The Three Forms of Justice

I can still hear her soft, concerned voice. “But Professor Smith, this sounds to me like Communism.”

I was teaching Josef Pieper’s wonderful book The Four Cardinal Virtues and we were talking about distributive justice. The question came from an earnest young Mormon mother-of-four, and my first reaction was, “Josef Pieper, the devoted Thomist, a Communist?” But when one is asked a question in all earnestness by a mother of four, you simply must take it seriously.

Let’s back up a step. “When may justice be said to prevail in a nation?” asks Pieper.  Following St. Thomas, Pieper answers that, “justice rules in a community or state whenever the three basic relations, the three fundamental structures of communal life, are disposed in their proper order”: the relations of individuals to one another (commutative justice); the relations of the social whole to individuals (distributive justice); and the relations of individuals to the social whole (legal or general justice).

Now justice as a virtue is always in individual persons. Even the justice of the state is entrusted to individual agents: the prime minister, president, legislators, and judges. But the relation an individual has to others can differ, and failing to understand the differences can lead to serious problems.

A president should not treat the citizens as though they were his children, nor should a mother raise her young children as though they were citizens with an equal right to vote on the rules that will govern them. So too, the obligation to pay your taxes is different in kind from your obligation to pay the plumber. And the legal protection the state owes me is quite different from the money my employer owes me.

People who don’t understand the difference between commutative justice and distributive justice say things like, “I pay high taxes for those schools (or roads or bridges or public libraries), but I never use them, so I want my money back.” When you pay the plumber, you expect service. If the plumbing is not fixed, you don’t pay. But you aren’t paying the government for a service in the same way.

You are paying taxes to the government to support the common good, and the representatives of the state distribute it as best they can to serve the common good. Whether you personally use the schools or highways or libraries is immaterial. I may not have children, but an educated population is good for everyone. And I may pay higher taxes than the people over on the other side of town, but their need for good schools is as high, perhaps higher, than mine.

So too, you will sometimes hear a certain privileged type of citizen say to a police officer something like this: “Young man, I pay your salary! I paid for this road. I should be able to drive on it as I wish.” There are others who feel as though they deserve faster service in state offices because they pay higher taxes.

Josef Pieper

This is to mistake commutative justice for legal or general justice. When you pay the man who trims your hedges, you can tell him to do whatever you want, but you are not “paying” for the highway or the police in the same way. The rules of the road are for everyone’s safety, and you have an obligation to everyone else on that public road.

Wealthy people shouldn’t be treated better by the police, judges, or any other government official, and states that offer better service or treatment to people for an extra fee are distorting their relationship with their citizens.

Consistent individualists tend to be critical of the notion of distributive justice because they believe that individuals are always dealing with other individuals; hence every form of justice is, on this view, simply another species of commutative justice.

People sometimes fail to recognize their obligations to the common good, preferring instead to focus on the “rights” claims of individuals. For the consistent individualist, says Pieper, “Every phase of man’s communal life, in the family as well as in the state, is a compromise between the interests of individuals with equal rights.”

The collectivist critique of the three types of justice, on the other hand, is quite different.

For the collectivist, says Pieper, “there is no such thing as an individual capable of entering into relationships in his own right. Above all, no private relations between individuals exist. Man’s life has a totally public character because the individual is adequately defined only through his membership in the social whole, which is the only reality.”

Hence there are people who want to deny any right to private property, or who think every relationship, including your relationship with your plumber, should be subordinated to political or ethnic concerns. Instead of “my” friend or “my” plumber, we are now both merely co-functionaries within the political whole.

The result is that “all human relationships are . . . subordinated to the yardstick of fulfilling a function, and may abruptly cease to exist when I do not conform to the stipulated norm.”

Are you “my” friend? Not if you hold the wrong views or vote for the wrong people.  “You hired a plumber who voted for Trump? How could you?” Perhaps because he has always done honest, good work and never cheats me. My relationship with him is governed by the standards of commutative justice, not distributive or general justice.

We make mistakes the moment we think that what is “legal” expresses fully what I owe the community or my family, or when we take our relationship to the community to be equivalent of the one we have with a business when we pay for service. “The very essence of justice is threatened,” concludes Pieper, “the moment the serious claim is made that these three fundamental structures of the communal life, and hence the three basic forms of justice, simply do not exist.”


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.