The meaning of justice

From the novel Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, a native Hong Konger. The novel is set in Hong Kong in the year 2014, and follows the adventures of Au Nga-Yee as she tries to find out why her sister Siu-Man committed suicide by jumping from the window of their apartment. Without spoiling things for you, I can safely tell you that the plot involves social media, the Dark Web, and the tech industry. Nga-Ye has to hire N, a hacker and a most unusual detective, to figure out what really happened to Siu-Man.

Late in the book, N, the detective, reflect on his motivations for continuing to work as a detective:

“The word he hated most in the world was ‘justice.’ Which wasn’t to say he didn’t know the difference between good and evil — but he understood that rather than simplistic morality, most conflict in the world arose from differences of opinion, with both sides raising the flag of justice and claiming to be on the side of reason. This allowed them to justify the most underhanded means as ‘a necessary evil’ to defeat the other side — the law of the jungle, essentially. N had a deep understanding of this. He had money, status, power, and talent, so he could do pretty much whatever he wanted and other people would see him as an avatar of ‘justice’ — but he knew that keeping others down in the name of justice is another form of bullying.” (Chan Ho-Kei, trans. Jeremy Tiang, Second Sister [2017; trans. Grove Atlantic, 2020])

While this passage merely represents one character in a murder mystery talking to himself, there is some truth in what this character says. It is all too easy to misuse the word “justice.”