Law vs Justice, Power vs Authority

It’s Easter weekend, so I’m taking a break from the usual “how does this process work” focus of this blog to indulge in a more philosophical post. I’ll try to keep it from being too much of a sermon.

There are four concepts, or two pairs of concepts, that are foundational to governments of every kind. In each of these pairs, we often confuse or conflate these concepts. So let’s pick law apart from justice, and power apart from authority.

Law vs Justice

We often conflate law and justice: we even call our system of law enforcement the “justice system”. But while laws are rules that we make to help maintain order and govern our lives with a helpful framework, justice is much deeper and harder to define. It includes concepts of fairness, of someone deserving what they get; but also the concept of restoring what has been taken or lost, reconciliation between people, and harmony in a group or society. Laws are supposed to uphold justice, but that isn’t always the case.

Concepts like “deserve” carry a lot of baggage that needs to be unpacked: how do we decide what someone deserves? Who gets to decide, and are they impartial? Does the answer shift over time? I remember when I was a kid, hearing people talk about bringing back the death penalty so that certain people would “get what they deserve.” Thankfully that view isn’t as common today, and our society maintains the view that human beings do not deserve to die.

Easter is a high holy day in Christianity, and while celebrations are mixed with spring festivals about bunnies and eggs, and while on Easter Sunday the emphasis is on resurrection, the core of the story is about a man who was executed by the Roman Empire despite having broken no Roman laws. He had arguably broken many religious laws, which was why religious authorities condemned him; if the Romans were not an occupying power in the land, it’s possible that the religious authorities would have had the power to execute him themselves, but instead they had to appeal to the Roman governor to have it done. So was this execution just?

Some would say it was unjust because he hadn’t broken any Roman laws, but was executed by the Roman authorities. I would argue that’s a jurisdictional issue, rather than a matter of justice, because he had broken religious laws. Whose law do you have to break in order for punishment to be just? There were a few religious factions in play, each with their own set of rules, none of which were identical to the Law of Moses on which they were all based; did violating the rules of the Pharisees warrant death? To them it did, but the Sadducees had different rules, and the Roman governor said “I find no fault in him.” Is justice a matter of jurisdiction?

Meme of Jesus calling out the hypocrisy of the religious authorities, who say "That is not very Christian of you, Jesus!"

No. The jurisdiction whose laws are enforced isn’t a matter of justice, because it is not necessarily unjust to break a law. While laws (at least in theory) are there to uphold justice, they can miss the mark. On just about every page of the gospels, Jesus makes this point to the religious authorities, and they’re furious about it. When he broke a religious law by picking grain on the Sabbath day of rest (technically “work”, according to the Pharisees), he said “the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” That’s true of all laws: laws are supposed to serve us, not the other way around. What would be more unjust: to work on the day of rest, or to have human beings go hungry because of nothing but a law?

It used to be legal to own slaves. It used to be legal to jail and torture people based on their sexuality. It used to be illegal to help a slave escape.

Alan Turing broke Nazi codes during World War II, turning the tide of the war. His contributions to the field of computing are absolutely astounding. We owe him so much. But despite all of this, he was jailed for homosexuality, chemically castrated, and ultimately committed suicide. Photo taken from a retroactive obituary in the New York Times.

It’s still sometimes legal to manufacture products in Canada that are illegal to use in Canada. For example, Canada continued to export asbestos to other countries until 2018 even though asbestos products were banned in Canada in 1989 because they cause cancer. Canadian manufacturers make weapons for export, often to countries whose use of those weapons are condemned for massive human rights abuses. Is it just to export death-dealing products we ban for ourselves?

