The Good and the Right in the Moral Philosophy of Criminal Justice System

Morality or Ethics is the “science” of good and evil, of right and wrong. It is also sometimes known as the science of oughtness; it involves reflection on the questions of what we ought to do, and what we ought not to do, based on certain fundamental moral principles we hold on to in order to live together as a society (Bahm 1994). If a person were living alone in a jungle, he would hardly face any ethical dilemmas. But even if just two persons were existing alone in some isolated part of the world, there would arise a need for moral considerations.

Many consider the most fundamental ethical precept to be the Biblical saying of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Matthew 7:120). If you would like the other person share a fruit with you if he finds one, then you have an obligation to share the fruit with the other person if you find one. As such, ethics are the basis of all communal living, they form the underpinning of human society. We can all agree on the need of a strong ethical basis for society, and the concomitant need of an authoritative force to oversee the prevalence of moral behaviour.

However, things start becoming complex when we try to set down what sorts of actions can be exactly regarded as constituting good and the right, and what constitute evil and the wrong. For, after all, morality is no science, but a philosophical enquiry into matters that can sometimes get highly abstruse. We normally do not discuss and debate upon ethical considerations in our personal everyday lives because most of us tend to know intuitively what is good and what is bad, what is morally right and wrong, even if we deliberately decide to choose what is wrong sometimes, prompted by varied reasons.

Yet, when we consider the society as a whole, the picture gets quite complicated. For instance, we commonly equate the good with the right and associate the wrong with the evil and the bad. However, there can be a critical distinction made between the good and the right. Further, in the context of a liberal society run by a capable government, the right needs to be accorded priority over the good (Mouffe 1993).

The logic involved here becomes clear when we understand that the responsibility of the government and its legal system is to formulate and maintain the rules that enable its citizens to make what they wish of their lives, thereby ensuring their essential freedom. Conformity to these rules is what is right, whereas the good is what guides citizens in trying to live according to their conceptions of what their lives ought to be. The government should be concerned about what is right, while leaving to the discrimination of individuals, in the interests of liberty and freedom, what is good for themselves (Kekes 1997).

Nonetheless, in situations of conflict between the good and the right, common good should take precedence over the individual good, that is to say, the right prevails over the good. Citizens are free to determine their own good, limited only by the law and the rights of others. To ensure that this happens is the business of the criminal justice system. The study of ethics is important, and is of greater relevance today than perhaps at any other time of human history, simply because progress of science and technology is according individuals more and more power every day, a power that can be easily misused or abused.

Generally speaking, more the power and influence we have over others, more the possibility there is for our judgment failing us and for our moral choices to go wrong. Even with good intentions, we can cause great harm to others, but when people with skewed purposes and purely selfish considerations perpetrate crime in the society, the criminal justice system comes into action to become a counter force to crime. Crime seems to be getting worse every day. Crime is and has been a major social problem for a long time.

In fact, it has been around always, because it is simply an ingrained tendency in human nature to seek personal gain at the cost of others’ loss, to one extent or other. In people with a criminal mentality, such tendency is accentuated. Criminal behavior is virtually a ubiquitous phenomenon, spread across all the segments of society and affects our lives in one way or other. Who among us does not fear that we could be the victim of some atrocious crime tomorrow?

Even criminals need to fear other criminals. The criminal justice system can be simply defined as a buffer zone between the public and the lawbreakers it fears (Senna, Siegel 2001). This system is a loosely organized collection of agencies charged with protecting the public, maintaining order, enforcing the law, identifying transgressors, bringing the guilty to justice, and treating criminal behavior. It may sound  a relatively simple and straightforward process; in reality, it is anything but.