The Virtue Of Justice

Justice is the virtue that perfects the will. It is defined as the constant and perpetual will to render each person his due.

There are three different kinds of justice that correspond to the three basic relations that form the structure of life within society. Corresponding to each relation is a certain type of debt. First, there is a relation of one individual to another, and it is commutative justice that bears upon this relation. Secondly, there is a relation between the individual person and the social whole. It is general justice, or legal justice, that bears upon this particular relation. Thirdly, the social whole is related to the individual person and is the subject of a kind of debt. Distributive justice orders this relation. We will treat each one individually.

The word “justice” comes from the Latin word jus, which means “right”. What we mean by right is that which is equal, for right implies a relation of equality. If an unjust state of affairs is “made right”, we mean that a certain equality has been established. If you lend someone a certain amount of money, it is right for you to receive back what you lent (commutative justice). You have a right to receive your due, and the other has an obligation to render your due. And so where there is a right, there is a debt of sorts, an obligation on the part of someone else to establish a relation of equality, that is, to make things right (jus). A just man is one who habitually wills such a relation of equality, always, constantly, consistently, wherever and whenever there is a debt or something owing.

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Justice, Fairness

Commutative Justice

Humility and Gratitude

A just man is first and foremost a grateful man. Where there is no gratitude, that is, where there is an inability to say “please and thank-you”, there is no justice; for an unjust man fails to “see”, to “re-cognize” a relation of inequality between himself and another. He is blind. Willfully blind. More specifically, he is unable to recognize, among all that he has, precisely what it is that has been given to him gratuitously. He is under the impression that what he has been given was rightfully his in the first place. He operates under the general conviction that he is entitled and that nothing given him brings about a relation of inequality, thereby creating a debt of gratitude, requiring of him a return of some sort. The thoroughly unjust man is convinced of his natural superiority over others. He is the center, an absolute end, while everyone else is a means to his personal ends.

The just man, on the other hand, recognizes his essential equality with every other human person. He does not believe he is entitled without qualification, and so he is able to recognize when something has been given to him without his having any strict right to it. He is able to recognize — because he is open to seeing it — when a specific behaviour has created a degree of inequality between himself and another, and so he wills to make a return in order to equalize the relation in some way. He has learned to say “thank you”. He has learned to be thoughtful. And so he thinks of ways to make things “right” (jus).

In this light, we can see the relationship between justice and humility; for humility is inextricably bound up with truth. The humble man has made a very accurate assessment of himself and has willingly accepted the truth of his status. He does not hope inordinately in himself. An unjust person cannot but be lacking in humility, for he perpetually and habitually wills a relation of inequality between himself and others, for he is convinced of his essential superiority and that he is entitled to choices that others are not. Vladimir Solovyov writes:

The basic falsehood and evil of egoism lie not in this absolute self-consciousness and self-evaluation of the subject, but in the fact that, ascribing to himself in all justice an absolute significance, he unjustly refuses to others this same significance. Recognizing himself as a center of life (which as a matter of fact he is), he relegates others to the circumference of his own being and leaves them only an external and relative value….in his innermost feelings and in deeds, he asserts an infinite difference and complete incommensurability between himself and others: he himself is everything, they themselves are nothing.1


Because the just man recognizes his own equality with his fellows and wills that equality, he will not do to others what he wills not to be done to himself (the Golden Rule). He knows the other as another self, as a person of the same nature as himself, and he has chosen to love the other as another self. And so he sees that he has a moral debt to express himself truthfully. To lie to another human person is to will a relation of inequality between equals. Only a person convinced of his essential superiority over others can consistently and willingly lie to them, deceive, mislead, and manipulate them. To lie to a person is to exercise a kind of lordship over him (a dominion).

Lying not only establishes a relation of inequality between equals, it also inflicts subtle but serious damage on the one who lies. As Aristotle points out, “our character is determined by our choosing good or evil, not by the opinions we hold”2. The person who willingly establishes a relation of inequality by lying becomes a person who cannot be trusted. He becomes a liar. He makes himself less than he is capable of being. For the sake of some temporal benefit, he allows a deficiency to mark his character. The habitual liar, the one who does not love equality, is a person who cannot really give his word, because there is nothing in it, at least nothing that corresponds to what he really knows to be true. If there is something in his words, such as truth, it is only incidental, for he does not have the habit of justice, that is, he does not love justice, except possibly certain instances of justice that are conducive to his own private ends, which are not necessarily just or ordered to the right and ultimate end.

Integrity is the intelligible human good of harmony or integration between various elements of the self. But the liar divides himself in two. There is no correspondence between what is in his word and what is in him, that is, there is a separation between the content of his word and his own mind. Although the truth is in his mind, it is not in his word. And so there is a part of himself that is not in his words, namely, that part that knows what is true.

Now I am my word. My word is an extension and expression of myself. And so when I bring about this split between my word and my inner self, I bring about a split within myself. I fragment myself. My act leads to a disintegration of myself rather than a greater integrity. In lying, I gradually lead myself downward towards a state of mental illness, that is, toward a divided self.

There are all sorts of motives for lying, none of which justify the lie. But lying might have a charm of its own that some may find appealing. The one who lies has something that no one else has, that is, he knows something that others do not. There is something that belongs only to him that no one can take away because others are not even aware that they don’t have it, or that they have been deceived. Thus the one who lies has created a space that is his own and that no one can invade. This provides, to some degree at least, a feeling of power over others, or the feeling of being in control. But there is a price to the creation of this space, namely, a disintegrated character.

Because lying involves a splitting of the self, it creates a distance between “myself and I”. As I continue to lie — which is inevitable since we are creatures of habit — , I gradually lose myself, and at some point or other, perhaps after many years, I have lost myself and am not even aware of it. At this point I can lie to myself and even believe my own lies. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky speaks of this particular state of affairs in his great novel The Brothers Karamazov:

A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself as well as for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal, in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — lying to others and to yourself. A man who lies to himself, for instance, can take offense whenever he wishes, for there are times when it is rather pleasant to feel wronged — don’t you agree? So a man may know very well that no one has offended him, and may invent an offense, lie just for the beauty of it, or exaggerate what someone said to create a situation, making a mountain out of a molehill. And although he is well aware of it himself, he nevertheless does feel offended because he enjoys doing so, derives great pleasure from it, and so he comes to feel real hostility toward the imaginary offender.

The one who lies becomes unable to recognize truth because he violates the truth for the sake of the useful. He has become a pragmatist — the criterion for moral truth has become the useful or the practical. And that the liar gradually loses respect for himself as well as for others is not hard to show. For loss of respect for oneself is part and parcel of every vice. The reason is that evil is a privation of being. What is evil lacks fullness of being. Conversely, goodness is fullness of being. Accordingly, an evil action is lacking something it ought to have. Now justice is in the will, and so injustice involves a deficient will. But we are what we will, and so an unjust man is a deficient man. I cannot love a deficiency, only a good. And so the more I commit acts of injustice, such as lying, the less there is in me to love, and thus the more I loath myself. And if lying establishes an inequality between myself and the person to whom I am lying, then I can only lose respect for that person, since I have made him less than myself whom I have begun to loath already.

There are no circumstances that can change the nature of a lie, rendering it a good action. Under normal circumstances, there is a moral debt to express ourselves truthfully to others in speaking and writing. If we have a duty to withhold information from others (mental reservation), at the very least we have a duty not to lie to them. To lie is to violate the requirement to treat others in a way that respects their status as persons equal in dignity to ourselves.

A Note on the Ethics of Killing and Double Effect

Human life is a basic intelligible human good, not an instrumental good. The human person is the crown of the physical universe and willed into existence by God for his own sake. There is a sense in which he is a part of the social whole. But the human person is not related to the social whole as a kidney or any other organ is related to the whole physical organism; for the kidney, the heart, the lungs, etc., are nothing but parts, not whole substances unto themselves. But the human person is a whole unto himself, not merely a part of the social whole.

A non-rational animal is a whole substance unto itself, but it does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of human goods. Non-rational animals are not moral agents that are measured by the obligations of justice, and thus they are not the subjects of rights. An animal does not have a right not to be killed by another animal, whether of the same species or not, nor does it have a right not to be killed by a man.

Man, on the other hand, is the subject of right (jus). Through the power of self-reflection, we know our existence as a good in itself and for itself, and we love our own existence for its own sake. We naturally will to be treated as an end, that is, we naturally desire to be loved for our own sake. We object to being used. The thought of being evaluated merely on the basis of how useful we are to anyone else is one we find repugnant. We judge this as contrary to our dignity as persons to be loved for our own sake. In other words, human life is intrinsically good, and we readily see this in our own case.

To murder somebody is to will that he or she not be. But a human person is intrinsically good, not a good relative to me and my personal ends. To will that what is intrinsically good, namely this person who is my equal, not to be is to set one’s will against what is humanly and intrinsically good. Such is an evil will.

It is precisely this relationship between the will and the human person it bears upon that is the difference between murder and killing. A dog, for instance, is not capable of murder because a dog does not have a will, only sensitive appetites. A dog can only kill. In man’s case, not every act that leads to the death of a person is murderous. For example, a woman who picks up a metal bar and swings it in order to stop someone who is approaching and wielding a knife with the evident intention of killing her, is not necessarily acting with murderous intent should her action lead to the attacker’s death. What is intended or willed in the swinging of the metal bar is that the attacker be stopped, not killed.

We have a duty to try to stop the attacker because our life is intrinsically good and ought to be protected. We may even use lethal force to stop an attacker. For often the only way to disarm an aggressor who holds a victim in his grip and a gun to her head is to shoot him in the back of the head. To do so does not necessarily involve one in willing his death, even though one knows that death is virtually inevitable.