Two approaches to the distinction between law and justice are both helpful and inspiring: conscientious objectors are people who refuse to be drafted to wars they consider unjust, choosing to endure prison or forced labour camps rather than participate in injustice; and civil disobedience is the practice of deliberately and peacefully breaking a law in order to draw attention to a larger injustice, such as Gandhi breaking British laws in India to draw attention to the injustice of colonialism, or Black activists breaking unjust segregation laws in the US or South Africa. Sometimes, justice actually requires us to break the law – or better yet, to write a new one. Laws can change, and often the most unjust laws are the ones that haven’t been updated in a long time.

Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament and Leader of the Green Party of Canada, was arrested for an act of civil disobedience in 2018. Her crime was protesting the construction of a pipeline; she willingly broke the law to highlight that a) laws prohibiting protest are unjust, and more importantly, b) that building an oil pipeline to facilitate exporting oil and gas during a climate crisis fuelled by that same oil and gas is unjust. She willingly accepted her arrest, and walked arm in arm with the arresting officers. Photo from the Times Colonist.

Power vs Authority

The concepts of power and authority can be even more difficult to pick apart; while law refers to a specific rule you can look up, power and authority are both conceptual, and used interchangeably most of the time. But there is a very important difference.

In the previous section I said “it’s possible that the religious authorities would have had the power to execute him themselves.” Authority has to do with having the right to do something; power has to do with having the ability to do it. But the power often comes from having the authority. The “religious authorities” did not have the same level of authority as the Roman governor; he did not authorize them to execute people themselves. They were authoritative in their own spheres, but each of those spheres came with different powers.

One way of thinking of the distinction is that authority is something that is given to you by others. A scholar is considered authoritative in their field because their knowledge is recognized by their peers; a municipal council is authoritative in a town because their position is recognized by their residents, the county, and the province. Authority is given, and it is a matter of trust and respect.

Power, on the other hand, is something that you exercise or express. A bully exercises physical power over another person; the state can exercise legal power over a person, enacting it through the physical power of the police where necessary. Power is what you can do without requiring permission, while authority is the permission that people give you to enact certain powers.

Power and authority tend to come together. The government only has the power to compel us to pay taxes or obey laws because they have the authority we invest in them through our democratic processes: we vote for them to maintain a government with certain rules, and in so doing we authorize them to enforce those rules. In the past, this authority was considered to be granted by God to kings and queens; now the authority comes from people to their elected leaders.

But power and authority often have an inverse relationship: the more someone uses their power, the less authority they have. We are happy to grant authority and the powers that come with it to leaders who will use them justly, but the more they use power to compel us to obey, the less authority we’re willing to grant them. So in a way, the authority with the most power is the one who doesn’t use it.

On the flipside, power is not just used to compel obedience. It is also used to do great and good things, for the benefit of people who have no power of their own. In this case, the use of power can actually grant much greater authority; and the failure to use the power that we have can erode our authority. This is as true of a society as it is of a leader. If we have the power to do good, but do not do it, we’re just as unjust as those who break a law.

Spider-man meme of Uncle Ben saying "with great power comes great responsibility."

Bringing It Together

And now we’re back to law and justice. How do these four concepts come together?

  • Authority is based in trust and respect; justice inspires trust and respect. Where there is no trust and respect, obedience or cooperation must be compelled through law and its enforcement (i.e., power).
  • The just use of power (the power to do good) also inspires trust and respect. Unjust use of power erodes authority, but so does the failure to use power when it is needed for just purposes.
  • Just laws are easy to obey: we respect a just law, and trust it to be enforced appropriately. Unjust laws undermine the authority of institutions just by existing, and must be changed. Someone can earn incredible (moral) authority by breaking an unjust law and enduring the power of its enforcement – or being unjustly executed and remembered for millennia.

I think the takeaway from all of this is that while law is supposed to uphold justice, you can have justice without law; and while power comes with authority, you can have greater authority by only justly exercising that power. Law and Power exist to serve Justice and Authority, not the other way around. We, and especially those of us in a position of authority, need to remember that. Easter is a good reminder that law and power that are not aligned with justice and authority can have repercussions that echo through the ages.

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