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What is justice?

BLOG_justiceThe desire for justice has accompanied us since the dawn of humanity. Reading insurance fraud headlines every day, I’m confronted with stories about arrests, convictions and sentences. Underlying these stories is often the pursuit of justice, a concept we instinctively understand but have difficulty articulating.

What does justice mean in the context of insurance fraud? I often see prosecutors saying that they are going to “bring that person to justice for what he did,” or families grieving that they just “want justice done” for the crime that was committed. What does that even mean? Is justice something that can be imposed on a situation? Can a single person, by their volition or power, “bring” justice forth? Should it be it in our hands to make justice play itself out? And, in the case of deadly fraud schemes, is justice alone going to heal everyone’s wounds?

Great thinkers might give us a deeper insight into what justice means.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates debates with a friend. His friend contends that justice is the authority of stronger citizens in their own self-interest. Socrates counters that justice is an absolute ideal that exists beyond people’s individual opinions; that justice is the proper ordering of the soul and the city to serve the good. So justice, he says, is an ideal that has to be discovered, it can’t be invented.

I recently overheard a prosecutor complain that it was often difficult to get judges to care about insurance fraud, unless the crime is a deadly arson or a harmful medical scheme. Fake theft claims, for example, garnered little interest.

Eastern religions hold to the concept of karma, the universe will conspire to bring bad circumstances in response to bad deeds, and vice versa. But our government is not ruled by karma alone. Fraudsters are usually sentenced to return some of the money stolen, and spend time in jail. Some sentences are light, other times, like the recent case of George Dalyn Houser a fraudster gets the maximum sentence.

Following that train of thought, is a just punishment, then, tied to the harmful impact the crime has had on human beings? Or is there an absolute ideal of justice unrelated to harm done? Opinion surveys say people are more likely to commit insurance fraud if they think of an insurance company as a big, impersonal enterprise that is not providing adequate customer service. People for the most part understand that fraud is wrong, but they are more willing to lash out at insurance companies they feel have wronged them first.

Is justice retribution?

Sometimes it seems that the people crying for justice are really just out for revenge. Are we trying to punish the person so they won’t even think of erring again, or trying to help them find their human dignity within the fabric of all their mistakes? Pope John Paul II, in Caritas Veritate, said you can’t have justice without mercy.

Or is justice perfect reciprocity, as in the ancient practice of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? One of the ideas in justice is proper proportion, the punishment should’t exceed the crime, but has to be related to the crime. Implicit in this idea is proportion and fairness.

Aristotle contends that hierarchy needs to be considered. For example, if an ordinary citizen punches an on-duty police officer, justice is not served if the officer just returns the blow. Nor is justice served if a regular citizen strikes back when struck by an officer trying to carry out his duties. So, Aristotle contends that when the relations between parties are hierarchical or unequal in some way, justice does not take the form of reciprocity.

Another definition of justice is when the action toward something is appropriate to the dignity of the thing.

In the context of determining punishment for insurance fraud, two key elements come into play: repairing the harm done, and correcting the reason for which the insurance fraud was committed. In human society we do what we can to make sure that justice is administered. And finally, what role does rehabilitation play in determining a just sentence? Is there a difference between justice for the perpetrator and justice for the victim?

About the author: Jennifer Tchinnosian is communications specialist for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

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