Notes on Justice (as a virtue)

This post examines the virtue of justice. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

Defining what justice is is a major topic of ethical philosophy and of political philosophy. There is no way I can do it justice (see what I did there?) in a brief post like this one. Instead I want to concentrate on the virtue of justice. So, setting aside for now what justice is or what it consists of, what does it mean to be characteristically, habitually just: to exhibit the virtue of justice?

Justice as a virtue

Justice is usually thought of as something that exists between people: as a balance, with opposing claims of different people weighed against each other.

Justice, as a virtue, is different. It is something within a particular individual (though it often exhibits itself through how that individual behaves towards others).

It is not contractarian in the social-contract sense of being willing to submit to the restraint of justice in exchange for the security of knowing that your neighbors are similarly restrained. It is also not merely personal obedience or acquiescence in the face of a particular standard of justice.

In a person without the virtue of justice, justice is a double-edged sword. If that person is cheated unjustly, they may hope they can appeal to justice to right the wrong. But if that person ends up on the favorable side of a shady deal, they may hope that justice remains thwarted so that they can get away with it.

A person with the virtue of justice evaluates such situations differently. To such a person, justice itself is something they value: the life they consider to be most worth living is a just life. The possession of a just character is worth more to them than the possession of things successfully swindled away from someone else unjustly. Because of this desire to be just, the person with the virtue of justice has developed the habit of characteristically seeking out just outcomes.

An example of someone exhibiting the virtue of justice would be someone who notices that they were inadvertently handed a $20 instead of a $10 in change at the cafe that morning, so they return at lunchtime to give back the extra money. Even though they did nothing wrong, even though nobody but them knows of the unjust state of affairs, even though that injustice worked to their material advantage, they feel the desire to set things right and are willing to go out of their way to do so.

It is not that the just person does not value money, but that they value “money acquired by just means” as a more richly-defined package deal. One way of understanding this might be to compare it to the difference between having a trophy on your shelf that you had won compared with one that you had purchased, borrowed, or stolen. It isn’t the trophy merely, but the trophy-earned-in-victory, that is important.

This works the other way around too. Someone who does not value justice may pause to think, when they have been swindled in some small way, that it would be too much bother to fight back: the cost/​benefit is too high. Someone who loves justice may fight back “just for the principle of the thing” because the cause of justice is itself a benefit worth fighting for, which changes the cost/​benefit ratio.

The person with the virtue of justice also may approve of just outcomes and just behaviors (and disapprove of their opposites) even when they do not concern that person directly. They are disgusted or angered at the sight of injustice, and feel the urge to step in and do something about it. Cicero, for example, thought “[t]here are… two kinds of injustice: the one, on the part of those who inflict wrong, the other on the part of those who, when they can, do not shield from wrong those upon whom it is being inflicted.” So “he who does not prevent or oppose wrong, if he can, is just as guilty of wrong as if he deserted his parents or his friends or his country” (De Officiis Ⅰ.7).

There are a number of virtues that are closely related to justice. These include:

  • censure /​ chastisement /​ judgment — the willingness to call out injustice in others; righteous anger is another form this can take.

  • epieikeia (sometimes translated “equity”) — a corrective to inflexible letter-of-the-law justice that makes it conform better to the spirit of the law. Aristotle put it this way: “It is equity to pardon human failings, and to look to the [intentions of the] lawgiver and not to the law; to the spirit and not to the letter; to the intention and not to the action; to the whole and not to the part; to the character of the actor in the long run and not in the present moment; to remember the good rather than evil, and good that one has received, rather than good that one has done; to bear being injured; to wish to settle a matter by words rather than by deeds; lastly, to prefer arbitration to judgment, for the arbitrator sees what is equitable, but the judge only the law, and for this an arbitrator was first appointed, in order that equity might flourish.”

  • fairness /​ impartiality (a.k.a. objectivity?)

  • sportsmanship — defending “fair play” even at the expense of advantage or victory.

  • Justice sometimes gets packaged up into such things as “probity,” “honor,” “chivalry,” “rectitude,” “propriety,” or “righteousness.”

  • To do justice well, you need virtues like wisdom, discernment, perspective, phrónēsis, the ability to see things from different people’s points of view, and so forth.

  • rectificatory justice has to do with the art of putting things right again when injustice has unbalanced the scales (amends, atonement, recompense, rectification, redress, reparation, restitution, step #9 of the twelve steps).

Obstacles to being just

Greed and ambition are common obstacles to justice (see Cicero again for a good discussion of this). If you crave material goods, power, position, or fame so much that you are willing to get them unjustly, good luck to you in trying to be just.

This suggests that the virtue of temperance (having desires of the right sort, and calibrating them well) is important to the exercise of justice. In addition, a sudden and vivid temptation may overwhelm you in the heat of the moment and cause you to make an unjust decision, even if, if you had time to carefully weigh the temptation against justice, you would have decided more justly. If this is the case, rather than temperance, the virtue of self control (restraint, continence) is what you need. This can be a challenge in particular for people who easily fly into a rage and make rash choices while angry (in which case the discipline of anger management may be helpful).

In general, if you value anything more than you value justice, if you are given the opportunity to obtain that valued thing but only by unjust means, it will be difficult to resist that temptation. For example: What if you value honesty, but honesty would require you to give truthful testimony that would hurt the case of the more just party in a lawsuit? What if you value filial piety, but justice would require you to side against your parents and with someone they have wronged? Virtues that make incompatible demands are the stuff of tragedy because, apparently, they are the stuff of life as well.

Someone who values justice above all else, particularly someone whose sense of justice is unrefined by epieikeia and untempered by mercy, is sometimes depicted as inhumane and harmful. Javert from Les Miserables is one good example of this.

