The Virtues: Be Just

The Virtues: Be Just March 28, 2007

The seventh and last of the Virtues is the imperative toward justice. In general terms, the virtue of being just entails treating others as their actions merit – neither withholding from people what they deserve, nor giving them what they do not deserve. Acting justly is also a core part of the ethical system of universal utilitarianism, since the guarantee that justice will be done is a major component in ensuring the happiness of all people.

Like most of the Virtues, the ideal of justice is not a new idea but an old and well-known one, and is common to many cultures and many religious faiths from throughout history. While this alone does not prove that it is correct, it would surely be extraordinary if so many different thinkers had managed to reach independent agreement on the same erroneous conclusion. When it comes to morality, the simplest and most obvious principles are often (though not always) the best.

Also like many moral principles, the idea of justice is difficult to define precisely, though it is easy to grasp intuitively. I do not claim to offer a quantitative guide to what constitutes just action in any given circumstance, though I can offer an analogy which I find helpful. Many Eastern religions reify the ideal of justice into a physical principle, the law of karma, which claims that the consequences of a person’s deeds return to them. When we bring suffering and unhappiness into other people’s lives, our lives will inevitably worsen as well, and when we bring others happiness and prosperity, our lives will likewise improve. As I wrote in “The New Ten Commandments“, while there is no evidence for the existence of such a force, the idea of karma can be a helpful guide in choosing one’s actions. Like an endlessly branching tree, the consequences of our actions spread out without limit, affecting an ever wider and more rarefied section of the world, becoming entangled with the consequences of other people’s actions and influencing them in turn. By our choices, we can create either a tree of good or one of evil, and the smallest action can have consequences we cannot begin to guess at both for ourselves and for others. Whenever we have the chance, then, it is of the utmost importance to act in the way that brings the greatest possible amount of justice into the world.

Being just means practicing a simple lifestyle, without excessive waste or luxury. Our world is finite, and has only a finite amount of resources, but there is a potentially unlimited number of people who must all share them. Therefore, there is a moral imperative to live simply, without taking more than we need. I do not believe that we should mandate an exactly equal distribution of resources to each person; that would make effort and skill of no importance and would be just as much a denial of justice. On the other hand, when some people have a vast amount while others have less than they need to survive, the weight of justice should begin to pull in the other direction and suggest that no one, no matter their talents, can actually deserve to be that much wealthier than their fellow humans. Recognizing this and living accordingly and sustainably, without taking more than one reasonably needs, is an important part of putting justice into practice.

Being just means defending the innocent without fear or favor. There are many occasions when doing the right thing is a far more difficult course of action, whether because it means standing up to a hostile majority, because it means passing up the wealth and success that too often reward those who have no morals, or because it means exposing oneself to the risk of harm from evil individuals who will stop at nothing to have their own way. The temptation to walk the easier way is always present, but virtue requires resisting it and recognizing that the path of justice, for all it asks of us, is the only acceptable option.

Being just means acting to defend the rights of human beings everywhere. So great is the need for justice in this world that acting to defend it, despite its necessity, will always be a demanding and burdensome task. Far too many people choose to avoid this obligation, whether through self-deception or simple apathy. Others are ready enough with help when the person in need is someone they know or care about, yet fail to step up when those in need are at more of a distance. Being just means remembering the need of others, and recognizing that injustice does not become any less real because we stand farther away from it.

Being just means balancing one’s actions with forgiveness. In many discussions of ethics, justice and mercy are presented as counterbalanced opposites, where one must be traded off to have more of the other. I believe that this is a false dilemma. On the contrary, in a well-articulated moral system, each one of the two implies and naturally leads to the other. Without the possibility of forgiving a person who admits the wrong they have done and seeks to make amends, justice is no longer justice, but merely punishment. Forgiveness is the appropriate response to genuine contrition, and any moral philosophy that denies this is not just at all.

On the other hand, a true understanding of mercy and forgiveness requires a strong commitment to the ideal of justice. Mercy, after all, is driven by compassion. But if we have compassion on others, should it not also be of the highest importance that the innocent are not allowed to suffer from the actions of wrongdoers? Compassion, therefore, requires establishing justice to protect all people from those who would harm them.

The confusion that makes the two seem incompatible arises from the mistaken notion that forgiveness is something that should be given out for free. On the contrary, mercy should and must be earned by the person’s demonstrating willingness to make things right. Any philosophy that grants undeserved forgiveness at no cost is no more a moral system than a philosophy that advocates punishing people regardless of whether they did anything wrong.

In truth, forgiveness is a vital part of justice and of morality in general for one simple reason: at some point, we will all need it. We are human beings, and we all stumble and do wrong from time to time – although this does not mean, as some gloomy and pessimistic religions assert, that we can never do anything good. On the contrary, humans’ potential for good is at least as great as their potential for evil. Recognizing our fallibility does not mean we should hold ourselves to an impossible standard, nor does it mean we should abandon our efforts at moral improvement as futile. It means taking a clear-eyed view of our situation, doing our best to stave off missteps but accepting that they will happen occasionally, and then making an effort to improve in the future. As a species, we may never reach moral perfection. But we can come close, certainly much closer than we are right now. By devotion to and diligent practice of the virtues, we can all assist in bringing that day nearer.

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