Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues in classical European philosophy and Roman Catholicism. It is the moderation or mean between selfishness and selflessness – between having more and having less than one’s fair share.
Justice is closely related, in Christianity, to the practice of Charity (virtue) because it regulates the relationships with others. It is a cardinal virtue, which is to say that it is “pivotal”, because it regulates all such relationships, and is sometimes deemed the most important of the cardinal virtues.
According to Aristotle,
“Justice consists in a certain equality by which the just and definite claim of another, neither more nor less, is satisfied.”
This is equal insofar as each one receives what he is entitled to, but may be unequal insofar as different people may have different rights: two children have different rights from a certain adult if that adult is the parent of one of them and not of the other. Aristotle developed the idea of equity to cover irregular cases so that “the ordinance is framed to fit the circumstances”.
Macrobius saw Justice as existing on four different planes or levels, rising from the everyday political virtue at the lowest to the Archetypal Form of Justice at the highest.
The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. In Colossians 4:1 St. Paul counsels “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, realizing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
In Christian moral theology, Justice is a quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them. The object of the virtue of justice is the other person’s rights, whether natural or bestowed by Church or State. Justice requires that all persons should be left in the free enjoyment of all their rights. The rights which belong to every human being inasmuch as he is a person are absolute and inalienable.
In Aristotle’s wake, Thomas Aquinas developed a theory of proportional reciprocity, whereby the just man renders to each and all what is due to them in due proportion: what it is their moral and legal rights to do, possess, or exact. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion”.
With the late modern rise in interest in virtue ethics, a new interest in articulating the virtue of justice has emerged. John Rawls saw justice as the typical virtue of the institution; Irene van Staveren saw it as that of the state, marked by such indicators as votes, legitimacy, public fairness and distributive rules.
Moral justice has been linked to the sixth and highest of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.
Freudians consider that in the unconscious the image of the Father embodies a stern but fair justice; Jungians similarly see the archetype of the King as representing the right ordering of society.
Dante made Justice the virtue of his sixth heaven (the sphere of Jupiter), and illustrated it through such martial figures as Joshua and Roland.
Sir Philip Sydney wrote of “justice the chief of virtues”; Edmund Spenser devoted the fifth book of The Faerie Queene to the same theme.
Wallace Stevens rejected what he called “galled Justicia/Trained to poise the tables of the law” as part of the obsolete images of the past, and favoured instead the modernist seeking out of new ruling images – new “sovereigns of the soul”.
- Aristotle, Ethics (1976) p. 186
- Slater, Thomas. “Justice.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 7 April 2017
- Aristotle, p. 198-200
- C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (1976) p. 68-9
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1807
- Aristotle, p. 182-3
- D. Manuel Jr, Contemporary Social Philosophy (nd) p. 58
- Deidre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues (2007) p. 286 and p. 431
- L. P. Nucci, Handbook of Moral and Character Education (2008) p. 60
- Eric Berne, A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychooanalysis (1976) p. 45
- R. Bly/M. Woodman, The Maiden King (1999) p. 155
- Dante, Paradise (1975) p. 215
- Sidney, A Defence of Poetry (1984) p. 31
- Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1971) p. 201
- Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1984) p. 124
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