Part 7: The Virtue of Justice


The Search for Happiness: A Brief Introduction to Ethics, Part 7


The virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude are mainly concerned with our individual problems and they help to put our private individual actions in order, relating them to our ultimate end of happiness. We do not, however, live in a world of only ourselves. There are other people we must relate to and an entire community of individuals with whom we must deal. The cardinal virtue of justice is the virtue that puts our public actions in order and relates them to our ultimate end of happiness. Justice, therefore, can properly be called the social virtue.

There are at least two characteristics found in a person which everyone would regard as an unjust person. The first characteristic is the refusal to obey laws; this person we usually refer to as being lawless. (I am speaking here in a normal context; the question of obeying “unjust” laws, the practice of rational “civil disobedience,” and the matter of revolting against an unjust government are not at issue here.)

The second characteristic is the desire to attain more than the person has coming to him; he seeks gain for himself at the expense of others in any and all ways possible; in short, we say that the person is simply “unfair.” We would say that such a person is guilty of the vice of general injustice. (The key caveat here is “any and all ways possible.)

On the other hand, the man who is wholly just is both law-abiding and fair and practices the virtue of justice.

There are traditionally two divisions of the virtue of justice, one having to do with the common good and the other having to do with the private good of each individual. The first division is called legal justice. The second division is called particular justice.

(Note: if you are not familiar with the concept of the common good, please take the time to read my essay about that topic – consult the Academy Directory. There is, unfortunately today, much confusion about and a lot of nonsense promoted in the name of a so-called “common good.”)

Legal justice is the virtue by which we exercise the acts of all virtues in relation to the common good. This virtue is found primarily in the rulers of a country and secondarily in the citizens. We say it is found primarily in the ruler because the ruler has the obligation of preserving the due order of justice by maintaining law and order, a common good, within society. Secondarily, a citizen has the obligation to carry out the due order of justice in his civil and social acts and to promote the common good by doing so.

Legal justice is not the same thing as law, although it assumes law as already existing. Law is a directing principle of action for the common good and as such is worthy of respect by the politically just person. Law does presuppose the object of justice, that which is just or right.

There are two kinds of laws, the natural and the positive. Natural law recognizes that some actions are right or wrong universally, while positive law refers to laws that are made by man and are right or wrong in only a qualified sense. Some things are naturally just: for example, children should be cared for and instructed in the things they need to become a full human person. Some things are just merely because we say so: for example, driving on the right side of the street.

The vice opposed to legal justice is the disposition to will and to do what is contrary to the common good of society. The practice of this vice must include intention and choice. It is possible to perform an unjust act without intending to do so. A person may act out of ignorance or out of passion. A willingness to hold the common good in contempt is a necessary factor in practicing this vice.

It is the virtue of particular or individual justice that concerns most of us on a daily basis. This is the virtue that orders our actions in relation to the private good of our neighbor; the virtue by which one constantly and perpetually gives what is due, what is objectively right, to another with respect to some particular good, such as money, honor, or truthfulness. Particular justice has two categories: distributive justice and commutative justice.

Distributive justice is a relation of a whole to a part. It is the virtue which incline us to the fair distribution of common goods, social benefits, and common tasks and burdens. Common goods are those which may be necessarily held in common by a community such as the use of the natural resources of a community. Social benefits may be civic rewards and honors. Common tasks and burdens include such things as civic offices and military duties.

Distributive justice is proportionate justice. What does this mean? It simply means true fairness in the distribution of goods. For instance, a person who is convicted of stealing twenty dollars should not receive the same punishment as a convicted murderer. A person who has devoted much time and energy in service to his community deserves more honor from the community than a person who has done nothing for his community. The president of a country is given more protection than the ordinary private citizen. This is why distributive justice is called proportionate.

The specific vice opposed to distributive justice is, strangely enough, called respect of persons. This is the vice of giving a position or an honor to a person because of irrelevant circumstances rather than because the person is worthy or deserving of it. As you may note, this vice is one which is all too common among politicians who give special positions in government or special privileges to undeserving people. A particular instance of this vice is called nepotism, the giving of favors to one’s relatives.

Commutative justice is a relation of a part to a part. It is the justice of exchange and deals primarily with equality in the exchange of goods and services. This virtue inclines us to give to another what is due to him according to absolute equality. It directs and regulates mutual dealings between private persons, such as in commercial dealings.

There are many virtues allied with the virtue of justice and these virtues are particularly important because they affect virtually all of our actions with our fellow human beings. And, of course, there are many vices allied with injustice and, unfortunately, many of these are all too common today in human affairs.

Veracity is the virtue of speaking and acting in accord with truth. The vice opposed to this is lying, deliberately saying as true what is known to be false.

Gratitude is the virtue by which we acknowledge some benefit or favor done by someone else. The vice associated with this virtue is ingratitude, which is the refusal to acknowledge and manifest thankfulness to some benefactor.

Vindication is the virtue by which we practice the rational setting out of a punishment for someone who has committed some moral offense. This necessitates taking into consideration, of course, the relevant circumstances in which the offense was committed. The motive for punishment is the preserving of justice and to restrain those who may do evil. The vice opposed to vindication is revenge. The revengeful person seeks to punish for the sake of satisfying his own feelings and not with preserving justice.

The virtue of liberality moderates our love of wealth and material goods. There is nothing wrong with money or material possessions when these do not become an end in themselves to the exclusion of other more important goods. Money and material goods should be used as means to an end. Avarice is the vice opposed to liberality. This is the inordinate love of money for the sake of acquiring more material possessions than are desirable or necessary. Notice the word “inordinate.” Billionaires are not necessarily guilty of this vice simply because they have so much money. Avarice is the love of money to the exclusion of other more important goods.

Affability is the virtue which promotes and maintains agreeable relations in social life. It is more than mere politeness and good manners. It is the establishment of cordial relations with our fellows in the usual circumstances of social life. Adulation is the vice opposed to affability. This is more often called flattery, and consists of trying to gratify another’s vanity in order to ingratiate oneself with the other person.

The subject of justice is a huge and complex matter. Volumes of books have been written on the subject. The above is simply a brief framework to show how the virtue of justice operates generally and to identify some of the allied virtues and vices. If you are interested in delving into this subject further, there are many excellent books available.


Vices Against Commutative Justice
The action is done against the will of one of the two persons involved
The action is willingly participated in by both parties
By DeedMurder
Physical Assault
False Imprisonment

By WordDetraction

Vices Against Distributive Justice
Respect for Persons
Unmerited Advancement in Rank or Position



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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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