as adequate moral authorities on their own. When Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Judeans talked about justice, they could explain both its content and its source of authority. In the case of Plato’s forms we can do neither. We cannot read them to see what justice tells us to do to Warboys. Even if we could, we are left wondering why we should obey them.

So in the absence of anything better, secular accounts of justice end up echoing earlier theories. A popular example of the conservative view – giving everyone their due according to their status in an unequal society – is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Nozick argued that justice is all about sticking to freely agreed contracts. All our giving and receiving, buying and selling, establishes what is due to us, provided that both parties agreed to it. The resulting inequalities, however severe, are not unjust.

The more progressive account of justice had a secular exponent in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that, if we were all behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, knowing that we were going to be thrust into the world as an individual human but not knowing which human we would be, we would vote for an egalitarian society rather than a hierarchical one.

Thrasymachus’ argument, also, is alive and well. From an atheist perspective it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘we create our own values’. ‘We’ always turn out to be the ruling classes, for the obvious reason that secularity refuses to recognise any moral authority above them. It would follow that what should happen to Warboys is whatever the ruling classes want to do to him.

On revenge, I fail. I don’t know of any ethicists who defend the idea of justice as pure revenge. It seems too barbaric to be defensible.

Justice: the options

Which takes us back to Nick Boles. When he expresses concern for housing and health, he – and anyone else who cares about these things – can interpret it in two ways. Progressives can point to Lloyd George and Attlee, determined to create a better society where everybody’s needs are met. Conservatives can point to the recent deterioration of provision, and argue against further change.

Wanting to keep John Warboys in prison is a different matter altogether. Unlike housing and health, it doesn’t affect millions of people. It does, however, attract their attention.

From a progressive perspective, his treatment should be judged on the basis of what is best for everyone concerned, and that will mean leaving it to local people who are best qualified to judge. The rest of us don’t need to get involved.

From a conservative perspective that wants to give everyone their due, his treatment should be judged according to the proper penalty for the crime. Again it should be left to those best qualified to judge – in this case, the penal system.

So why does Nick Boles, and countless others like him, feel so strongly that Warboys should be kept in prison? Of all the theories of justice I have described, the only one that can explain this fascination with his treatment is the desire for revenge. When it comes to hated crimals, we are back to our barbaric past. We still have within our guts a desire for revenge. It is one of the desires that we need to let go of.

The ancient Judeans were right. We have been designed to live at our best by caring for each other. We can help each other to live life as a blessing. True justice is about enabling it to happen.