Natural justice is a man-made theory; it is not a reality. In nature, justice is purely theoretic, wholly a fiction. Nature provides but one kind of justice—inevitable conformity of results to causes.
Justice, as conceived by man, means getting one’s rights and has, therefore, been a matter of progressive evolution. The concept of justice may well be constitutive in a spirit-endowed mind, but it does not spring full-fledgedly into existence on the worlds of space.
Primitive man assigned all phenomena to a person. In case of death the savage asked, not what killed him, but who? Accidental murder was not therefore recognized, and in the punishment of crime the motive of the criminal was wholly disregarded; judgment was rendered in accordance with the injury done.
In the earliest primitive society public opinion operated directly; officers of law were not needed. There was no privacy in primitive life. A man’s neighbors were responsible for his conduct; therefore their right to pry into his personal affairs. Society was regulated on the theory that the group membership should have an interest in, and some degree of control over, the behavior of each individual.
It was very early believed that ghosts administered justice through the medicine men and priests; this constituted these orders the first crime detectors and officers of the law. Their early methods of detecting crime consisted in conducting ordeals of poison, fire, and pain. These savage ordeals were nothing more than crude techniques of arbitration; they did not necessarily settle a dispute justly. For example: When poison was administered, if the accused vomited, he was innocent.
The Old Testament records one of these ordeals, a marital guilt test: If a man suspected his wife of being untrue to him, he took her to the priest and stated his suspicions, after which the priest would prepare a concoction consisting of holy water and sweepings from the temple floor. After due ceremony, including threatening curses, the accused wife was made to drink the nasty potion. If she was guilty, “the water that causes the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thighs shall rot, and the woman shall be accursed among her people.” If, by any chance, any woman could quaff this filthy draught and not show symptoms of physical illness, she was acquitted of the charges made by her jealous husband.
These atrocious methods of crime detection were practiced by almost all the evolving tribes at one time or another. Dueling is a modern survival of the trial by ordeal.
It is not to be wondered that the Hebrews and other semicivilized tribes practiced such primitive techniques of justice administration three thousand years ago, but it is most amazing that thinking men would subsequently retain such a relic of barbarism within the pages of a collection of sacred writings. Reflective thinking should make it clear that no divine being ever gave mortal man such unfair instructions regarding the detection and adjudication of suspected marital unfaithfulness.
Society early adopted the paying-back attitude of retaliation: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The evolving tribes all recognized this right of blood vengeance. Vengeance became the aim of primitive life, but religion has since greatly modified these early tribal practices. The teachers of revealed religion have always proclaimed, “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” Vengeance killing in early times was not altogether unlike present-day murders under the pretense of the unwritten law.
Suicide was a common mode of retaliation. If one were unable to avenge himself in life, he died entertaining the belief that, as a ghost, he could return and visit wrath upon his enemy. And since this belief was very general, the threat of suicide on an enemy’s doorstep was usually sufficient to bring him to terms. Primitive man did not hold life very dear; suicide over trifles was common, but the teachings of the Dalamatians greatly lessened this custom, while in more recent times leisure, comforts, religion, and philosophy have united to make life sweeter and more desirable. Hunger strikes are, however, a modern analogue of this old-time method of retaliation.
One of the earliest formulations of advanced tribal law had to do with the taking over of the blood feud as a tribal affair. But strange to relate, even then a man could kill his wife without punishment provided he had fully paid for her. The Eskimos of today, however, still leave the penalty for a crime, even for murder, to be decreed and administered by the family wronged.
Another advance was the imposition of fines for taboo violations, the provision of penalties. These fines constituted the first public revenue. The practice of paying “blood money” also came into vogue as a substitute for blood vengeance. Such damages were usually paid in women or cattle; it was a long time before actual fines, monetary compensation, were assessed as punishment for crime. And since the idea of punishment was essentially compensation, everything, including human life, eventually came to have a price which could be paid as damages. The Hebrews were the first to abolish the practice of paying blood money. Moses taught that they should “take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; he shall surely be put to death.”
Justice was thus first meted out by the family, then by the clan, and later on by the tribe. The administration of true justice dates from the taking of revenge from private and kin groups and lodging it in the hands of the social group, the state.
Punishment by burning alive was once a common practice. It was recognized by many ancient rulers, including Hammurabi and Moses, the latter directing that many crimes, particularly those of a grave sex nature, should be punished by burning at the stake. If “the daughter of a priest” or other leading citizen turned to public prostitution, it was the Hebrew custom to “burn her with fire.”
Treason—the “selling out” or betrayal of one’s tribal associates—was the first capital crime. Cattle stealing was universally punished by summary death, and even recently horse stealing has been similarly punished. But as time passed, it was learned that the severity of the punishment was not so valuable a deterrent to crime as was its certainty and swiftness.
When society fails to punish crimes, group resentment usually asserts itself as lynch law; the provision of sanctuary was a means of escaping this sudden group anger. Lynching and dueling represent the unwillingness of the individual to surrender private redress to the state.