Justice (Cardinal Virtue)

Justice (Cardinal Virtue) is here taken in its ordinary and proper sense to signify the most important of the cardinal virtues. It is a moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them. Of the other cardinal virtues, prudence perfects the intellect and inclines the prudent man to act in all things according to right reason. Fortitude controls the irascible passions; and temperance moderates the appetites according as reason dictates. While fortitude and temperance are self-regarding virtues, justice has reference to others. Together with charity it regulates man’s intercourse with his fellow men. But charity leads us to help our neighbour in his need out of our own stores, while justice teaches us to give to another what belongs to him.

Because man is a person, a free and intelligent being, created in the image of God, he has a dignity and a worth vastly superior to the material and animal world by which he is surrounded. Man can know, love, and worship his Creator; he was made for that end, which he can only attain perfectly in the future, immortal, and never-ending life to which he is destined. God gave him his faculties and his liberty in order that he might freely work for the accomplishment of his destiny. He is in duty bound to strive to fulfil the designs of his Creator, he must exercise his faculties and conduct his life according to the intentions of his Lord and Master. Because he is under these obligations he is consequently invested with rights, God-given and primordial, antecedent to the State and independent of it. Such are man’s natural rights, granted to him by nature herself, sacred, as is their origin, and inviolable. Beside these he may have other rights given him by Church or State, or acquired by his own industry and exertion. All these rights, whatever be their source, are the object of the virtue of justice. Justice requires that all persons should be left in the free enjoyment of all their rights.

A right in the strict sense in which the term is used in this connection is not a mere vague and indefinite claim against others, which others are bound to respect, on any grounds whatever. We sometimes say that the unemployed have a right to work, that the needy have a right to assistance, and it may be conceded that those phrases are quite correct, provided that such a right is understood as a claim in charity not as a claim in justice. For, at least if we confine our attention to natural law and ordinary circumstances, the assistance to which a man in need has a claim does not belong to him in justice before it is handed over to him, when it becomes his. His claim to it rests on the fact that he is a brother in distress, and his brotherhood constitutes his title to our pity, sympathy, and help. It may, of course, happen that positive law does something more than this for the poor and needy; it may be that the law of the land has given a legal right to the unemployed to have employment provided for them, or to the poor a legal right to relief; then, of course, the claim will be one of justice.

A claim in justice, or a right in the strict sense, is a moral and lawful faculty of doing, possessing, or exacting something. If it be a moral and lawful faculty of doing something for the benefit of others, it belongs to the class of rights of jurisdiction. Thus a father has the natural right to bring up and educate his son, not for his own, but for the son’s benefit. A lawful sovereign has the right to rule his subjects for the common good. The largest class of rights which justice requires that we should render to others are rights of ownership. Ownership is the moral faculty of using something subordinate to us for our own advantage. The owner of a house may dispose of it as he will. He may live in it, or let it, or leave it unoccupied, or pull it down, or sell it; he may make changes in it, and in general he may deal with it as he likes, because it is his. Because it is his, he has a right to all the uses and advantages which it possesses. It is his property, and as such its whole being should subserve his need and convenience. Because it belongs to him he must be preferred to all others as to the enjoyment of the uses to which it can be put. He has the right to exclude others from the enjoyment of its uses, it belongs with all the advantages which it can confer to him alone. Were anyone else to make use of the house against the reasonable wish of the owner, he would offend against justice, he would not be rendering to the owner what belongs to him.

Justice, statue

Justice, statue

The right of ownership may be absolute or qualified. Absolute ownership extends to the substance of the property and to all its uses. Qualified ownership may, in the language of divines, be direct or indirect. The former is ownership of the substance of a thing without its uses, such as the landlord has over a house which he has let. Indirect ownership is the faculty of using, but not of disposing of, a thing. When anything definite and determinate is owned by anyone so that he can say–“This is my property”–he is said by divines to have a right in re. On the other hand if the thing has not yet come into existence though it will come, or it is not separate and determinate, so that he cannot say that it is actually his, but he nevertheless has a strict claim in justice that it should become his, he is said to have a right ad rem. Thus a farmer has a right ad rem to the harvest of the coming year from his land; when he has harvested his crop he will have a right in re.

