Thursday, June 06, 2002


As with the other virtues, the name of Justice leads to some confusion. Americans tend to think of justice as something the State does, on our behalf, criminal justice, essentially. Or we think of it as something we as private citizens demand from large corporate entities, whether public or private. But it is very rare to hear individuals, other than parties to a lawsuit, talking to one another about “Justice.”

Which is really too bad. For if we could return to a classical, older notion of justice, there might be fewer lawsuits. As Aquinas sets it out, Justice is keeping in right relations to others. One finds out what is just by use of reason, and in spite of common misunderstandings, it is not particularly dependent on arbitrary cultural standards to be known.

Anyone who doubts this should spend a little time volunteering in an elementary school. Children arrive at school with an inherent sense of justice, only they call it “fairness.”

“Aha!” you say. “That proves that it is arbitrary and cultural, for children always start out thinking that whatever negative thing happens to them is ‘unfair!’”

Not at all. The error here lies not in the child’s perception of justice, but in the child’s perception of others. If little Johnny is hungry, and ready to eat, but told to wait, he may perceive that as unfair, or unjust. But small children are inherently egotistical. They think first of themselves—for a long time only of themselves. If the requirement to wait for a meal were entirely arbitrary—if Johnny were the only person eating that day—Johnny would be quite right; it would be unjust to make him wait. But if Johnny is being told to wait because there are others who must eat dinner too, and they have not yet arrived, or dinner is not yet ready, Johnny’s sense of justice is only incomplete. Johnny doesn’t need to be taught what is fair, only that he is not the only one affected by what is fair.

As he grows, Johnny will come to understand this, if he is taught appropriately. His innate sense of justice will allow him to see that the teacher who punishes the whole class for the transgressions of one member is acting unjustly, and he will say so, if he is the courageous sort. When his father promises to play catch after work and then reneges on the excuse of being too tired, he may accept it, out of compassion, but he will know that too was unjust. When the other team’s pitcher in the ball game hits a teammate with a pitch, Johnny may even do likewise in a later inning. Though it violates a rule of the game, it is in accord with his sense of justice.

It is only as we grow clever that we begin to think justice arbitrary. We mistake the rules for applying justice for the thing itself. Take the case of the hit batsmen above. The written rules of the game prohibit a pitcher from deliberately hitting a player with a ball. It is, after all, extremely dangerous, and always painful. If it were not proscribed, nothing would prevent a team from deliberately injuring the other team’s best batters in order to win. It is, therefore, unjust. The rules of baseball, however, generally favor the first pitcher to strike a player: a warning is usually given for the first offense. This may be necessary for the keeping of order, but it is not just. And, because it offends the inherent sense of justice in every one on the team, the opposing pitcher almost always retaliates.

Listen (if you can) to your local sports radio station after a ball game where batters are hit, and you will understand what I mean. Half the callers will argue that the retaliation was absolutely required (in the name of “fairness”), and the punishments handed out by the League totally unfair, and the other half will argue for an absolute application of the rules.

There is another confusion about Justice that I will have to address later: the belief that the personal virtue of Justice should be the same as the impersonal application of it by the State. I need to brush up on St. Paul before I do that, but it’s time to get to work.


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