The Virtue of Justice and Its Limitations

Dr. Peter Chojnowski

The Greek philosopher Diogenes commented that there are three things which are most difficult to do. The first is to keep a secret. The second is to find a useful way to spend one's leisure, and the third is to accept an injustice. In his most important ethical work the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of the nature of justice by first discussing different instances of injustice. This was in accord with his general method of procedure in philosophical matters which attempted to consider what was most obvious to common experience, before considering the more abstruse aspects of a question. Of course, this itself is in line with Aristotle's teaching on the topic of human knowledge which states that "all knowledge begins with sensation." According to Aristotle, specific instances of injustice, especially those which directly affect our own lives, allow us to both recognize the existence of justice as an objective reality, while also enabling us to have some insight into the essence of justice itself. Certainly, in this regard, we Catholics have experienced many such instances of injustice. From the taking of an innocent human life in the womb of its mother, to the interference of the state in the education of our children, being deprived of the freedom to walk the streets of our cities, and the attempted confiscation of our Catholic religious heritage by many in the post-conciliar clergy, instances of true injustice continually manifest themselves in our lives.

Being intensely aware of individual cases of injustice, does not, however, provide us with a definition of justice itself. Without such a working definition, it would be difficult even to justify our claim that a certain act is an act of "injustice." How can we know that this act is contrary to an act of justice, when we cannot even define what "justice" is? This problem of definition, which, I will maintain, exists in our day, also existed in the dying days of another culture, in this case the one of ancient Athens. There, in the fifth century and early fourth century B.C., the philosophers Socrates and Plato confronted an intellectual situation similar to our own. In their case, it was the intellectuals referred to as the Sophists who were undermining the fabric of traditional Greek moral life. They did this by throwing into question the universality of such traditional virtues as justice, temperance, and fortitude. Since the Sophists were travelling teachers of Rhetoric (i.e., the art of persuasive speech), they had the cosmopolitan mystique necessary to lend credence to their claim that the nature of right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and injustice differed from one city to another and, even, from one individual to another. Realizing that a simple reliance upon the traditional habits of virtue among the people was not sufficient to halt the spread of this type of corrosive relativism, Socrates and Plato struggled to formulate a rational definition, universally applicable, of that most essential personal and civic virtue, justice. To define something is both to grasp its intrinsic nature and to delineate its "boundaries of meaning" from those of every other thing.

A Definition

Where do we look for such a definition? Since we find no acceptable one in our own intellectual milieu, does that mean that we have to make up our own? Thankfully, this is not the case. The philosophia perennis or classical philosophical tradition provides us with such a definition. This is attested to by the fact that the same definition of justice is given by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, and the Corpus Juris Civilis of Roman law (Instit. I,I). Homer cites it in the Odyssey (14, 84), Plato in the Republic, Aristotle in the Rhetoric (1, 9), Cicero in De finibus (5, 23), St. Augustine in City of God (19, 21), and St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentaries on Aristotle's Ethics (5,1; no. 893). The Latin expression of this definition is most simple and, therefore, most effective, justice is "suum cuique" or "to everyone their due." An "injustice" means that something that belongs to someone, has it withheld or taken away from him.

Creation and the Due

It is evident from the definition itself, that the most important aspect of this ancient definition is the reality of the "due." A necessary emanation of the "due" is a claim. If something is "owed" to someone else, there is a claim made upon some other person to give them what they are owed. On what basis can someone make a claim on another?

In the Summa Contra Gentiles (2, 28), it is said that "If the act of justice is to give man his due, then the act of justice is preceded by the act whereby something becomes his due." When speaking of justice on the level of creaturely relations, St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of two ways in which we can have something "owed" to us. The first is the most basic, the most superficial, yet, probably, the most common. We can have something owed us as a consequence of a contractual agreement. Normally, this form of justice is within the domain of what is referred to as justitia commutativa or commutative justice. The basic act by which we give to another what is owed to him on the basis of a contractual agreement is termed by St. Thomas restitutio or recompense. Moreover, so fundamental is this act, that it is the only specific act of justice spoken of by St. Thomas. To bring about a state of justice is to reinstate a person in the possession or dominion of his thing.1 The "due" which arises on account of contractual agreements is based upon the principle that a creditor has the right to receive the equivalent of a service he has rendered or reparation for a loss he has sustained.