There is a fundamental difference between intending an effect and accepting an effect as an inevitable and undesirable consequence of an otherwise good action. A few simple examples may help to clarify this. It is inevitable that the more we drive, the more our tires become worn. The more we use our cars, the more they begin to deteriorate. We don’t will this (or intend this), but we do accept it as an inevitable fact of life. Matter has a natural propensity to change.

Separating siamese twins might very well lead to the death of one twin, but choosing to proceed with the operation does not necessarily involve a person in willing the death of the twin that dies. The surgeon might very well accept the death of one twin as an undesirable result of surgery without intending his death.

But aborting a child in the womb does involve the intention to destroy it. That is why the abortionist is going in with polyp forceps: to clamp onto the child and tear it apart so that it no longer be. Such an action is murderous.

Consider the difference between that action and the action of clamping down onto the arteries of a fallopian tube of an ectopic pregnancy. What does the surgeon intend in doing so? He intends to prevent hemorrhaging. But his action, at the same time, kills the developing human life in the fallopian tube. This is not something he wills or intends. But it is something he accepts as an inevitable and undesirable side effect of a certain medical procedure.

Now it should be pointed out that it does not follow that just because an action does not involve the intention to do evil — but only the acceptance of the evil effect — that the action is morally justified. Before one may proceed with an act that has a good effect and an evil effect, a number of conditions must be in place. Firstly, the action to be performed must be good or at least morally indifferent. Secondly, one may not positively will the evil effect, only permit or allow it. Thirdly, the good effect must proceed from the action and not the evil effect — otherwise, one would be doing evil that good may come of it. And, finally, the good effect must be sufficiently desirable — or good enough — to compensate for permitting the evil effect.

This fourth condition is very important. There ought to be a certain proportion between the good and evil effect. Is it justified for a police officer to use his gun on a boy threatening him with a sling shot? The good effect is that the officer will save himself from a possible black eye. Ought he to accept the possible death of a boy for the sake of such an effect? Clearly not.

Moreover, we ought to be careful when employing the word ‘proportionate’ in the context of ethics. The reason is that some philosophers have developed a theory of morality called “proportionalism” that is inconsistent with the principles of prudence. The typical proportionalist holds that one may do evil to achieve good, as long as the good resulting from the act is proportionate to the evil being done. This, however, is not what we are advocating here. One may never do evil that good may come of it; for you are what you choose. By choosing evil as a means, one becomes (character) evil, at least in part.

Consider the case of St. Gianna Molla. Towards the end of her second month of pregnancy, it was discovered that she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. Would it have been justified for her to have an abortion — as was recommended to her — in order to save her own life? Certainly not in her mind, and certainly not according to the principles of natural law. Her case is not a double effect scenario. The good effect might be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the evil effect, but aborting a child is not a case of allowing a baby to die, but is rather a case of making a baby die by abortion, which includes willing or intending its death. It is to do evil that good may result. St. Gianna Molla was ready to give her life to save the life of her child: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child — I insist on it. Save him.” Seven days after the birth of her child, Gianna Molla died.


Marriage is a common good, for it is shared in common between two. It is established through a total and mutual self-giving. That is precisely why it is a one flesh union between a male and a female, for a total self-giving includes the giving of one’s body, since you are your body. In this total and mutual self-giving, the woman gives herself by receiving the total self-giving of her spouse into her own body, and he receives her in a giving sort of way. The two establish a human and temporal good that transcends them, a single good in which they both share and that is ordered to the public welfare. The two institute a common good, the most fundamental and important institution of the social whole, for every member of the civil community belongs to a family before belonging to any other community.

It is by virtue of this mutual self-giving that she has exclusive rights over his body — for he belongs to her, he has given himself to her, and she has received the irrevocable gift of himself irrevocably. He too has exclusive rights over her body, because she has given herself entirely and thus irrevocably to him and he has received her self-giving irrevocably.

Adultery on the part of the male involves taking what is rightfully hers and giving it to another who has no rights over his body. Adultery on the part of the female involves taking what is rightfully his and surrendering it to someone who has no rights over her body. Adultery is a violation of the institution of marriage in that it treats what was irrevocably given as if it were revocable.

Adultery is, at the same time, an injustice against the common good, the good of the civil community as a whole, for the family, grounded in marriage, is the most important condition that enables individual persons to achieve personal wholeness. As in all unjust acts against the common good, the adulterer wills a benefit for himself at the expense of the greater good of the public welfare. For a person’s infidelity harms the children of the marriage whether they are actually born or are only possibilities, for infidelity harms the spouses and their relationship, the health of which is a critical factor in the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of the children. Infidelity hurts the very cause of marriage, and the health of society depends upon the health of marriages within it.

General/Legal Justice

The Human Person and the Common Good

A common good is a human good held in common. Common goods are often confused with collective goods. The two, however, are really different and need to be distinguished. An example of a collective good is a meal. Each person sitting at table acquires only a portion of the meal. It is simply not possible for every person sitting down to enjoy the whole meal simultaneously. As the number of people invited to eat increases, the individual portions available to each one decreases. Hence, a collective good is essentially material.

A common good, on the other hand, can be enjoyed entirely, on the whole, by any number of individual persons at the same time. An increasing number of individuals partaking in that good does not in any way diminish the good available to anyone else. For example, consider the common good of a culture’s literary heritage. My possession of that heritage does not diminish anyone else’s ability to possess it. In fact, the more widely it is possessed, the more likely it is to be shared with others. This is not the case with a meal, an apartment building, an automobile, or a piece of land. A common good is essentially immaterial.

Consider the common good of a sports team, such as a hockey team. Victory is the end intended by the whole team, and every member of the team is working in conjunction with every other member to achieve that end, to be possessed by everyone as common property, or a common good. An individual scoring record, on the other hand, is not a common good, but a private good belonging only to one individual member of that team.

An unselfish player loves the common good of victory over his own private good, such as his private scoring record. A selfish player loves his private good over the common good of victory. Instead of passing the puck which will create the conditions that are guaranteed to increase the likelihood of victory for the whole team, he hangs on to the puck in the hopes that he can add to his personal record, even though doing so will decrease the likelihood of victory for the team, which is the common good of the team in which every member can partake entirely. In short, a common good is better than a private good within the same category.

Just as there is a common good of a hockey team, and a common good of a school, etc., there is a common good of the civil community as a whole. The common good of the social whole is its principal end. Let us explore this point here.

Personhood and Self-Expansion

The human person is the only creature in the physical universe willed into existence, by God, for his own sake. The human person is an intellectual creature, an individual substance of a rational nature. As such, he has two specific powers, namely the power to know and the power to will. The human person is a rational animal, and so his knowledge begins in sensation. But unlike the non-rational animal, knowledge does not end there. The human person grasps the natures of things. He apprehends what they are (simple apprehension of a thing’s essence) and that they exist (existential judgment), and he reasons to conclusions not immediately evident to his mind (science).

Intellectual knowledge is a specific kind of self-expansion. The things man knows exist in him, that is, in his mind. Knowledge is within us. For example, the knowledge of my friend or the maple tree in my front yard is real and in my mind. And so it is true to say that these things exist in me in a certain way, obviously in a way that is different than the way they exist outside of me. The tree outside me exists materially, but within me it exists immaterially.

Through knowledge, I become more, that is, I expand; for I am more than what I am than without knowing the thing I know. As Aristotle writes: “The intellect is in a way all things.”

The human person wills to be more, to exist more fully, for “all men by nature desire to know” (Aristotle). He exists more fully as a knower. Thus, the human person has will. He not only apprehends intelligibles (the natures of things, their existence, truth, beauty, real harmonious relationships, justice, etc.,), he also wills them. The intelligibles that draw him are known by him as intelligible goods.

The will makes possible another kind of self-expansion, namely the self-expansion that occurs through love. Not only do I know the other as a person of the same nature as myself (as another self), I can also will his good for his own sake, not merely for the sake of what he does for me. I can will his good as I will my own. In other words, I can love him as another self, another me. In knowledge, he exists in me in a certain way. In love, I go outside myself and exist as him. Through love, I become two, or three, or four, depending on how extensive is that love.

The more I become, the better I become. The reason is that good is a property of being: whatever is, is good insofar as it is. The human person was brought into existence in order to know and love, that is, in order to become more than what he is without ceasing to be what he is. He exists to be most fully, for his origin is in love; for God is love, and love is effusive. God, who is Goodness Itself, freely willed to communicate the goodness and existence that He is most perfectly to things outside Himself. Man begins to exist most fully through the communication of goodness to beings outside of himself, a communication proportionate to his rational and material nature.

There is no limit to the good that the human person desires for himself; for he never stops pursuing human goods: he continues to ask questions, to create works of art, to behold ever more beautiful sights, to desire greater intimacy with friends, etc. He desires a perfect happiness, one that endures indefinitely and is secure from mishap. And if he loves others as he loves himself, such as his own children, he wills perfect happiness upon them. He wills a perfect, perpetual and secure well-being for those he loves. In short, he wills the best for himself and for those he loves, and the best means the best.

At the same time, though, he recognizes the finitude of what he possesses in knowledge. He recognizes his own finitude. He is a limited being with a limited nature and limited powers. He desires the best for his children and those he loves, but he is painfully aware of his limited capacity to communicate good to others, the limited amount of time allotted to him, and gifts he does not possess but which others do, etc. In short, he knows that he wills more for those he loves than he is capable of bringing about on his own.

But when he acts in community with others, much more can be accomplished. There is a social whole that is more capable of enriching those he loves than he is on his own efforts. For he cannot impart to those he loves a culture’s literary and scientific heritage in all its rich diversity, for example. His knowledge and time are limited, and he possesses some common goods more completely than others.

If he is a grateful man, he recognizes that he is the beneficiary of the social whole, that is, of the labor of countless others before him. So much of what he possesses as common goods came about through the establishment of social conditions that preceded him, such as the existence of schools, universities, hospitals, a just legal system, etc., all of which were established at a cost. A grateful and just man wishes to return the love behind all these goods he possesses, as much as he is capable. Though most of those who labored for him are dead, he will not allow that fact to stop him from making a generous return.

