The Cardinal Virtues: Justice

Justice, Raphael Sanzio

As we explore the cardinal virtue of justice, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 57-122), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

The cardinal virtue of justice enables us to render to others what is due to them on a consistent basis. Justice seeks to observe the rights of all. While it is sometimes easy render to others what is their due, at other times it is difficult; these are the situations in which justice shows itself as residing in the will. In particular, justice seeks the good of others. Temperance and fortitude are internally focused, as they are directed to the appetites and passions of the soul. In contrast, justice is more of an external virtue because it is directed to others. Justice seeks proportionality, such that each person has what is his part, share, portion, or due. Justice seeks to render to each what he should have.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Justice is no exception. There are two fundamental vices opposed to justice:

Injustice is the defect. This is obviously the exact opposite of justice; it strikes against both the common good and the good of individuals. It fails to render to others what is their due. It possesses or withholds unlawfully or unreasonably. Injustice in small matters can be a venial sin; in more significant matters it becomes a mortal sin. One may be unjust intentionally (which increases one’s culpability) or through ignorance or in a moment of passion (which lessens one’s guilt). If one habitually and knowingly acts with injustice, he bears the mark of an unjust person.

Judgment is the excess. Judgment in this context refers to what we call “rash judgment” or “harsh judgment” today. There are, of course, judgments that we should and must make, such as between right and wrong. There are some whose occupations require them to pass judgment; there is no problem with this provided such judgments are conducted with justice.

There are certain judgments, however, that involve an overreaching, wherein we seek to establish justice by excess. For example, out of too much zeal for justice we may rush to judgment without sufficient information; this is rash judgment. Further, in our zeal for justice we may at times render judgments or inflict punishments on others that are overly harsh. At still other times we may pass judgments that are not ours to make. This is usurped judgment, wherein we take justice into our own hands unreasonably and possibly illegally.

Anger is a common response to witnessing injustice. Sometimes out of this anger we sinfully overreach. It is this “excess” of zeal for justice that the true cardinal virtue of justice seeks to moderate.

Thus, justice as a virtue stands in the middle between injustice and rash or harsh judgment. It regulates our tendencies toward those extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Commutative Justice – This is justice that between persons; it looks to the exchange of goods in due proportion and with a significant degree of exactness. For example, if I agree to pay you $50 for some good or service, then I owe you $50 when the work is complete. If I pay less or if you demand more, there is injustice.
  2. Distributive Justice – This is justice exercised by the community (e.g., government, Church, religious order) toward its individual members. This type of justice looks to the bestowal of goods rather than their exchange. It is rooted in proportionality of merits or needs. Thus, some with greater merit are rightly honored more highly; those who truly need more are given more.
  3. Restitution – This is the restoration of balance or equality that is due. For example, if I possess something I should not, I must return it, or something of equal/greater value, to the owner. If I have damaged something, I must compensate the owner for the damage. If I have harmed someone’s reputation by false accusation, I must set the record straight. Sometimes acts of restitution are required of more than one person. If multiple people benefitted from something that was stolen, they must all take part in the restitution (though perhaps to various degrees); if several people were harmed, they must all be compensated. All who cooperate in evil must join in making restitution. St. Thomas lists many ways in which one may cooperate in evil or unjust acts: counsel, command, consent, flattery, receiving, partaking, silence, or refusing to intervene or denounce when it was possible.
  4. Religion – It is interesting that St. Thomas includes religion as one of the parts of justice. Most of us think of religion under the heading of faith, which is one of the three theological virtues. Religion, by contrast, is among the moral virtues and is a part of justice because we owe God a great deal. We owe Him a debt of honor, worship, gratitude for He has given us: life and every good thing. Many people today have forgotten this, thinking of religion as essentially for their own good, as something to serve, console, and benefit them. Indeed, there is great benefit to religious observance, but first and foremost, religion is an act or virtue required of us in justice. We are to render to God what is rightly His. St. Thomas enumerates some of the following things we owe in justice to God: devotion, prayer, sacrifices, oblations, tithes, and in some cases vows and oaths.
  5. Piety – This disposes us to show due honor, deference, and respect to those who have bestowed benefits on us and/or have a place of excellence in our life. Clearly piety is due to God, but it is also due to parents, family members, teachers, and leaders of the Church and government. It is due in justice because from God and our parents comes our very life, and from the others listed come the things that make for and supply our life.
  6. Observance – This is a respect we have for those with special dignity among us. This form of reverence is due in justice on account of the excellence of those with dignity; excellence ought to be praised. It is related to veneration or dulia (reverence accorded to saints/angels).
  7. Obedience – This is conforming our behavior to the lawful command of a superior. We owe God absolute obedience. Human superiors are to be obeyed within the sphere of their authority and when what they command is not contrary to God’s law or our duties toward Him. Obedience is a requirement of justice on account of the common good and our obligation to preserve order and charity. Obedience to just civil law is also required of us under justice.
  8. Gratitude – We owe God thanks for all things. We also owe a debt of gratitude to all who bestow benefits upon us. Gratitude should be expressed in words and deeds. In enumerating our debt of gratitude we should take into account especially the disposition of the giver, not merely the size of the gift.
  9. Truthfulness – We ought to speak the truth to others; we owe them the truth. This moral virtue does not require us to tell all that we know, but others deserve to hear the truth from us rather than a lie.
  10. Liberality – Even though liberality refers to giving more than what is strictly due, it is allied with justice because it is related to the proper use of money and the universal destination of goods (wherein God gives all the goods of this world to all the people of this world). Thus excess wealth is rightly shared not only in charity but in justice. If I have excess, to some degree some of it belongs to the poor.
  11. Equity (or Epikeia) – This helps to interpret the mind of the lawmaker in order to best apply the law in particular circumstances. Because laws are most often written in a general way, applying them to specific situations serves justice.

Yes, justice is a many-splendored thing; it is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of justice. Rendering to others what is due is sometimes complex and/or difficult, but it is always necessary. Injustice, particularly accumulated over a long period of time, often breeds anger and even contempt; From such things violence and war emerge.

May justice protect us!

2 Replies to “The Cardinal Virtues: Justice”

  1. James 2:12-13 So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

  2. Excellent. Thank you for the series on virtues or as I call it, “Things I should have learned in school but did not”.

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