There is, however, a claim more fundamental than the one based upon a contractual agreement. This "due" is based not upon a temporary agreement between individuals in civil society, but rather, it is grounded in the very nature of things. The important fact to be remembered in this regard is that only rational beings have the potential to have anything be "due" to them. Contrary to the "new" environmentalists who insist that nonrational animals, trees, and even "ecological zones" can have something "due" to them on account of all natural beings being intrinsically equal, only a being who possesses a rational faculty can make a binding claim in justice upon another. Since man is one of these rational beings, he can rightfully make a claim on another man to render to him what is his due. Human relations then fall within the domain of justice which is concerned with rendering to each what is due him. Perhaps it is necessary, in our own odd intellectual milieu, to give a rational argument of the position that only rational beings can have something due to them. Such an argument would, doubtlessly, be founded on the truth that it is only rational beings which have self-reflection. This ability to know oneself and what one possesses, is necessary before a being can make a "claim" upon another being. Nonrational beings are, to a great extent, mere extensions of the natural environment, for these beings there is no true "within," nor is there the possibility to claim something as "mine." This inability of nonrational beings to claim something as "mine," poses an insoluble problem for the environmentalists who wish to have animals and "eco-zones" have standing in court as "legal persons." They cannot represent themselves (!) and they cannot "receive" recompense for "crimes" committed against them. According to St. Thomas in the Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 28:

If the act of justice is to give man his due, then the act of justice is preceded by the act whereby something becomes his due.

If man, therefore, has any "rights" vis-à-vis other men, they are grounded in an act not of man, but of God. That act whereby, ultimately, man can claim anything at all as his due, is the act of Creation. This being the case, all talk of "rights" and the "due," must be prefaced and fundamentally determined by the recognition of man's status as creature. "It is through creation that the created being first comes to have his rights."2 From this, St. Thomas draws a fascinating and fundamental conclusion, "creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone's due" (non igitur creatio ex debito justitiae procedit).3 The implications of this are more numerous than merely the assertion that God, in creating, did so freely and without any internal or external constraint. Such is, indeed, the case. What is also implied by this moral and metaphysical fact, however, is that God does not owe anything to man in justice. Even though man, as we shall indicate later in this article, owes God what is rightfully His (i.e., adoration), man cannot make a claim upon God. An apparent consequence of this is that when God has revealed His will for man, particularly in the domain of religious belief and worship, man would have no "right" on the basis of which he could refuse a divine command. Technically, of course, he could refuse such a command, but he would certainly have no "right" to do it. We see how, in this regard, the logic of Dignitatis Humanae fails to conform to even the dictates of natural justice. Since man is, in his innermost being, a creature, God is by right the sovereign creator, sustainer, and possessor of man. Any claim which a man can make in justice on other men, is, ultimately, grounded in the Sovereignty of God and His rights over what He has Himself made. With the advent of "legal" euthanasia in the US and Australia, we must always remember that in the fierce struggle ahead, those who would protect life must have emblazoned on their banner the Sovereignty of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately, we cannot take our own lives because we "belong" to God. Those attentive to the American political scene will be aware of the fact that the language of the Sovereignty of God has appeared again, at least for one shining moment. American presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, after his win in the New Hampshire primary, said to his supporters that now we were going to place the US back under the Sovereignty of God and under the Divine Law. From that moment, his star began to wane.

Along with the metaphysically grounded "due," justice presupposes that man is a "social animal," who requires other men not only to provide him with the material necessities of life, but, also, to develop within him his moral, spiritual, and intellectual life. As Aristotle rightly stated, "only gods or beasts can live alone."

Finally, what is presupposed by justice is the absolute distinctness of the "other." Justice properly relates to the bonum alterius, the good of another. What is meant here is not merely the evident fact that acts of justice are related to someone other than the one acting. Rather, it means that the person who is the object of a just act is one who is seen as a "stranger." Within the domain of justice there is a stark divide between what is "mine" and what is "yours." What justice strictly demands is that a proper and lawful balance be maintained between what is "mine" and what is "yours."

