What is Justice?
If we pay 1,000 yen and are given something worth 500 yen, we will complain, angry. If we pay as much and are given a thing more than double the price, we should tell the clerk that we have received more than we should have. Why is this? It is because it is not fair, going against what we feel right and just, a sense of justice.

Justice can easily be defined as exchange of equivalents. We are given what we give and we take what we have taken. I pay 1,000 yen and I have a product worth it; when I borrow 1,000 yen from a friend of mine, I have to give back the same amount to her. This is justice. It is that simple, so much so that Mencius, an ancient Chinese philosopher after Confucius, asserts that even a very young child has some sense of justice, which suggests that the sense of justice is innate; we are born with it.

Distributive and Corrective Justice
Talking about justice is certain to remind us of Aristotle’s definition of justice in Nicomachean Ethics. Simply put, in a particular sense, there are two kinds of justice; distributive and corrective. Distributive justice means that we all get our due; to each his or her own, and its other name may be proportional allocation. By corrective justice I mean the exchange of equivalents. I pay 1,000 yen and get a product worth 1,000 yen, a positive side of it. I hit someone’s eye and my eye is hit by her, a negative one, which is also termed eye for eye, though a bit too simple and uncivilized.

In my opinion, Aristotle’s concept of distributive justice is just another side of corrective justice, equal exchange. Suppose Tom and Jim work for the same company. Tom is diligent but Jim is not. Tom deserves more money than Jim does, and Tom is paid much money but Jim just a little. Which means they get their due. However, from the perspective of their employer, Tom is worth a high salary because of his hard work, but Jim is not, due to his laziness. The employer pays a lot to his employee who works a lot, and vice versa. Isn’t this equal exchange? A lot of money means a lot of work; a bit of money means a bit of work. When we compare Tom with Jim, we will find distributive justice; from the point of view of the employer and Tom, or of the employer and Jim, there can be found corrective justice.

Buddha’s Infinite Love and Punishment
Buddha is a well-known figure for his advocacy for infinite love. We can find his sayings concerning the infinite love in Sutta Nipata. Here are some in my partly free translation:

May all living creatures be happy and safe in peace. A living thing, be it scared or strong, long or short, big or small, seeable or unseeable, already or not yet born, far away or near ― may they all be in happiness.

As if a mother loves her own child at the risk of her life, we should have this infinite love for all living things.

For the whole world we should have the infinite love. For anything above, below, and aside, we should have love without grudge or hostility.

Whenever we stand or walk, sit or lie, so long as we are awake, we should bear the infinite love in mind.

Buddha’s infinite love can be compared with agape in Christianity. It seems to me that infinite love in Buddhism means the love for the world including animals, whereas agape means the love for the world, especially human beings.

Although Buddha’s infinite love seems to be unconditional, this is not necessarily the case. If it is unconditional, Buddha’s love should encompass everyone, including bad people, such as liars, stealers, robbers, and killers. All of whom Buddha says deserve a variety of punishment. In Dhammapada and Udanavarga, Buddha says:

A person who does bad deeds will be depressed and distressed both in this world and the next. They will see their corrupt deeds and be depressed; even if the deeds are done in secret, they will be distressed.

A man who has an affair with someone else’s wife will encounter the following: They will be in trouble, lie at night worried, be blamed and go to hell.

A person who harms good people will see their relatives dead, their possession lost, their place invaded by the king’s army, their body damaged and struck by a sharp pain, their house burnt to ashes, and see themselves informed to the authorities, sickened, maddened, idiotic, and at last go to hell.

Doing even one bad thing will cause sufferings in the afterlife. Doing even one good thing will give us happiness in the afterlife.

A person who says one thing and does another, or who tell lies, will go to hell.

Here can be found the idea of justice. There is a sort of equal exchange: if we do bad things we will suffer (the negative side of the exchange of equivalents), while doing good things will make us happy (the positive side). Though I must admit that what should be deemed equal differs from time to time, from place to place, and from people to people. And sufferings vary: We may be blamed by our neighbors and acquaintances and friends, we may be sick or have pain, we may be informed to the authorities and then be accused, fined, or punished, we may go to hell, and/or we may be tormented by a guilty conscience. In short, those who do harm to others will be done harm in turn in a physical, political, social, spiritual, and/or internal fashion.

