The Virtue of Justice (Part I)

By Engr. Carlos Cornejo

Justice is doing the right thing in relation to others.  Justice always involves this “otherness”, meaning it is always directed to another human being.  St. Thomas Aquinas would define justice as the habit by which a person gives to each one what is his due or what he or she deserves, with a constant and perpetual desire to do so.

The goal of justice is to render to each person his or her rights. These rights are more commonly known as universal human rights which is defined as inalienable and fundamental rights which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being regardless of age, ethnic origin, location, language, religion, or any other status.  Some of these human rights are the right to free speech, a right to due process and equal protection of law, the right to free exercise of religion, and of course the right to life (the most basic and fundamental right of a human being once he or she is conceived in the womb).

The ultimate basis of the dignity or value of a human being is his or her being made in the image and likeness of God.  That is why Christ said anything done to the least of his brethren it would have been done to Him (Mt. 25:40).  All things are holy and to be respected because all created things come from God.  But humans are more sacred and more worthy of reverence in themselves because of their direct divine origin.  People are always more important than things.

There are three kinds of justices based on the different relationships man has to each man and to the rule of law: commutative justice, legal justice and distributive justice.  Commutative justice refers to that between individual citizens.  An example of this would be fairness in conducting business transactions.  The second kind is legal justice. It is based on the dutiful relationship of a citizen towards society and to the rule of law.  Thus, we as citizens ought to obey traffic rules, pay taxes and defend our country when the need arises out of legal justice.  And lastly, distributive justice is the dutiful relationship of society towards its citizens.  The right to association, such as forming a labor union within a company, is an example of duty a society has to its citizens to allow organizations to be established. The state has to respect and protect it under the law.   Social justice which could be the fourth kind of justice can be under distributive justice. Social justice in essence is providing human rights and equality to every citizen.

The main purpose of human laws or state laws is to encourage us to do good deeds and discourage us from doing bad ones.  It is ordered to make us into good persons with good habits.  A secondary purpose is to protect good people from being harmed by bad persons.  If all of us are morally perfect, then laws would not be needed.  And since majority of us are still far from that moral perfection, that would explain why we have fences on some of our streets because people can’t discipline themselves in crossing the streets.

Laws are only for very morally imperfect persons.  And therefore, laws are an aid, a guide, a minimum, not a maximum.  That’s why what’s forbidden legally is much less demanding than what’s forbidden morally.  Human laws don’t persecute pride, selfishness, arrogance, envy and other sins of the soul.  It can only stop murder, theft, corruption and the like.  Human law is like moral kindergarten, not a master’s degree school.  The practical conclusion is twofold:  first, since human law is minimal, it should be easy to obey all human laws.  It’s telling people not to be a criminal which is equivalent to telling them don’t flunk kindergarten.  Second, we should aim much higher than that.  We ought to set our sights on not just being a good citizen, but as good children of God, by trying to practice moral perfection which is to become a saint.  More on this in the next article.