The Virtue of Justice

When thinking about justice, we must remember that justice primarily regards the external act whereby we render to someone what is due them. Unlike the other cardinal virtues, justice is not primarily concerned with the inner disposition of the man who is acting. Justice demands that man's actions in civil society conform themselves to the right in civil, social, economic, and political affairs. Whether a man "likes" acting justly or not is, to a great extent, inconsequential. With this in mind, we can then make the distinction between the act of justice and the virtue of justice. We have said that the "act" of justice is to render to someone what is due them within the context of civil society. The virtue of justice, however, is something distinct. Moreover, this distinction has far-reaching consequences for a proper understanding of the role of government within a civil society. To use the proper Scholastic terminology, the virtue of justice is a habitus or inclination by which the will tends towards choosing that which is right, the proper good in any particular situation. A "virtue" or virtus in itself, is, etymologically speaking, an ability, a power, a form of "manliness." A virtue inclines a power of the soul towards its proper object; it is a "habit" which enables a man to perform a good action with alacrity and perpetually. Temperance inclines the appetites towards moderation and submission to the commands of reason, fortitude controls the passion of fear so that life can be preserved and the difficult good attained, and justice is a perfection of the will by which it attains the proper good of the whole person and, also, advances the social good.

The Virtue of Justice and It's Limits

In the beginning of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of the reason why man needs virtue in order to attain his proper end. Whereas a stone cannot but fall to the ground, under normal conditions of course, when it is thrown into the air, a man has the ability (but not the "right"!) to choose what is evil, hence, what is contrary to his rational nature. In order to incline the human will towards a choice which is right and just, it must have a "habit" or excellence of the will by which it is prompted to choose the one correct action, and to shun the multiplicity of acts which would be wrong in a particular situation. The virtue of justice, then, is the habit which enables the will to choose perpetually that action which "fits" the moral circumstances of any situation which may confront a human agent.

From what we have said so far, the act of justice appears to be no more than the simple visible manifestation of the interior virtue of justice. This judgment, however, would not be at all correct. The reason is that there is often a disjunction between an act of justice and the virtue of justice. Quite often, a man may perform an act of justice without necessarily possessing the virtue of justice. Why is this? According to both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, a truly virtuous act must be one which the person acting performs the action with pleasure. If we are, in any way, "pained" when performing a just act, we do not truly possess the virtue of justice. Only the man who performs just acts perpetually and takes pleasure in doing it can truly be said to possess the virtue of justice. This is why both Aristotle and St. Thomas refer to pleasure as the "seal" of virtue. If men must take perpetual pleasure in acting rightly in order to truly be just, we can safely assume that there are not many just men in this world.4

The implications of this are far reaching. What the classical ethical tradition is stating is that you do not have to be a just man to act justly towards another. What justice in civil society is primarily concerned with, is in making unjust men act justly. This is, indeed, fitting, since justice is primarily concerned with the external act and not with the internal disposition of the person acting. Here, of course, we see emerge the necessity of governmental coercion. A government has the obligation of obliging, with coercion if necessary, unjust men to act justly. To say otherwise would be pure Liberalism. It is through this "habituation" in just action (referred to by St. Thomas as distributive justice), that the state can form the characters of its citizens by "encouraging" them to not only do what is right, but, also, to take pleasure in doing what is right. This being the case, however, the demand of justice must be met, even though moral perfection has not been attained. As the injustice of abortion demonstrates, justice must operate even when we cannot love.

Along with commutative justice (i.e., restitution of a debt owed to another individual) and distributive justice (i.e., the state's right distribution of goods to members of a civil society), St. Thomas also speaks of another form of justice, "legal" justice. "Legal" in this context does not refer to a man's relationship to the "law," rather, it refers to man's relationship to the whole of society and to the common good of that society. Moreover, we can speak of two manifestations of the "common good" in this regard. One relates strictly to the individual himself. According to both Aristotle and St. Thomas, all of the other moral virtues, prudence, fortitude, and temperance, are ordered to the virtue of justice. Whereas prudence "locates" the particular good, justice achieves it. While the virtues of fortitude and temperance regulate the soul's passions and appetites so that they do not serve as a hindrance, it is justice which manifests the goodness of the soul through right action directed towards another individual or group within the context of civil society. It is justice which is truly concerned with the good of the "other." Hence, the ancient axiom that the "good is diffusive of itself." Goodness has an inner desire to well-up, to overflow its boundaries, to share itself with all which surrounds it. "A thing is more eminently good the more fully and widely it radiates its goodness."5

Religio, Pietas, and the Limits of Justice

If "justice" is the act by which someone is given what is rightfully "due" them, what about those relationships in which we cannot fully return what is owed? St. Thomas Aquinas does treat of such relationships and, even though considering them within the context of the virtue of justice, nevertheless, considers them to be beyond the sphere of justice. The reason that these relationships, our relationship to God, to our parents, to our country, to our teachers, are "beyond" the competency of the virtue of justice is on account of the fact that we cannot repay these what we "owe" them.