The civil community as a whole has an end, just like a hockey team or a school or hospital. The end is a common good. In this case, though, it is the common good of the social whole, which is a good to be shared in and enjoyed by every member of the civil community, not a collective good to be portioned off to some. The principal end of the social whole is to bring about what the just man wants to accomplish for those he loves, but cannot by virtue of his limits, namely the well-being of every member of the society. The just man is motivated by gratitude and love of that community that preceded him to commit to this common good of the whole, to direct his labor towards the betterment of the civil community because his love is greater than himself, that is, it exceeds the limits of his own material nature. The common good of the social whole that he labors to help establish is reflected back onto the human persons within society. The concerted effort of everyone to establish a common good enriches the lives of everyone within that community to a far greater degree than would otherwise be possible for a sole individual.

The intelligible human goods to which human persons are naturally inclined are in some ways aspects of the refracted light of contemplation. When people vacation, for example, they often indicate with their words that they intend to “see” (visit) different places and different people. The human person is inclined to contemplate, to know, and his being with others is nothing other than seeing others (“…it is good to see you…”). As the just man grows in fullness of being, he wills to share what he possesses, to pour it out, to communicate it to others, that is, to make it common property, a common good. Only the egoist, painfully aware of the moral void within him, keeps what he has for himself and shares only a small portion of it when doing so proves useful for procuring adulation and praise. But the just man is a good man, and goodness is self-diffusive (bonum est diffusivum sui). The works of Aristotle, for example, are common goods. So too are The Dialogues of Plato, as well as the voluminous works of St. Augustine and the Fathers of the Church, or The Aeneid of Virgil, The Ennead of Plotinus, the two Summas of St. Thomas, the art works of Raphael, the Principia of Newton, to mention only a fraction of what we’ve inherited. All these people poured out what they had received, communicated it to others outside themselves, because goodness is generous and effusive, and as persons expand through knowledge and love, they become larger and more like their origin, God, who is Subsistent Goodness Itself.

The one who truly loves other persons wills that others have what he has. If his love is pure and unmixed with inordinate self-love, he wills that others have more than what he has. And so the good man wants to see the common good expand and enlarge, to be reflected back onto the persons he loves.

But the common good, no matter how large, is still not the perfect good, the bonum universale, the best that we will for those we love. Man knows himself as good, but not as the Supreme Good, the perfection of goodness, or goodness without limits. Yet he recognizes that he and others like him are perpetually open to further perfection, in fact to the whole of reality, and thus to what is larger than the common good. But he knows from within that he is limited vertically, if not horizontally, that he cannot possess the whole good (the bonum universale) according to the powers of his nature. Only God is Goodness Itself, without limits, and yet man’s nature is proportioned to finite goods. Man wills the best for himself and for those he loves, but he cannot attain it, and so his perfect happiness depends upon the divine initiative to reveal Himself and to dispose him to know, hope in, and love Him, to raise him to a level at which he may begin to possess God. In other words, man depends upon the infusion of divine grace, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in order for him and those he loves to possess perfect happiness, which is his actual destiny.

For all those he loves, the genuinely good man wants more than what the public welfare will ever be able to provide. Through revelation, we know that the human person really is destined for something higher and greater than the state so that his will is not destined to be forever frustrated. Man is destined for a supreme common good, the possession of the three divine Persons of the Trinity. And since the common good of the social whole is ordered to the good of all human persons, the state has a duty not to hinder man’s progress towards that supra-natural end. Thus, any state that makes itself the ultimate end (i.e., makes itself divine) and hinders man from rising to his supernatural destiny, is an unjust and corrupted political body.

General justice, as the name suggests, is not a particular virtue but refers to perfect and complete virtue, or moral goodness that ranges over the entire area of moral action. General justice thus contains all the virtues. The one who directs his actions towards the common good is the man of general justice. Consider again our example comparing the common good of a hockey team to the private good of the individual player, for example his scoring record. What we need to keep in mind here is that a “good player” is understood to be good not in isolation from the end to be achieved by the team, but in reference to it. A high number of goals and assists is a good thing only because the end of victory is the good of the team, the common good. Hence, a private good, such as a good scoring record, is good only in reference to the common good of the team. So too, one is not a good and just man in isolation from the common good of the social whole, but in reference to it. A good teacher, a good parent, a good citizen, a good man, are all understood in reference to a common good, for instance the common good of the educational institution, the domestic common good, the political common good, and the ultimate end of union with God.

Legal justice is general justice with a more precise meaning. For the purpose of law is precisely the establishment and maintenance of the common good. The virtue of legal justice contains the acts of all the virtues insofar as through law they are ordered to the common good, and so legal justice is the virtue by which we exercise the acts of all the virtues in relation to the common good.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice exists principally and primarily in those having charge of the common weal, and this type of justice orders the relation between the social whole and the individual person. Distributive justice is the virtue that inclines the will of those who hold political office to apportion to citizens what is their due by proportional equality. It is the task of public officials to distribute common goods proportionately. To understand what we mean by proportionate equality, consider the analogy of proper proportionality: 2 is to 6 as 12 is to 36. A strict proportionate equality is the following: if a person who earns 6 is taxed 2, then one who earns 36 should be taxed 12. Indeed, determining tax burdens via tax brackets is not necessarily a matter of imposing a uniform ratio. Rather, a person who earns more will pay a higher percentage of taxes. The task of those who hold public office is to determine what is a just proportion, or what is proportionately equal. There are often social and economic variables that recommend a different ratio. A person who has a larger income ought to be taxed more, but exactly how much more is difficult to determine and requires a great deal of political prudence, which includes among other things an understanding of economics, the ability to foresee consequences of certain decisions, a memory of what occurred as a result of past decisions (history), etc. Too great a tax burden on small businesses or corporations, for example, might very well be imprudent and lead to a decrease in production and higher unemployment, thus depleting the conditions conducive to a greater sharing in common goods.

Vices contrary to distributive justice include respect for person, which consists in giving position or office to a person not on the basis of his worthiness to hold office, but on the basis of his person, that is, irrelevant factors, such as personal favors done in the past, friendship, or feelings of preference, etc. Nepotism is similar in that it involves favoritism to a relative. Any kind of unmerited advancement in a position that serves the common good, such as positions in education, military, business, municipal office, etc., is a vice against distributive justice.

The entire moral dynamic between the three different kinds of justice (commutative, general/legal, and distributive) is very much like the rain cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, transpiration, precipitation, etc.

The just person discovers himself by committing, in a spirit of sacrifice, to something larger than himself, the common good (evaporation). The holder of political office, if he is to be worthy of the office, must be a man of great justice and prudence, that is, a man of eminent integrity (condensation). Only then will the total conditions enabling everyone to achieve human well-being be distributed proportionately to every member of the civil community (precipitation). It is the possession of these common goods, the intellectual, spiritual, scientific, artistic, and literary heritage of civilization that enriches the lives of human beings (infiltration), conceiving within them a powerful eros that inspires them to rise up and be a part of that line and continue it, to generously bring forth the fruits of their labor (transpiration), whether that turns out to be children of noble character able to eventually assume public office and resist the temptations that periodically haunt those in office, or children who will make great teachers, or just and prudent court judges, or musicians, poets, or who will eventually make loving and down to earth parents themselves who are content to raise up devout and faithful citizens of the Church. The only difference between the two cycles is that human persons have a destiny that rises above the state to a perfect, eternal, and infinite common good that cannot ever be lost.

Virtues Allied to Justice


The unjust man loves his private good more than the good of anyone else, and he has no difficulty disturbing the order of justice for the sake of himself.

Vindication sounds very much like “vindictive”, and unfortunately many people consider vindication to be exactly that, a form of revenge. But vindication is not revenge nor does it describe a vindictive or vengeful will. Rather, it is a habit that belongs to one who loves justice. It is the virtue by which a person observes due measure in meting out punishment to one who has committed a moral offense of some sort. Vindication wills punishment because a just man loves the order of justice, which exists for the sake of the common good of the social whole, which in turn is ordered to all human persons who belong to society. The unjust man loves his private good more than the good of anyone else, and he has no difficulty disturbing the order of justice for the sake of himself. That order consists in a fair and equitable distribution of benefits and burdens, but the unjust man chooses not to exercise proper restraint for the sake of keeping that order of proportionately equal relations, but chooses instead to pursue his own private interests, despite the fact that his actions increase the burden that others have to carry, thus lessening their share in the benefits available to them, and increasing his own. As a simple example, consider tax evasion. A person who fails to pay his fair share of taxes nevertheless reaps the benefits derived from tax dollars, such as good roads, schools, and medical care. If those tax evaders fulfilled their obligation to the social whole, the tax burden on everyone else would be lighter and more equitable, all things considered.

Vindication is not surrender to anger. Rather, anger is a proper emotional response to injustice and ought to be moderated by meekness, not suppressed. Emotion perfected by virtue is made to help in the execution of reason’s command. But only the just man experiences anger at violations of justice and due order. The unjust are simply indifferent — except when the affront is personal. Some unjust individuals are even clever enough to hide their indifference behind a mask of compassion, mercy, and patience. But a truly just man is prone to anger, for the more excellent a person is, the more prone to anger he is.3 He wills punishment because punishment is a good, for it aims to restore what is truly good, namely the order of fairness that was disturbed and disrupted by the injustice of one who loves himself more than the good of the whole. Punishment restores that order by depriving the criminal of his ill gotten advantage. Revenge, on the contrary, is the vice that seeks to punish not for the sake of restoring the just order, but for the sake of satisfying feelings of anger and hostility.