Ownership in the sense explained is the principal object of the virtue of justice as it regulates the relations of man with man. It sharply distinguishes justice from charity, gratitude, patriotism, and other virtues whose object is a claim against others indeed, but a claim of a less strict and more indefinite character. Justice between man and man is called individual, particular, or commutative justice, because it is chiefly concerned with contracts and exchange. Individual justice is distinguished from social, for not only individuals have claims in justice against other individuals but a subject has claims against the society to which he belongs, as society has claims against him. Justice requires that all should have what belongs to them, and so the just man will render to the society, or State, of which he is a member, what is due to it. The justice which prescribes this is called legal justice. On the other hand, the individual subject has claims against the State. It is the function of the State to protect its subjects in their rights and to govern the whole body for the common good. Authority for this purpose is given to the State by nature and by God, the Author of man’s social nature.

The power of the State is limited by the end for which it was instituted, and it has no authority to violate the natural rights of its subjects. If it does this it commits injustice as individuals would do if they acted in like manner. It may indeed levy taxes, and impose other burdens on its subjects, as far as is required by the common necessity and advantage, but no further. For the common good it has authority to compel individual citizens to risk life for the defence of their country when it is in peril, and to part with a portion of their property when this is required for a public road, but as far as possible it must make suitable compensation. When it imposes taxes, military service, or other burdens; when it distributes rewards, offices, and honours; when it metes out condign punishment for offenses, it is bound to do so according to the various merits and resources of the persons concerned; otherwise the State will sin against that special kind of justice which is called distributive.

There is a controversy among authorities as to whether commutative, legal, and distributive justice are so many species of one common genus, or whether commutative justice is in reality the only species of justice in the strict sense. There is much to be said for the latter view. For justice is something which is due to another; it consists, as Aristotle said, in a certain equality by which the just and definite claim of another, neither more nor less, is satisfied. If I have borrowed a horse and cart from my neighbours, justice requires that I should return that particular horse and cart. The debt in its precise amount must be paid. Consequently, justice in the full and proper sense of the term requires a perfect distinction between debtor and creditor. No one can be bound in justice towards himself; justice essentially regards others. However, between the State and the individuals who compose it there is not this perfect distinction, and so there is something wanting to the proper and complete notion of the virtue in both legal and distributive justice.

The rights which belong to every human being inasmuch as he is a person are absolute and inalienable. The right to life and limb, the essential freedom which is necessary that a man may attain the end for which he is destined by God, the right to marry or remain single, such rights as these may not be infringed by any human authority whatever. A man himself even has no right to dispose of his own life and limbs; God alone is the Lord of life and death. But a man has the duty and the right to use and develop his faculties of soul and body, and if he chooses he may dispose of his right to use these faculties and whatever advantage they can procure him in favour of another. No person then can become the property of another human being, slavery in that sense is repugnant to the dignity of human nature. But a man may by various titles have the right to the labour of another.

All things inferior to man were created for his use and benefit; they fulfil the end of their being by ministering to his wants and necessities. Whatever, therefore, pertains to the animal, vegetable, or inorganic world may be brought under the ownership and made the property of man. The right thus to acquire property which is useful and necessary for an orderly human life, is one of man’s natural rights, and it can not be taken away by the State. The State may indeed make reasonable laws regulating and defining the property rights of its subjects for the common good, but it cannot abrogate them altogether. Such rights are antecedent to the State, and in their substance independent of it; the State was instituted to protect and defend them, not to take them away.

