Varieties of Justice

Editor’s Note: So. This week alone you have heard from Hadley Arkes on his conversion, from Brad Miner on the Shroud of Turin, and now from Fr. James Schall on justice. Where else will you find commentary like this on so many subjects important to Catholicism? Do the math: for a contribution of only $25 – less than 10 cents a day – you can help make sure there will be 260 columns like these every weekday morning over the next year, And if you can help cover your brothers or sisters who care about the Faith but aren’t in a position to help just now, what’s keeping you from making your tax-deductible contribution to The Catholic Thing? – Robert Royal
More injustice is caused in the world by philosophers and politicians who rashly pursue its perfection than by those who simply do unjust things. Almost every disordered political movement is postulated as a form of justice. The movement explains itself in justice’s noble name. Democracies, including our own these days, are susceptible to such aberrations. The danger is acute when leaders, who concoct such “justice” ideas, are little aware of the final or immediate ends of man. The new “justice” is designed to replace something basic to natural law or revelation.

Tradition defines justice: “To return to each what is due.” Aristotle distinguishes its different kinds. He lived before “Earth Days.” Their advocates consider the planet itself to be an object of “justice.” Therefore, the state is empowered to “save” us by imposing “environmental justice” on us all. To many, if the planet is used for that which the planet is intended, namely, for man, this use is an injustice against some unknown generation down the ages.

Aristotle, however, thought, like Genesis, that the Earth was for man. It was not an end in itself that subjected man to its preservation. The so-called “stewardship” of the Earth is more properly displayed in intelligently using the planet than in saving it for whatever unknown generations yet to come, if they do come. The ultimate resource on the Earth is not the Earth, but the human mind. Planet “salvation” appears as a mystical religion sacrificing men to gods.

Aristotle divides justice into legal and special. Justice has to do with reason and reasoning beings. In the Republic, Socrates asks: “Is justice a human excellence, Polemarchus?” The young man replies: “Surely it is.” Environmental or animal “justice” does not come up in classic authors. Such notions really have little to do with justice. They are inventions of modern ideology largely designed to give the state control of people.

Special justice is, for Aristotle, divided into commutative (rectificatory – making right) justice and distributive justice. The first form relates one person to another in their exchanges; the second proportionately relates benefits and burdens to each according to contribution. We can be related to another by agreement in a common contractual project or through some crime or fault, because of which something needs to be “restored.”

The juridical system is designed to determine what is “right” between the parties to the dispute or arrangement. The parties do not see clearly because they are too interested. The judge, however, does not “make” justice but finds it or declares it as being there. If he himself is sane and just, he stands for particular reason in the case before him. When the judge himself is corrupt, as not a few are, things fall apart. The man with a habit of justice acts fairly when the occasion comes before him. He has prepared himself to act justly when he can and must

Earlier, in the Republic, Socrates formulated five definitions of justice: Justice is 1) to return what is due and tell the truth; 2) to do good to your friends and evil to your enemies; 3) the interest of the stronger (Machiavelli); 4) a pact whereby we stand midway between doing the worst evil and suffering the worst evil, and, finally, the proper one, 5) when every specialized part of a whole functions as it should for a common good.

Almost every revolution, Aristotle tells us, is caused by a perception of justice and its violation. People equal in some things claim equality in everything. People unequal in some things think they are unequal in everything. Everyone has his “just” reason.

In 1908, Chesterton wrote: “And the whole original object of law, of statutes, of assizes, of open courts, of defense verdicts, of Habeas Corpus, of the rules of evidence, was simply the idea that we must have public justice and not private justice. Or, at the worst, we will have public injustice. Even a legal quibble is better than a mere caprice.” If we have “public injustice,” we can at least talk of it in the terms of justice, in terms of natural law and philosophy. Privatized justice does not appear before the bar of reason where it must explain itself.

In our time, we talk of justice to oceans, or to polar bears, or to old buildings, or to corporations. I consider justice to be a “terrible,” though necessary, virtue. It abstracts from the individual personality of the one with whom we deal.

Fiat justitia, pereat mundum is the old Latin phrase of inhumanity – “Let justice be done even if the world perishes.” Yet the very point of Plato’s thought was that finally we can only rectify all things precisely when the world has perished, followed by the judgment of justice.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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