Vindication and the Death Penalty

Is it ever justified to punish a person by depriving him of life? Or, more to the point, is it contrary to reason to will that the state deprive a vicious criminal of his life as an act of punishment, that is, an act that attempts to restore the disrupted order of justice?

The state has as its end the establishment and maintenance of the common good. The relation between the common good and the private citizen is not one of equality4, that is, it is not the same relation as that between individual and individual — otherwise there would be no distinction between distributive justice and commutative justice. The common good is a greater good than the single instance of the good that is the individual citizen. As Aquinas writes: “The common good takes precedence of the private good, if it be of the same genus”.

Those in charge of maintaining the order of fairness have a duty to restore that order whenever it is disturbed, and so it is their role to punish wrongdoers, those who disrupt the just order of the social whole.5 Now some crimes are so serious, so heinous, and have done irreparable damage to the common good that the state (civil authorities) cannot completely restore the just order. But the state is obligated to restore it as much as possible, and it can do so only by depriving the criminal of his life, a life corrupted by a thoroughly unjust will. For the state to do so does not necessarily violate justice — since the relation between the social whole and the individual person is not an equal one — , as long as there is no doubt about the guilt of the accused and about the seriousness of the offense.

A private citizen as private citizen cannot kill a criminal, because the relationship between the two is one of equality. As a private citizen, it is not my primary duty to restore the order of justice in society as a whole. But a citizen can, as a representative and instrument of the state, carry out an order of execution without being guilty of a murderous act. Depriving a criminal of his life is not something that is willed for its own sake. What is directly intended by the civil authorities whose primary duty is to restore the just order is precisely the restoration of that order.6

When and under what circumstances should the death penalty be imposed, or if it should be imposed at all, is a different and more complex question, one requiring a genuinely prudential judgment, and thus input from other experts, circumspection, memory, foresight, and caution, etc. Prudence may dictate that it be abolished in this country at this particular time in history. But this by no means implies that the state does not have, in principle, the right to administer the death penalty.

Some people have argued that for a pro-life Catholic to advocate the death penalty would constitute an inconsistent Life Ethic. But this is not necessarily so. Capital punishment is not a part of commutative justice, and most people who oppose it tend to consider it from the point of view of one individual to another, rather than from the point of view of the social whole and the individual person.

Moreover, it may appear that the widespread opposition to the death penalty and its increasing eradication is a sign of moral progress and marks an overall increase in reverence for the value of human life. But that may only be appearance. It could very well be a sign of an increasing indifference towards injustice and a depletion of a sense of the intrinsic value of human life, leading essentially to a loss of a horror of sins against life.7 If the eradication of the death penalty marks an increase in reverence for human life, one has to wonder why this movement is accompanied by an increase in the demand for and availability of abortifacients, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

Liberality and the Offspring of Covetousness

Liberality is the virtue by which one exercises proper stewardship over excess riches. It is the mean between covetousness on the one hand, and prodigality on the other. A just man recognizes the debt he owes to the civil community, that he is the beneficiary of the generosity of countless others who have gone before him. He recognizes that not everything he has is strictly the result of his efforts alone. He knows he is not self-sufficient, but dependent upon many factors entirely outside of his control. Why should he benefit from the generosity of a large multitude before him, but others that come after him not benefit? A truly just man will use his excess wealth for good causes, for he is moved to respond to those who suffer, to do his part in creating conditions for their well-being.

Prodigality is the vice by which a person is inclined to use his excess wealth for himself, to gratify his passions. The result is that he takes no delight in virtue. The defect of liberality is covetousness, the inordinate love of possessing. Covetousness spawns a number of other vices against commutative justice, such as fraud, insensibility to mercy, treachery, falsehood, perjury, violence, restlessness, murder, etc.


Fraud is a kind of deception employed to cause the loss of some value to a person. One might sell a defective product without letting the buyer know, or sell a product without any sort of discount, while allowing him to believe that the product is worth much more than it actually is. Selling a person short is also fraudulent, for example, selling a person eleven bagels and charging him for a dozen. Deceptive advertising is fraudulent. For example, advertising a school as Catholic, naming it after a Catholic saint, and then proceeding to teach a personal agenda that is inconsistent with the formulated teachings of the Catholic Church is deceptive and, like all these instances of fraud, violates the requirement not to do to another what one would not like done to oneself.

Insensibility to Mercy

Insensibility to mercy describes a depletion of empathy, a hardening of the heart. As we said above, love expands the self in that the one who loves another as another self becomes the other. But the covetous have an inordinate love of self. Consequently, they are not able to empathize, to feel what another is feeling, and so they cannot sympathize. They do not suffer at seeing others suffer. In fact, they may even delight in it. At this point, self-love moves to another level, a more pathological level involving a narcissistic envy. Envy delights in the misfortunes of others, for their misfortunes provide the envious man with an opportunity to rationalize a sense of superiority over the unfortunate and to believe that fate has favored him by reason of some superior quality in him. The misfortunes of others may also provide the narcissist with an opportunity to “come to the rescue” and “save the day” in order to appear to be sympathetic and compassionate. But in truth, he is nothing of the sort. He has no heart. Others are not his equal, but have value only insofar as they are of use to him.

Falsehood and Deceit

The covetous will exhibit a false prudence, namely cunning. They can be very clever and for the most part have many people fooled. But they are entirely false. Their words and actions do not aim to reveal, but conceal, for they cannot achieve their ends unless they appear to others as entirely normal. Their lying becomes perjury when confirmed under oath. A man who lies under oath, that is, while calling on God as his witness, has lost himself. As Bolt has More saying to his daughter Margaret while visiting him in prison: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.”8 This is an example of how loving oneself to the point of covetousness leads to a tragic loss of self.

Violence, Detraction, Discord

Covetousness leads to acts that violate (violence) others because the covetous person regards others as a means to his own private ends. His will is that others conform to his way of seeing and treating them. When others refuse to be used, manipulated, taken advantage of, and when they have come to see through the deception of his false life and thus have become a threat to his facade, he will violate them in some way, either physically, or by sowing discord, which involves lying to certain others in order to destroy friendship or keep them apart, that is, from talking and possibly sharing stories. He will engage in detraction, which is attacking the good name of another, or contumely, which is speaking in a way that violates the honor and reputation of another. This, of course, can lead to false accusations, which murder a person’s reputation. A false accusation is in some ways worse than murder, for it alienates the accused, leaving him in a profound state of loneliness, misunderstood by almost everyone. It leaves a stain on the victim, like a large stain from an ink spill that clings to the flesh and will not come off no matter how hard a person scrubs or what he uses to remove it. False accusation naturally leads to false testimony and perjury, and thus to the complete destruction of the liar.


To mock is to laugh contemptuously at another and to shame another by exposing his faults or vices in jest. A great deal of comedy today has degenerated into mockery, and many enjoy this kind of humor because envy and covetousness are rather widespread. Genuine humor returns us to the ‘soil’ (humous), to the matter of our humanity. In this way, it lightens the spirit, for it lifts the spirit out of an over preoccupation with the affairs of the material world and allows us to see ourselves at a distance. And so we laugh. But mocking humor is less a return to soil than it is a ‘soiling’ of another. It is not so much humor as it is humiliation.


The covetous have no friends. Everyone is a tool, an instrumental good of relative value. When a tool is of no use any more, it is discarded or sold. The covetous have no loyalty. They see no absolute value in fidelity. They do not love justice. Virtue is only in the appearance, not in the heart. And so anyone who is no longer of use is discarded or sold for a price. That is the reason why the facade of the fraudulent and covetous narcissist is destined to collapse; for he is eventually exposed by the victims of his treachery.


It is a small step from treachery to murder. The covetous man does not look at the world in terms of the common good, but, at the most, only in terms of the collective good. He has no eyes for the common good, for everything is referred to himself. Recall the difference between a common good and a collective good. The former is an immaterial good that does not diminish as the number of partakers increases. A collective good, on the other hand, diminishes as the number of those who partake of it increases, like a meal or a financial reward. Covetousness leads to a confusion between the common good of the social whole and the collective good. For they see the increase in population not as a blessing, but as a threat to their share in the collective good. If a person loves his own life more than the life of the other, he tends to be open to the idea of contraception and abortion. The step from the contra-life behaviour of contraception to the contra-life and murderous acts of abortion and infanticide is not a large one. Hence, the NSSM 200 Directive, signed by Henry Kissinger, that holds up abortion as a vital part of the movement towards global well-being.


A truly just man is affable, but not all affable people are just. For the unjust, affability is a means of deception, an opportunity to string someone along. That is why their particular brand of affability will often exceed the mean of reason and become flattery. The defect of affability, a vice belonging to those not smart enough to employ adulation and manipulate others, is unfriendliness, uncordiality, or disagreeableness.

The just man is aware that since he likes to be treated cordially, he ought to will to cultivate and maintain agreeable relations in social life. One who is too preoccupied with himself and too much at the mercy of his own moods will tend to lack due cordiality. So too, a young person who wishes to appear invulnerable and ominous tends to lack affability and will fail to do his part in creating a light and agreeable environment.


Whenever or wherever there is a debt, there is an object of justice and thus a special part of the virtue of justice. Some debts, however, cannot be fully remitted, such as the debt we hold towards our parents. For they chose to accept the difficult burden of pregnancy, delivery, and child rearing. They chose to cooperate in God’s generosity, one that loved us into existence for our own sake. It was not possible for us to earn existence. Our parents played a part in the giving of the sheer gift of human existence, and so there is nothing we can do to completely repay that generosity. To attempt to do so presupposes that existence.