Even though we cannot "give" back to these what they have given to us, justice still requires that we attempt to render to them something of what is owed. Obviously, the relationship in which there is the greatest disparity between what is owed and what can be given, is the relation between a creature and his Creator. The reason this is the case is that the Creator has given the creature existence, something upon which every other good and every other perfection depends. If the Creator has given the creature literally "everything," what can possibly be offered in return? According to St. Thomas, literally "everything"; at least everything which the creature has.

This giving of "everything" which the creature possesses can be done through the direction of all our actions to the honor of God. In this way, they would share in the acts which are most proper to the virtue of religion, that of worship and adoration.6 When speaking of the acts by which a rational creature can attempt, in justice, to render to his Creator that which is due Him, St. Thomas does not remain on the level of generalities. Rather, he is quite specific. Man owes God sacrifice. Moreover, sacrifice is not merely an option for man. According to St. Thomas, the obligation of sacrifice is an obligation of the natural law (oblatio sacrificii pertinet ad ius naturale).7 It is written into the very heart of things. Why sacrifice? Because in sacrifice, we attempt to "give back" life itself.

The truly just, hence, the truly religious man, acutely experiences the disparity between what is owed God and what can be "given" to Him. It is the experienced helplessness and impotency of the just man or the community of the just, which prompts the "extravagancy" and "excess" which is proper to religion. Since, metaphysically speaking, it is impossible to do what "properly" ought to be done, an effort "beyond" the bounds of reason tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

The virtue of "piety" (pietas), relates to the debt we owe our parents for giving us our physical existence. Since there, indeed, exists such a debt, piety is, strictly speaking, part of the virtue of justice. We can say, however, that since we cannot possibly make our parents an equal return for what we owe them, the respect and veneration we pay to them must be all the more singular and profound.8 According to St. Thomas, the virtue of piety, also perfects our response to the debt we owe our motherland. This "patriotism" of St. Thomas, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with modern ethnic nationalism. Such contemporary forms of neo-primitive tribalism would have been totally foreign to the supranationalist Catholic mind of the Middle Ages. Brawls between "student unions" excepted. Also, just in passing, Aristotle says in the book of the Nicomachean Ethics dedicated to the virtue of justice, that we cannot possibly repay those who have taught us philosophy. The best one can offer is "respect" (observantia).9 Students take notice!

Friendship: the End of "Mine" and "Thine"

In, perhaps, one of the most searching moral insights of classical antiquity, Plato, in his dialogue the Gorgias (508), has the character Socrates state the following:

I maintain, Calicles, that it is not the most shameful of things to be wrongfully boxed in the ears, nor again to have either my purse or my person cut...any wrong done to me and mine is at one more shameful and worse for the wrongdoer than for me the sufferer.

Earlier in the same work, Plato states that the wrongdoer is "to be pitied." This is the only way in which we can speak of the "inalienability" of the right; the moral structure of reality is such that the violator of justice is harmed more than the violated. Plato, of course, had a rational insight into the fact that the world has a moral structure, along with having a physical structure. Based upon his understanding of a "moral cosmos," one of Plato's most fundamental convictions was that ultimately justice is always rewarded and injustice always punished.

In the view of Aristotle and St. Thomas, the obligations of justice are a necessary, but not sufficient bond uniting members of a society one to another. What is called for in order to make these bonds lasting and perfect is the element of "friendship." According to both Aristotle and St. Thomas, a society must be united by the bonds of friendship if it is to remain a living, stable community. By "friendship" here, we mean a relationship in which we love the other person for the goodness of their character. In fact, only those of "good" character can have such a relationship, the heart of which is a mutual sharing of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This mutuality is, according to the ancients, part of the very essence of true friendship. Friends, according to Aristotle, "hold all things in common." Amongst friends, the fixed boundaries between that which is "mine" and that which is "yours" break down. The calculation of loss and gain, which is the substance of justice, has no place here. A friend seeks to give his friend good things, and seeks nothing in return.


1  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 62, Art. 1.[Back]

2  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 28.[Back]

3  Ibid.[Back]

4  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 107, Art. 4.[Back]

5  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 24.[Back]

6  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 81, Art. 1.[Back]

7  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 85, Art. 1.[Back]

8  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 80, Art. 1.[Back]

9  Ibid.[Back]