Bentham’s Sanction
Now we are at the very point where we can say Buddha’s idea of justice in the form of punishment is very akin to, or even essentially identical with, that by those Utilitarianists, Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. It seems to me that, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham introduces an idea of external punishment, sanction, which can be regarded as part of the theory of justice. He gives us a rather detailed account of the sanction. There are four kinds of sanctions; physical, moral, political, and religious. All of which are external. Let’s see what they are.

Sanctions can be regarded as a form of punishment used when we do undesirable deeds. Which can make us rectify our mistakes. In my words, sanctions are shown by the following: When we drink too much we will get a hangover the next day, having the headache and feeling sick, a physical sanction. We may decide never to drink too much again; if we rob someone of her money, indulge in an affair with someone’s partner, or kill someone, we will be arrested and punished, a political sanction. Anticipation of the mental and physical sufferings can cause us to obey the law; if we don’t exchange greetings and are not kind to our neighbors, we will be bad-mouthed and ostracized by them, a moral or popular sanction; doing something bad may result in literally going to hell, a religious sanction. The mere thought of burning but never to death in the raging inferno in Hell can prevent us from wrongdoings.

Mill’s Sanction
In addition to Bentham’s external sanctions, J. S. Mill shows us one more thing: internal sanction. Bentham’s sanctions are called external as they do not concern our conscience. That of Mill, on the other hand, is internal since it is derived from our inner conscience. Mill, in Utilitarianism, writes:

The internal sanction… is a feeling in our mind, a more or less intense pain that comes with violations of duty.

If we violate our standard of right, “the feelings will probably have to be encountered afterwards in the form of remorse,” which is “the essence of conscience.” This is what Mill thinks to be an internal sanction. Both Buddhism and Utilitarianism put an emphasis on sanctions, internal and external.

Justice as Universal Truth
Justice, especially in the negative form of it, is found both in ancient Buddhism and in modern Utilitarianism. This is because it is universal truth. It seems to me that, East or West, ancient or modern, truth is found anywhere, anytime, since it’s universal. Not East is East and West is West, or ancient is ancient and modern is modern, but in some sense, East is West and West is East, and ancient is modern and modern is ancient. It may even be that East is modern and West is ancient or vice versa. Anything can be found in any area of human thought in this age of globalization. I think I’ll write about some philosophical aspects of globalization someday.


4 thoughts on “The Idea of Just Punishment in Buddhism and Utilitarianism

  1. Buddhist thinker Walpola Sri Rahula, in “What the Buddha Taught” wrote the following, which I don’t agree.

    “The idea of moral justice, or reward and punishment, arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is a law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong. The term ‘justice’ is ambiguous and dangerous, and in its name more harm than good is done to humanity. The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment. Every volitional action produces its effects or results. If a good action produces good effects and a bad action bad effects, it is not justice, or reward, or punishment meted out by anybody or any power sitting in judgment on your action, but this is in virtue of its own nature, its own law. This is not difficult to understand. But what is difficult is that, according to the karma theory, the effects of a
    volitional action may continue to manifest themselves even in a life
    after death. Here we have to explain what death is according to

    Click to access What%20the%20Buddha%20Taught_Rahula.pdf

    Justice is not ambiguous nor dangerous. Well, it can sometimes be but that’s not always the case. And the idea of justice does not necessarily arise out of the conception of a supreme being. Justice can be found and argued without the idea of God. Didn’t Aristotle and Plato discussed it absent the concept of God? In my opinion, what the writer regards as the theory of karma is just one aspect of what I think to be justice. Read this article of mine, and you’ll know. Oh, my cat’s meowing and I’ve got to go…


  2. Hi, Iris. In my opinion, justice as such is universal. If Tom lends me 1,000 yen, then I’ve got to pay him back exactly the same amount of money, an equal exchange. This is just simple arithmetic, no room for relativity or subjectivity. However, in a more complexing case, as you mentioned, since justice depends on societies and opportunities which the people concerned have, and since we cannot exclude the possibility of unfair governments, justice as such may be obscured or even distorted. Then justice may seem just relative, which does not necessarily mean there is no justice or that we cannot reach its true nature. Anyway, the point you made makes me think more deeply about justice. Thank you!


    • Justice is not universal. It is a concept that serves us as people which is why we adopted it. There is no evidence that justice exists outside of ourselves. The Buddha taught that people should be punished, but NOT that we should do the punishing. They are punished by their own actions alone, that’s what karma is


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