Furthermore, the debt owing to parents who raise their children properly is, in terms of our ability to satisfy, even more out of our reach. The reason is that proper upbringing is so crucial to the development of prudence, the mother of all virtue, as well as to the development of justice, which in turn is a necessary prerequisite to the development of prudence. Good parenting is the cornerstone of civilization; for there is no prudence without right orientation, that is, an ordering to the right end. A person who has made himself the ultimate end of all he does (the center of his life) cannot be prudent, only cunning. Unless the will and sensitive appetites are orientated to the right end, namely the common good of the social whole and ultimately union with God, there is no genuine prudence and thus no true virtue. Moreover, the common good depends upon good law, which in turn depends upon just and prudent legislators and a just and prudent citizenry that will obey just laws and elect worthy leaders. But a child will fail to recognize nobility (the kalon) unless he has been properly and carefully raised, loved, guided, educated, and corrected. As Aristotle writes:

For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasures that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.9

Now in light of the fact that virtue is the principle of emotional stability and the means of happiness, the debt of gratitude owing to a good parent is quite simply impossible to fully satisfy. But justice demands that we begin to try, that is, to satisfy it as much as we are reasonably able. Piety is that part of justice by which we manifest the honor, respect and reverence we owe our parents. The social whole has a special debt to good parents at the same time; for its health and well-being is directly dependent upon the way they choose to carry out the burdensome responsibility of child rearing. The reality of this debt should in some visible way be reflected in law.


Those who hold public office have as their principal task the maintenance of the common good, not their private good. To fulfill this task well requires a high level of personal integrity, a very ordered and integrated life in which the concupiscible and irascible emotions are subject to a just will and a prudent mind. To hold public office worthily requires a will perfected by distributive justice, as well as a mind well disposed by the specific type of prudence that corresponds to the office in question, such as political prudence, or pedagogical prudence if the office is that of educator (teacher, principal, superintendent, etc.), or military prudence if one is a police chief or an army general, or jurisprudence if one is a judge.

The debt we owe to those who hold public office worthily is one that also cannot be fully remitted. As was pointed out above, we are the beneficiaries of the labor of countless others who have gone before us, and most of these people did not hold public office. But those who did and who chose to justly allot the economic, legal, and social conditions conducive to the possession of common goods by everyone, benefited us in ways impossible to calculate. Observance is that part of the virtue of justice by which we render due honor to those in public office, such as Governor, President, Premier of a province, Prime Minister, Member of Parliament, Police Chief, Police Officer, Superintendent, Principal, Vice Principal, Teacher, Court Judge, etc.

Now the question always arises whether we are obliged to venerate one who holds public office unworthily. I think the answer is a qualified yes. Certainly, the person who holds public office unworthily should be removed from office as quickly as possible, either by civil authorities or voters. But the veneration given to a corrupt leader, for example, is more a veneration for the office, and that veneration spills over onto the man, at least to some degree. One’s respect for him is not nearly as great were he to be a person of great justice. In fact, the man has failed, and voters have a serious responsibility to remove him from office, despite his false promises or the special benefits that affect a special interest group to which one might belong. But whatever honor is shown him, it is the indirect result of the direct honor shown his office. The fact that some people, who do not respect the man, choose to hold themselves back from making irreverent remarks shows that veneration for the office has in some sense caused them to revere the person.

But would not charity demand that we revere everyone and not behave irreverently towards anyone, regardless of whether or not they hold public office? Charity will certainly increase our reverence towards ordinary human persons and command us not to treat anyone irreverently, but charity also increases our reverence for those in public office, for it will add to our reverence for the office itself. Again, the dignity of one who holds the office will be enhanced by the dignity of the office; as a man, he will be all the more vile for abusing the office than had he never held office in the first place, just as he will be held in greater honor for holding the office well than had he never held it.


Patriotism is that virtue annexed to justice that bears upon the country as a whole, including its entire history. It is a love for the civil community and a willingness to satisfy, as far as possible, the debt we owe it. This will involve showing due honor to the country, which includes standing for the country’s national anthem, a willingness to defend the country should it find itself under attack, etc. It is no coincidence that those who couldn’t be bothered standing respectfully for their country’s national anthem also evidence a lack of a sense of gratitude to the country as a whole. Such people are unaware that they are the beneficiaries of the generosity and labor of millions, for no one, within today’s culture of Individualism, has ever called their attention to such a notion. On the contrary, a great many in the western world seem to have been brought up to think mainly in terms of their private rights, not their public duty.

Individualism has affected some countries more than others. For example, one of the great failures of Canada since the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been an almost complete neglect of emphasis of those parts of justice, such as general justice, observance, piety, and religion, that rightly order the individual towards the social whole either directly or indirectly. In the minds of many people, the civil community alone is the subject of duties and has the sole obligation to supply the conditions for the free exercise of individual liberty, while individual citizens need only concern themselves with their subjective rights. The Individualism of the 60s and 70s is the philosophical and cultural framework that spawned the Canadian Charter in particular, which tends to confuse the distinction between objective and subjective rights.

For the proper object of a right is that which is just. As we pointed out above, right refers to ‘the just’, implying a relation of equality between persons. An objective right is a thing or action due another. The civil community as a whole has objective rights, which patriotism, legal justice and observance have as their object. In other words, citizens have obligations towards the social whole. A subjective right is the moral power that an individual person possesses for doing or acquiring something, such as the right to vote, or the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

A subjective right, however, is dependent upon an objective right. The moral power that one has is called a ‘right’ in relation to and consequent upon an objective right (a thing or action due another). The right to marry and beget new life, for example, has always been grounded in the duty towards the common good; for society proceeds from the family unit as the organs of the body proceed from its cells. So, as we have been generously given life, education, and a cultural and religious heritage, we owe it to our country, our parents, and to God to continue that generosity.

The civil community as a whole has a right to expect a certain level of generosity and loyalty from its citizens. Indeed, every individual person has rights, and this presupposes the duty of the state to establish the ensemble of material and other conditions that favor the realization of each and every person’s own flourishing, which of course includes the realization of each one’s obligations to his equals, to his parents, to the social whole, and to God.

But when we reverse the relationship between objective and subjective right such that subjective right becomes primary, then the order of law and justice becomes subordinated to the liberty (freedoms) of individuals. When this happens, the aim of society becomes freedom, not justice or the common good. The inevitable outcome is an almost complete lack of patriotism in the citizenry, especially the young.

Moreover, when individual liberty is held up as an absolute end, it necessarily relativizes the moral order and the order of rights, making them entirely subjective. And when individual liberty becomes an end above and beyond the common good, individual freedoms — such as those typically listed in a modern Charter of Rights — will lack objective criteria that justly limit them. Within such a context, legal decisions are bound to be unprincipled, ad hoc, and thus unpredictable.

But the right of individual liberty is subordinated to the common good of the social order. My individual freedoms are limited by my duties to the common good of the civil community, that is, by the objective rights of the civil community to expect certain just actions from me.

Patriotism and War

Patriotism includes, as was said above, the willingness to defend the country should it find itself under attack. The patriotic are willing to fall in battle for future generations as others before them have done. Not only is there an increasingly widespread — not to mention questionable — rejection of the death penalty as in itself unjustifiable, there seems to be an increasingly widespread, unqualified and absolute rejection of war as something in itself contrary to peace. But it may very well be the case that such a movement also hides something far more insidious, such as a growing indifference towards oppression and injustice and a cowardly unwillingness to fall in battle for something larger than oneself, such as the common good that is threatened externally by an unjust power. It may speak of an unwillingness to expand oneself through love, an unwillingness to love others of another country as another self so as to be willing to come to their aid and act in their defense. What better way to hide such depravity than to shroud it under the cloak of a peace sign?

Aquinas argues quite persuasively that war is not unlawful in itself and not necessarily contrary to peace. In fact, it can very well be an act of peacemaking. In order for war to be just, a number of things are necessary. The authority of the sovereign must be just and legitimate, and only that authority can command war to be waged; for the public authority has as its primary duty the protection of the common good of the city, the province or country subject to them, and so a private citizen cannot legitimately declare war.

Aquinas argues that there is a duty to wage war under certain circumstances, and he quotes Psalm 82, 4, addressed to those in authority: “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”. Hence, a just cause is required for a just war. A just cause aims not only at defending the just order, but also at restoring the just order, which is disrupted by an external enemy of the state. It is demanded by the virtue of vindication, existing in the will of the public authority.

It is necessary that those waging war have right intention, which is the intention to protect the common good or to promote it, and not the motive of aggrandizement or revenge. The intention must be to secure peace and to restore the just order and establish the common good. As Aquinas writes: “For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention.”

There are four objections that Thomas treats in the Summa regarding this question, three of which are particularly relevant.10 The first cites Matthew, 26, 52: “All that take the sword shall perish with the sword”. The second objection cites the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you not to resist evil,” as well as the Letter of Paul to the Romans, 12, 19: “Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place to wrath” (“Never try to get revenge; leave that, my friends, to God’s anger”. trans. The Jerusalem Bible). The third objection makes the argument that nothing, except sin, is contrary to an act of virtue, but since war is contrary to peace, war is always a sin.

To the first objection, Thomas points out that to “take the sword” is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command of proper authority. This is not the same as having recourse to the sword as an instrument of public authority and to use it as commissioned by that authority, which has charge of the common good. His reply to the second objection refines his argument. He says that we ought to keep the biblical precepts cited well in mind so as to be ready to obey them and, if necessary, to refrain from self-defense. Nonetheless, he argues, it is at times necessary for us to act otherwise for the sake of the common good, or even for the good of those we’re fighting. Here he quotes St. Augustine: “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy” (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii). And to the third objection, Thomas simply replies: “Those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace.

I have heard and considered the arguments of pacifists in favor of the absolute prohibition of war, and to my mind, their arguments have not been able to stand up to the simplest tests of common sense reasoning. For example, should a disgruntled student or two come to school with semi-automatic machine guns and start firing randomly at every young person in sight, would the pacifist argue that administrators have a duty not to call the police, since the police carry guns and are willing and likely to use them? The pacifist position would have to require us not to cooperate with unjustifiable conduct on the part of gun carrying police officers. If the pacifist admits that one may call for armed help, then it is admitted that armed self-defense is justifiable in principle.