Rather than thinking of justice as a virtue you either have or don’t have, maybe it makes more sense to think of it as a value you rank more or less highly among your values.

If you think you are up against an unjust adversary or are making bargains with an unjust person, you may be tempted to be unjust yourself in defense, or even in offense (“screw them before they have a chance to screw me”).

You may be tempted away from justice by leniency, by squeamishness about being harsh or judgmental, by being a nebbish and letting people walk all over you, or by preferring to complain about how unjustly you have been treated than to see to it that you are treated justly. You may prioritize forgiveness and charity to the extent that justice decays. On the other hand, the intoxication of righteous anger can also lead to unjust excesses of vengeance. Aristotle’s “golden mean” theory seems to come into play here.

“Someone asked: ‘What do you think about the principle of rewarding enmity with kindness?’

“ ‘With what, then, would you reward kindness?’ asked the Master. ‘Reward enmity with just treatment, and kindness with kindness.’ ” ―Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅣ.ⅩⅩⅩⅥ)

Finally, one may inadvertently be unjust by being deceived by irrelevancies or cognitive biases. My favorite example of this comes from economist Thomas Schelling, who used to present his students with two hypothetical tax code examples: one in which couples with children qualify for a tax credit, and another in which couples without children are charged an additional surtax. He would ask, in the first case, would it be just to give poor families a bigger credit than rich families? and in the second case, would it be just to make the childless poor pay a bigger surtax than the childless rich? Students typically thought that the first hypothetical would be just, but the second would be unjust. But if you do the math, you can see that these are just different descriptions of the exact same outcomes. See this page for the details.

That said, there is a big difference between having the right understanding of what is just and having the virtue of justice. Aristotle put it this way: A science concerns a subject matter in which your knowledge and skill can help you aim for opposite extremes: for instance, a doctor knows the science of health, and this knowledge would be equally useful to her in healing someone and in harming them. A virtue, on the other hand, goes in only one direction — having the virtue of courage doesn’t make it easier for you to be cowardly, for instance. Aristotle asserts that justice is a virtue in this sense, rather than a science. So justice can’t be summed up by learning the rules of what makes one thing just and another thing unjust (which, presumably, could help you do either one were you so inclined, and which, incidentally, seems to be most of what ethical philosophy concerns itself with these days). Instead it is about having just desires and doing just acts because you have a just character. However, Aristotle also devoted a book of his Nicomachean Ethics to the intricacies of the science-part of justice — the study of what is and isn’t just — and he said that he thought of it as a more complex subject, more difficult to master, than medicine.

Justice as a social benefit

If you are just and I am just, it is relatively frictionless for us to cooperate. A handshake-deal will do. We don’t need to consult lawyers, draw up contracts, keep a close eye on each other, and so forth.

On the other hand, you can get a large temporary advantage by pulling a fast one on someone who thought you were a just person and dealt with you based on that assumption. (This may be another reason why just people do not merely behave justly towards others, but are willing to go to the mat to enforce justice against others who have behaved unjustly.) But that burns the bridge behind you, at least with that person.

If there is no mutual assumption of just character at all, then some sorts of cooperation are off the table entirely and others become considerably more costly.

In short, there seems to be a sort of prisoner’s dilemma at work. David Hume thought that this is how justice emerged: people thought through this prisoner’s dilemma, realized the mutual advantages of justice as a social norm, and so began to enforce it in various ways.

Why be just?

The classic argument against the virtue of justice is to say that there is no good reason to value justice itself. If having a reputation for justice makes you more esteemed, makes people trust you more, makes it easier to make business deals, and so forth, that’s nice, but it’s those things that are valuable, not the justice itself. If you could get those things more cheaply by only pretending to be just, and then taking unjust advantage when you can get away with it, in this view, you ought to do so.

If you say you value certain things and want to obtain or effect them, but only if you can do so justly, you just make those values harder to obtain and so unnecessarily frustrate yourself. The unjust person, without those hobbles, is more apt to achieve their values.

This, or something like it, was the argument of Glaucon in the Republic, who put forward the “Ring of Gyges” thought experiment to drive the point home (imagine having a ring of invisibility, while wearing which you could get away with all sorts of mischief without getting found out). He also asked us to consider an entirely just man who has nonetheless through some misfortune acquired the reputation of a scoundrel, in contrast with his opposite: a completely unjust man who has managed to convince everyone that he is pure as snow. Who is more fortunate? Has the just man’s embodiment of his ideal of justice done him any good? does it give him any comfort? Is the unjust man’s lack of justice any problem for him?

The difficulty of showing that justice can be an ultimate value is, I think, just a special case of the general difficulty of providing reasons for choosing ultimate values. If you value wealth and admiration, say, and tell me that because justice can get in the way of this justice isn’t itself very worthwhile, can’t I just turn this around and ask you why you value wealth and admiration? Don’t you really want what wealth and admiration permit you to obtain, such as material resources? And aren’t those really valuable in order to obtain pleasure and ward off pain? Maybe hedonism is your only valid value? But what do pleasure and pain matter in the big scheme of things? Doesn’t the lowliest worm wriggle around in pursuit of pleasure and aversion to pain? Don’t you want your life to mean something more than that? And so you go round and round, justifying one value on the basis of another, trying in vain to find some value that logically ends the sequence and gives you a firm foundation.

It seems you have to choose rather than discover the values by which you will live your life. If you don’t choose deliberately, you’ll just be tugged back and forth by circumstances, urges, and whims. If you do choose, you have to decide. The virtue traditions serve as good menus of values to choose from, and justice is one that comes with some strong endorsements.