Rights are the appanage of intelligent beings as such, beings who can reflect on themselves, know their own wants, and who can will to supply them by permanently appropriating to themselves objects which are subordinate and which will satisfy those wants. Every human being, therefore, is the subject of rights, even before he has been brought into the world. The unborn child has a right to its life; it may even have property rights as well. Justice then is violated if such rights are interfered with unwarrantably. Minors and married women have their rights like others, but positive law frequently modifies their property rights for the common good. In past ages the property rights of women especially were largely modified by positive law on their being married, the husband acquiring more or less extensive rights over the property of his wife. In modern times, and especially in English-speaking countries, the tendency has been to do away with such positive enactments, and to restore to married women all the property rights which unmarried women possess.

Socrates on Justice

Socrates on Justice

Not only individuals, but societies of men as such are the subjects of rights. For men cannot singly and by their own unaided exertions do everything that is necessary for the security and dignity of human existence. For this end man needs the co-operation of his fellows. He has then a natural right to associate himself with others for the attainment of some lawful end, and when such societies have been formed, they are moral persons which have their rights similar to those of natural persons. Such societies then may own property, and although the State may make laws which modify those rights for the common good, it is beyond its power altogether to abrogate them. Men have this power to form themselves into societies especially for the purpose of offering to God the public and social worship which is due to Him. The Catholic Church, founded by God Himself, is a perfect society and independent of the State. She has her rights, God-given, and necessary for the attainment of her end, and justice is violated if these are unwarrantably interfered with.

As we have seen, human nature, its wants and aims, are the source of the fundamental and natural rights of man. By his industry man may occupy and annex to his person material things which are of use to him and which belong to nobody else. He thus acquires property by the title of occupation. Property once acquired remains in the possession of its owner; all that it is or is capable of is ordained to his use and benefit. If it increases by natural growth or by giving birth to offspring, the increase belongs to the original owner. By the same law of accession increase in value, even unearned increment as it is called, belongs to the owner of that which thus increases–“Res fructificat domino”. Positive law may, as we have seen, modify property rights for the common good. It may also further determine those that are indeterminate by the law of nature; it may even create rights which would not exist without it. Thus a father may by law acquire certain rights over the property of his children, and a husband may in the same way have certain rights over the property of his wife. When such rights exist it is, of course, a matter of justice to respect them. Finally, rights may be transferred from one to another or modified by a great variety of contracts, which are treated of under a special heading. See CONTRACT.

The foregoing is in very brief outline the doctrine on justice which has been gradually elaborated by Catholic philosophers and divines. The foundations of the doctrine are found in Aristotle, but the noble, beautiful, and altogether rational edifice has been raised by the labours of such men as Aquinas, Molina, Lessius, Lugo, and a host of others. The doctrine as it appears at large in their stately folios is one of the chief and most important results of Catholic thought. It fully accounts for the peremptory, sacred, and absolutely binding character with which justice is invested in the minds of men. It was never of greater importance than it is nowadays to insist on these characteristics of justice. They disappear almost if not altogether in the modern theories of the virtue. Most of these theories derive rights and justice from positive law, and when socialists and anarchists threaten to abrogate those laws and make new ones which will regulate men’s rights more equitably, no rational defense of the old order is possible. It becomes a mere question of might and brute force. Even if some with Herbert Spencer endeavour to find a deeper foundation for justice in the conditions of human existence, it is easy to answer that their interpretation of those conditions is essentially individualist and selfish, and that human existence thus conditioned is not worth having; that the new social order peremptorily demands their abolition. The Catholic doctrine of justice will be found one of the main safeguards of order, peace, and progress. With even balance it equally favours all and presses unduly on none. It gives the State ample authority for the attainment of its legitimate end, while it effectually bars the road to tyranny and violence.

By Thomas Slater

This page is borrowed from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08571c.htm.

About this page

APA citation. Slater, T. (1910). Justice. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 5, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08571c.htm

MLA citation. Slater, Thomas. “Justice.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 5 Feb. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08571c.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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