Not only do we have a debt towards our parents and country, a debt we cannot completely remit, we also have a debt towards God that is logically impossible to satisfy. For everything we have, every human, instrumental and common good we enjoy comes ultimately from God. For God is the First Existential Cause of all that is, such as other human persons, the common goods they produce, the state, the existing order of law, our own actions, our real acts of will and intelligence, etc.,. All is sheer gift. And so the most perfect part of justice is the virtue of religion by which one renders in some way what is due to God. No matter what a person does in his attempt to remit that debt to God, he only renders himself more deeply in debt, for his religious acts are themselves created by God, despite the fact that they are truly his own religious acts, for he cannot do anything unless he and his actions are made to be.

The first response to the generosity of a giver is to say thank-you. And so prayer, in particular the prayer of thanksgiving, is the first interior act of religion by which a person renders due honor and worship to God. We also honor God by recognizing our utter dependency upon Him and thus restraining the inordinate hope we might have in ourselves. Hence, the prayer of petition. Prayers of praise and adoration follow upon sufficient reflection on divine providence.

Gratitude demands that one should pay back more than what one has received. St. Thomas writes:

…gratitude regards the favor received according to the intention of the benefactor, who seems to be deserving of praise, chiefly for having conferred the favor gratis without being bound to do so. Wherefore the beneficiary is under a moral obligation to bestow something gratis in return. Now he does not seem to bestow something gratis, unless he exceeds the quantity of the favor received: because so long as he repays less or an equivalent, he would seem to do nothing gratis, but only to return what he has received. Therefore gratitude always inclines, as far as possible, to pay back something more.11

But it is not possible to exceed the giver in this case, neither in deed nor in will. But it is sufficient if there is a very ardent will to repay, as much as possible, what one has received. It is this will that leads to the worship of God, to the complete surrender of one’s entire person to Him, making Him the center around which our lives revolve. This will is so strong that it seeks to express itself through external acts of religion, or religious ritual, expressing devotion and including acts of sacrifice. We see this in the Jewish offerings of the first fruits of the harvest, an act that makes visible the interior feeling of gratitude and the recognition of our utter dependency upon divine providence.

God is the origin of everything that is, and He is the ultimate end towards which all things tend, for all things are inclined to be most fully, and God is fullness of being (Ipsum Esse Subsistens). Man is also naturally inclined to be most fully, within the limits of his human nature. But as an intellectual creature, he is open to the whole of reality, for he understands the very notion of the “whole of reality”. The human goods to which he is naturally inclined all seem to be aspects of contemplation. Man tends to contemplate and he desires to contemplate the causes of things, seeking the highest causes and ultimately the highest cause; for his mind can taste a certain rest in the possession of these causes (knowledge). He will be perpetually restless (not necessarily miserable) until he comes to possess the highest and absolutely First Cause, in the knowledge of which he will possess the whole of reality; for in possessing the cause, one possesses the effect.

The Theological Virtues

But he cannot come to possess the origin of being through the limited powers of his nature, because God is not an object proportioned to his nature. God infinitely exceeds the limited capacity of human nature. That is why in order to achieve perfect happiness, the rest his heart seeks in every one of his actions, he depends upon the divine initiative to freely and gratuitously lift him up through divine grace so as to proportion him to achieve the end of supernatural contemplation.

The ultimate good attracting and moving the will is both natural and supernatural. As natural it lies within the scope of our natural powers; it is the felicity matching human nature about which philosophers discourse — the contemplative happiness of active wisdom, the practical happiness of active prudence spreading out into the activities of the other moral virtues. As supernatural, it exceeds unaided human nature and cannot be reached by our inherited powers; we cannot think it or wish it of ourselves. We are set on this happiness solely by divine liberality.12

The human person is naturally proportioned to human goods. He has a natural inclination to preserve his life, to beget life, to know the natures of things, to contemplate beautiful things, to enter into deeper relationships, to establish friendships, and to seek harmony between himself and his country, and between himself and God. But he does not know God as He is in Himself, nor can he love God as he loves his friends. He cannot attain God, because God is supernatural. And so if he is to achieve perfection, God must freely choose to infuse in him a supernatural inclination analogous to the natural tendencies of his nature towards natural human goods. Through these infused qualities, he is inclined to what is above the natural capacities of his nature.

The end is in the beginning: no one is directed to an end unless he be already proportioned to it. Otherwise he would not desire it, for like likes like. The motion of human nature towards happiness starts from the first principles of reason, which are like the seeds of wisdom, and the first principles of the natural law, which are like the seeds of the moral virtues. The parallel applies to the world of grace: it is consonant with the way things work that the happiness of eternal life should already be planted in him who has received the promise. Eternal life consists in the full knowledge of God: this is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God. This supernatural knowledge is now entered into by faith, which believes, through infused light, truths exceeding our natural wits.13

The first of these supernatural inclinations is faith, which is the intellectual assent, commanded by the will, to what God has revealed about Himself. It effects an interior illumination by which the articles of faith become intelligible.14 Consequently, before Christ’s coming, “no philosopher by his entire sustained effort could have known as much about God and the truths necessary for salvation as can a humble old woman now that Christ has come.”15

The theological virtue of hope is the next of the three supernatural inclinations infused into the human person, for it is not enough to believe what God has revealed about Himself. We need to be inclined to look expectantly towards Him, to await confidently the fulfillment of what He has promised, namely the promise of eternal life and the promise of His help.

But it is through the infused virtue of charity that we actually attain God and begin to possess Him in this life. The union that charity establishes is a union of friendship, which involves a love that is mutual. This friendship does not begin with us, but with His love for us. He freely and gratuitously shares His happiness with us, raises us up by grace, perfects our free will, reveals Himself, moves the will to believe and hope in Him without compelling us. To cooperate with grace, to choose to believe in Him and confidently await the fulfillment of his promises, to converse with Him and contemplate Him is to love Him back. This is to enter into friendship with God. This is supernatural charity.

For friends to converse together is the proper condition of friendship. Men’s conversation with God is through contemplation… Next, friends delight in each other’s presence, enjoying each other’s actions and talk, and finding comfort there in their anxieties…. Lastly, friends agree together. Accordingly, instructed by his precepts and moved by the Holy Spirit to fulfill them, we consent to God’s will.16

And so man’s return to God is led by the virtue of religion, the most perfect part of the virtue of justice, and it is achieved through the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. But there is one place where the analogy between between the inclinations of human nature towards intelligible human goods and the infused virtues of faith, hope, and charity falls short. The theological virtues have to be developed and nourished, or they will die. Heaven is not comparable to a Club Med or some other lush tropical resort. We naturally incline to such conditions, but we do not naturally incline to the life of faith and charity or the heavenly liturgy (Rv. 4). The infused virtues are the beginnings of that life, but the human person must grow in faith, in hope, and in the life of charity in order to be properly prepared for life hereafter. Without that preparation, the life of heaven will be so contrary to our character that we can only experience it as painful, like the birth of a premature baby who has to now endure conditions the rest of us are used to, but to which his body is insufficiently adapted. A breeze that we would find pleasant would strike him as cold and profoundly uncomfortable.


Obedience is an integral part of the virtues of piety, observance, patriotism and religion. But when most people hear the word obedience, they tend to think of it as a characteristic more worthy of a dog than a human person. Obedience has become a canine trait, and thus well below the dignity of the human person. The idea that freedom means doing what you want to do and not what another would have you do, and that happiness is directly proportionate to one’s individual freedom, is so ingrained in the minds of many people that the very suggestion that obedience is a virtue is met with a look of genuine perplexity.

But obedience is not really a specifically canine trait at all — even in dogs. Far from being below us, obedience is actually well above us. Through it, we become more than what we are without ceasing to be what we are.

An obedient animal is one that is trained to obey the will of its master, a human person endowed with reason. The master’s intention in training the animal is to render its behavior more “reasonable”. A dog that has a natural propensity to bite people, to defecate anywhere it feels, or to chase down whatever moves, is one that needs to be trained if it is to live among human beings in a household setting. An obedient dog will not bite, or run out onto the street and attack pedestrians, or defecate in the house. It will sit, or approach when called, etc. Its powers are disposed to act in accordance with reason, which exists not in him, but in the person who trains the dog to obey.

And so even though the obedient animal remains a non-rational brute, its behavior has a semblance of reason by virtue of the training of its master. That is why an obedient animal is much more likable than a disobedient one; for it behaves well without its being aware of it. But most importantly, its behavior exhibits a quality that exceeds the animal’s natural capacity. The significance of its behavior is beyond its ability to appreciate or understand. Its powers are disposed by a power that it does not have, a power that is superior to all its natural powers, namely reason. Thus, an obedient animal is more than what he is (a non-rational brute animal having a semblance of reason) without ceasing to be what he is (a non-rational brute that does not understand himself or what he is doing). A disobedient animal, one that simply does what it desires, is less than an obedient one, not more.

Obedience in a man is of a different nature than obedience in an animal; a man obeys like a man, not like a brute animal. The latter obeys as a result of a memory association between a behavior and a subsequent experience of pleasure or pain. But a fully human obedience is rooted in intelligence and will. And since prudence is the mother of the virtues, obedience, in order to be truly virtuous, must be prudent, intelligent, and carried out willingly. That being said, it is similarly the case that just as an obedient animal is more than what he is without ceasing to be what he is, so too, a child obedient to his parents, a man obedient to just laws ordered to the common good, and a man obedient to the law of God are all more than what they are without ceasing to be what they are. Just as an obedient animal contains within himself a supra-animal quality, so too a man obedient to divine law carries in himself a supra-human quality. An observant and pious man who relinquishes his own private will for the sake of a higher directive becomes more than what he is in himself. An obedient man is therefore much more than a disobedient one, not less. Hence, obedience is not below our dignity, but well above it.

