The Life of Virtue – Justice

The Life of Virtue – Justice

The virtue of justice is one of the cardinal virtues, one of the aircraft carriers in the fleet of virtues mentioned in our opening post. If we look at the scriptures, we tend to see justice portrayed as a kind of uprightness or holiness. The just man is the one who is blameless before the Lord. However, within Christian ethics, there tends to be a more precisely defined meaning of the word. It is a virtue which has to do with the way that we interact with the other – whether that is the other with a small ‘o’, other people, or the Other, meaning God. According to Aquinas, justice is primarily concerned with giving others what is due to them (see ST IIa IIae qu. 57 art. 1). In our daily life, that means fulfilling our obligations, such as undertaking our work in such a way that we fulfil our contract. Or if, for example, I have decided to buy a car and I sign a contract agreeing to pay the dealer a sum of money each month, I am not giving him what I owe him in justice if I default on my payments. Similarly, if I enter a marriage contract and then decide to have a mistress, then I am not acting justly towards my wife, with whom I have formed a contract, promising to love only her with the love that is proper to marriage.

In a more general sense, justice involves living lives that are respectful and fair to others, acting towards them in such a way that we acknowledge their equal dignity as human beings made in the image of God. It means acting according to moral absolutes, which seek to protect the dignity of the individual. So we can see how many of the Ten Commandments concern justice, precisely because they involve keeping us in a right relationship with God and with others. So we are to love God and love others, and to recognise this as being a right way of acting. Developing this virtue will always make demands on us, and requires us to ask constantly how we stand in relation to God and to others, and if necessary, to adjust our ways of acting.

Robert Gay OP

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.