Obedience brings about an expansion and enlarging of the self; for it requires that we give up our own will (self-will) and freely adopt the other’s will as our own. My will becomes his will, or the will of the state, or the divine will. As long as that will is not contrary to divine or natural law, to adopt it is to transcend oneself, that is, to become more than oneself without ceasing to be oneself. To obey someone who exhorts us to choose contrary to the natural moral law is indeed below us, because such choices are self-destructive and contrary to our nature and are corruptive of the common good. In this case, obedience does not enlarge the human person, but shrinks him.

But genuine obedience in the human person involves at the same time a host of other virtues. First, it requires the intelligence to recognize that someone has a superior quality that we lack, for example, a certain charism, or perhaps that he or she is smarter, or holier, or wiser, or has more experience than we have and can probably see things that we cannot at this point in our lives. It also involves humility, which presupposes the intelligence to know our own limits and is the ability to moderate the love we have of our own excellence and accept those known limitations. Hence, there is very little nobility in doing one’s own thing in life, that is, in being one’s own master or one’s own god.

Related Issues of Justice

Contraception and Natural Family Planning

Contraception is not, strictly speaking, homicide. But I have chosen to treat it in the context of the virtue of justice because contraception has something in common with homicide, namely a “contra-life” will, that is, a will set against a basic human good. The difference between the two is that contraception involves a will set against a possible baby, not an actual baby — otherwise contraception and abortion would be the same thing.. Now setting one’s will against a possible baby is morally significant, because all basic intelligible human goods are possibilities before they are actualities. In other words, a possible person is not nothing. Potentiality is not the same as non-being. One’s will cannot bear upon non-being, but it can and often does bear upon a potentiality. A possible baby is still a human good, just as a possible friendship is humanly good and an object of the will. Consider that acting to prevent a possible friendship from becoming an actuality would indeed be morally significant and worthy of discussion within the context of justice. That is why contraception is worthy of consideration in the context of that virtue which deals with rightly ordered willing, namely justice.

This issue can best be understood by recalling that one need not actually kill anybody physically in order to acquire the moral identity of a murderer. I may intend to kill a person, perform an act with that intention, and actually convince myself that I have succeeded without actually having done so (i.e., I could hire a hit man to kill my wife without realizing that he is in fact an undercover police officer). By choosing to conclude a deal with such a person to have my wife eliminated, I take on the moral identity of a murderer, even though my wife was not to be killed. For I have made a choice to murder my wife. The action was a murderous action, even though the act did not result in her death. What makes the action an act of killing, morally speaking (as opposed to physically and/or legally), is the relationship that exists between my will and the human life it bears upon (in this case, my wife). That will or intention was contra-life. Morally speaking, there is no difference between that action (concluding a deal with the undercover cop) and actually succeeding in killing my wife. There is only a physical difference.

Now, what does this have to do with contraception and natural family planning (NFP)? Contraception is not homicide — unless, of course, we refer to abortifacients, such as the IUD, the morning after pill, or in some instances the birth control pill, for these dispose of already conceived life. But what contraception and homicide have in common is a contra-life will. This does not make contraception an act of homicide, but if the contra-life intention makes homicide morally evil, it is precisely this contra-life intention that makes contraception morally wrong.

But if contraception is contra-life (as the word indicates), isn’t NFP contra-life as well? Indeed, both have as their end the avoidance of a pregnancy. But it is the means employed to realize that end that is the difference between the two. Let me illustrate the difference using a table.

Firstly, the couples in both cases consider having sex.

Table 1:

Couple C (Contraception)

Couple N (Natural Family Planning)

1. Consider having sex 1. Consider having sex

But they realize that they have a good reason to avoid a pregnancy, and that if they perform the sexual act, they might initiate a new life. So, they project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

Table 2:

Couple C

Couple N

1. Consider having sex 1. Consider having sex
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.

Up to this point, there is no real difference between the contracepting couple and the NFP couple. But it is at this point that the couples begin to choose differently. Couple C chooses to have sex. But this decision necessitates another choice, which is the choice to take steps to prevent the possible baby they projected from becoming an actuality. In other words, it requires a choice to contracept. But couple N simply chooses not to have sex. Consider the table below.

Table 3:

Couple C

Couple N

1. Consider the sex act. 1. Consider the sex act.
2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse. 2. They project a possible baby as a consequence of their act of intercourse.
3. They decide to have sex, and they choose to prevent that possible baby from becoming an actuality. 3. They choose not to have sex.

Couple N has chosen not to do something. They have a good reason not to have another baby, and since sexual intercourse is a life giving action, they have a good reason not to have sex. Hence, their decision not to have sex is reasonable.

Couple C chooses to have sex even though they have a good reason not to. Hence, that choice is already unreasonable. But they take steps to prevent a possible baby (which they have projected) from becoming an actual baby. This is contra-life. For the act is directed against a potential human life.

There is a real difference — even a moral difference — between preventing something from being and choosing not to cause something to be. In the legitimate use (unselfish use) of NFP, the couple chooses not to cause a baby to be. The contracepting couple chooses to prevent a possible person from coming to be. These two relationships, with respect to human life, are not morally the same.17

But if I choose not to cause something, do I not choose to prevent it from being? Not at all. I may choose not to cause a person to get a job, but that does not mean that I have prevented him from getting the job, nor does it mean that I will that he not get the job. A person may choose not to cause a friend to come to her wedding, but that does not mean that she wills that she not come to the wedding.

It is not possible to intend to prevent a possible baby unless a baby is about to emerge as a result of a life-giving action, or unless one believes that one is about to emerge. If a couple simply chooses not to have sex, they are not preventing a possible baby, because choosing not to have sex is not a life giving act. There is no need to contracept an act that is not life-giving. But sexual intercourse is a life giving action, which is why the contracepting couple, after choosing to engage in sexual intercourse, takes steps to contracept it. A baby is a real possibility if they choose to have sex, and it is against this real possibility that the couple willingly act against.

Moreoever, the sex act embraces within itself two intelligible human goods: the unitive and the procreative. These two goods constitute the human good of marriage, for marriage is an institution that is established as a result of a mutual decision to become a one flesh union. The intention to establish that one flesh union includes the openness to new life, at least on the level of the will, since new life is the result of the union of the male and female gametes. That is why the deliberate intention not to have children renders a marriage invalid. That is also why a contracepted act of intercourse cannot consummate a marriage.

And so there is a nuptial or conjugal meaning to the sex act. The sexual act is the marital act. The unitive and procreative goods together form a whole, and the attack on one is an attack on the other, which in the end amounts to an attack on the marriage. By intentionally rendering the marriage act sterile, the two actually intend to limit their mutual self-giving (the unitive good). But their mutual self-giving is their marital love for one another, which is a willed and total self-giving. There is a sense in which their intention to prevent a possible baby amounts to willing and establishing a limit to their mutual self-giving. By choosing not to cause a baby, they accept the fact that they will not see and experience a visible and tangible completion of their intention to be one body. On the other hand, by willingly preventing a possible baby, they will a limit. But this is contrary to conjugal love, and such action cannot nourish married love.

The Ethics of Baby Making

The hardest issue to deal with in all of ethics — at least in my experience — has been the issue of baby making (In Vitro Fertilization). Catholic teaching on the ethics of In Vitro Fertilization, for example, seems counterintuitive, at least initially. For the action of conceiving a baby in vitro is not directed against human life. It is not contra-life, but apparently pro-life. So why the opposition? And why wouldn’t we recommend to a married couple who cannot conceive a baby on their own to turn to In Vitro Fertilization?

We’ve already seen that the human person is an end in himself. Every other type of being on the hierarchy of beings within the physical universe exist to serve the needs of the human person. The elements do not exist for their own sake, nor do plants. Vegetative and animal life exist ultimately to serve the needs of human beings. They are all instrumental goods. But man alone is a good to be loved for his own sake, not for the sake of what he can provide others.

That is why we naturally recoil from being used as a means to an end. When we discover that we’ve been lied to and manipulated for the sake of someone else’s private purpose, we quite naturally become angry. Using a human person as a means to an end is abusive. This person or that person does not exist “for my sake” as if his existence is primarily a gift “for me”. As Pope John Paul II pointed out, “man is the only being that God the Creator willed into existence for his own sake.” That is why I must relate to human persons in line with that divine will, that is, as ends in themselves, not as means to my own personal ends. To use a person is to abuse a person.

From this principle it follows that a human being is not a right. To make a child or any human person the object of a right is to reduce the person to the level of an object to be possessed. But a child is not a right, but a gift, the supreme gift of matrimony.

The principle that human beings must never be treated as means to ends but always as ends in themselves means that human beings must be loved not for what they can do for me, but only and always for their own sake. This implies that the very existence of a person must be willed not for the sake of what that existence can do for me, but simply for the person’s own sake.

So how does this apply to In Vitro Fertilization and all other related issues around technologized parenthood? A couple would like to have a baby, but they cannot for some biological reason. What could be wrong with getting a little help from the medical profession? Nothing, as long as it does not involve treating a baby as a means to an end. The problem is that IVF necessarily involves treating a baby as a means to an end.

The best way to explain this — in my experience at least — is to distinguish between the act of procreation and that of production. The act of manufacturing is very different than that of procreation, and the two involve a completely different way of relating to the product and the baby. Consider the following:

Production and Procreation

What the couple get when they conceive a child in the act is simply more of them — it is an expansion of their marriage — an enrichment and enlargement of the community of their marriage.

To produce something means to manufacture a product in order to satisfy the desire for it (the product of the manufacturing process). Production is an activity carried out for the sake of a product that is brought into being in order to satisfy the desire for it. To manufacture anything is to subordinate what you are making (product) to the desire to possess it. Thus, the project of producing anything (a new car, a house, medicine, etc.) is to bring that possible product into existence to satisfy the desire to have it.

The project of producing a baby is to bring a possible baby into existence in order to satisfy the desire for a future that includes that baby. But a baby must not be evaluated by relating the baby’s existence to my desire for a future which includes that baby. This is to treat a baby as a means to an end. Thus, the principle that a person must be willed into existence for his own sake (and not for the sake of satisfying one’s desire for a baby) is violated in the laboratory production of human life.

Procreation, on the other hand, is not the same as production. Procreation is the bringing forth of new human life as the fulfillment of the conjugal act. In performing the sexual act, the married couple become reproductively one organism. By intending to come together in the sex act (one body unity), the couple intend their marriage (their one flesh union). The act signifies their marriage and is a celebration of it. Now marriage is a basic human good, willed for its own sake, not an instrumental good. The first requirement for the procreation of new life is that the couple perform the sex act for its own sake, as a celebration of their marriage.

Now, the child is the completion of their one flesh union. So the will to become one body in the conjugal act (which they perform for its own sake as a celebration of marital love) is identical to the will to have a child — for the couple trying to have a child, that is. By willing a child as the fulfillment of their one body unity, the two are willing their fulfillment as parents. The baby perfects and completes the couple as a one flesh union. Their will to be completely one body is the same as their will for a child. If they will to be completely one body for its own sake, then they intend the child for its own sake. The child is an expansion of the community of the couple’s marriage. What the couple get when they conceive a child in the act is simply more of them — it is an expansion of their marriage — an enrichment and enlargement of the community of their marriage.

In the procreation of human life, the couple simply will to be more of what they are, that is, they want to be one body as much as possible, as much as they can be, and the child makes them more deeply one body. The couple is trying to function as a one flesh unity and they hope that their marriage act will be fruitful. When they conceive, they are delighted that their marital love is blessed and made complete.

In the laboratory generation of human life, the child does not perfect or complete the one body unity of the couple, the couple only pretend that it does. For they do not become reproductively one body; the child is generated outside the marital act. The child is the product of the individual act of the scientist who unites the male and female gametes in vitro. But to produce anything is to subordinate the product to the desire to possess it. The production of human life in vitro involves willing the child’s existence to satisfy one’s desire to have a baby — thus treating the child as a means to an end, as a means of satisfying the desire for a future which includes the baby.

Similarly, having sex not as a marital act but simply in order to have a baby would also be wrong for precisely the same reason. The child would not be willed as the fulfillment of their one body union. It would also constitute an abuse of the marital act; for it violates its integrity.

By Dough McManaman


  1. “The falsehood and evil of egoism by no means consist in the fact that the egoist values himself too highly, credits himself with absolute significance and infinite worth. In this he is correct, because every human subject, as an independent center of living powers, as a potentiality of infinite perfection, as a being capable in consciousness and in his life of accommodating absolute truth — every person, as such, possesses absolute significance and worth. In every human being there is something absolutely irreplaceable, and one cannot value oneself too highly. (In the words of the gospel: “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?) Failure to recognize one’s own absolute significance is equivalent to a denial of human worth; this is a basic error and the origin of all unbelief. If one is so faint-hearted that he is powerless even to believe in himself, how can he believe in anything else? The basic falsehood and evil of egoism lie not in this absolute self-consciousness and self-evaluation of the subject, but in the fact that, ascribing to himself in all justice an absolute significance, he unjustly refuses to others this same significance. Recognizing himself as a center of life (which as a matter of fact he is), he relegates others to the circumference of his own being and leaves them only an external and relative value.” The Meaning of Love. Edinburgh. Floris. 1985. p.42.
  2. Nichomachean Ethics. 3, 2.
  3. ST. I-II. 47, 3. This tendency to anger is very different from the capital sin of anger. What Thomas describes here is anger rooted in a just will. The capital sin of anger describes a deliberate and unjust decision to nurse anger against another, or to harbor unforgiveness.
  4. Josef Pieper writes: “Let us recall the characteristic structure of distributive justice by reminding ourselves that an individual man is not confronted with another individual only, nor even with many individuals. He is confronted by the social whole. It becomes clear at once that the two partners are not of equal rank, not only because many are more than one, but also because the common weal belongs to another and higher order than the good of the individual.” Justice: A Summing Up of Human and Political Wisdom. New York:. Pantheon. 1955. p.63. Thomas writes: “The common good of the realm and the particular good of the individual differ not only in respect of the “many” and the “few,” but also under a formal aspect. For the aspect of the “common” good differs from the aspect of the “individual” good, even as the aspect of “whole” differs from that of “part.” Wherefore the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 1) that “they are wrong who maintain that the State and the home and the like differ only as many and few and not specifically” (ST. II-II. 58, 7, ad 2). He also writes: “Just as the good of the multitude is greater than the good of a unit in that multitude, so is it less than the extrinsic good to which that multitude is directed, even as the good of a rank in the army is less than the good of the commander-in-chief. On like manner the good of ecclesiastical unity, to which schism is opposed, is less than the good of Divine truth, to which unbelief is opposed.” (ST. II-II. 39, 2, ad 2).
  5. It is important to interpret Thomas very carefully on this issue. He writes: “…it is lawful to kill dumb animals, in so far as they are naturally directed to man’s use, as the imperfect is directed to the perfect. Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (ST. II-II. 64. 2). In the next article he writes: “it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community’s welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death.” (ST. II-II. 64. 3).It appears as if Aquinas has adopted a kind of totalitarian view of the state. But this is not so. His references to medical acts of excision are not univocal, but analogical. The individual person’s relationship to the social whole is in some ways similar to that of the kidney, foot, hand, etc., to the whole body, and in some ways not. Totalitarianism regards the individual person as a mere part of the whole. Aquinas does not. He writes: “Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has; and so it does not follow that every action of his acquires merit or demerit in relation to the body politic” (ST. I-II, 21. 4, ad 3.). At the same time, though, the individual human person really is a part of the whole. As Maritain writes: “There is an enormous difference between this statement: “Man, by reason of certain things which are in him, is in his entirety engaged as a part of political society” and this other statement: “Man is a part of political society by reason of himself as a whole and by reason of all that is in him.” The first one is true, and the second one is false….Anarchical individualism denies that man, by reason of certain things which are in him, is engaged in his entirety as a part of political society. Totalitarianism asserts that man is a part of political society by reason of himself as a whole and by reason of all that is in him (“all in the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside of the state”). The truth is that man is engaged in his entirety — but not by reason of his whole self — as a part of political society, a part ordained to the good of the society.” The Person and the Common Good. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1966. pp. 71-72.
  6. Catholic Philosopher and Oxford Professor of Jurisprudence John Finnis writes: “…a person who violates the order of fairness, which can be described as a system of rights, forfeits certain of his own rights. That is to say, he loses the right that all others shall respect in his person all the basic aspects of human well-being. For those persons (and only those) whose responsibility it is to maintain the order of justice are now entitled to deprive him of certain of those basic goods, in order to restore the order of justice he disrupted. This act of deprivation will be, in one sense, an intentional attack on or suppression of basic human goods. But…the deprivation or suppression will be intended neither for its own sake nor as a means to any further good state of affairs. Rather, it is intended precisely as itself a good, namely the good of restoring the order of justice, a restoration that cannot (logically cannot) consist in anything other than such an act of deprivation or suppression.The reasoning in the previous paragraph shows why even capital punishment need not be regarded as doing evil that good may come of it, nor as treating the criminal as a mere means, nor as a choice which must be characterized as either wholly or primarily an attack (however well motivated) on a basic good. On the other hand, it does not show that capital punishment is required, even for atrocious murders; part of the traditional theory of punishment is that the measure of just punishment is determined not by natural reason but rather by positive (man-made) laws within the limits of justice; so ‘life for life’ is not a requirement of reason. It may also be that capital punishment, while not a direct attack on the good of human life, displays an inadequate respect for that good, except perhaps in those circumstances where no other means are available to prevent further murderous or equivalently gross violations of justice by the criminal himself.” The Fundamentals of Ethics. Georgetown University Press. 1983. pp.129-130
  7. “The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as “useless annihilation.”Many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.” Avery Cardinal Dulles “Catholicism & Capital Punishment”. First Things. 12 (April 2001): 30-35.
  8. A Man For All Seasons. Act Two.
  9. Nichomachean Ethics. 2, 3.
  10. ST. II-II. 40, 1.
  11. ST. II-II. 106, 6
  12. Disputations, XIV, de Veritate, 2. Quoted in Thomas Gilby, Theological Texts. London: Oxford University Press. 1955. p. 193.
  13. Ibid., p. 193.
  14. “The infused light of the habit of faith discovers the meaning of the articles of the Creed just as the mind’s natural power of abstraction discovers the first evidences of reason.” III Sentences, 23, 2. I, ad 4. Ibid., p.190.
  15. Exposition, Apostles’ Creed. Quoted in Gilby, p. 184. “Between knowledge through science and knowledge through faith there is this difference: science shines only on the mind, showing that God is the cause of everything, that He is one and wise, and so forth. Faith enlightens the mind and also warms the affections, telling us not merely that God is first cause, but also that he is saviour, redeemer, loving, made flesh for us.” Commentary, 2 Corinthians, ii, lect. 3. Quoted in Gilby. p.184.
  16. CG 4. 22.
  17. For a thorough treatment of the contra-life character of contraception, see Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis and William E. May, “Every Marital Act Ought To Be Open to New Life: Toward a Clearer Understanding,” The Thomist 52 (1988) 365-366.

The Virtue of Prudence by Doug McManaman
The Virtue of Temperance by Doug McManaman
The Virtue of Fortitude by Doug McManaman
The Virtue of Justice by Doug McManaman


This article is borrowed From Douglas McManaman “The Virtue of Justice” (February 2006). 


Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

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