Mini-Feature: The Basis of Justice

Is justice a human construct or is it independent of humans?

Justice is the right or best ordering of the relations between human beings and even of the parts of ourselves within each of us. The flipside of justice is the common good of the whole, and the fruit of justice is the peace that comes from the harmony of the parts working together. Justice, then, as we commonly refer to it is indeed human, and depends upon what human beings are and ought to be. Since humans can and do disagree on what we are and should aspire to become, we disagree about what is just.

But note this: although how we should act in regard to each other and ourselves is something we often disagree on, if there is a "right" or "best" this means there is an order outside of our individual selves that we should be trying to comport ourselves towards. The underlying assumption in these disagreements is that we ought to participate in an underlying reason or order that fulfills us. Without that, disputes about what is just are pointless. And even those who say there is no such thing as justice and maintain that all disputes about it are simply camouflage for power and self-interest also maintain that power is good, or desirable above all. In other words, they say that might makes right. But why the need to maintain there is a "right" at all? Why do even little kids feel the need to assert some standard of right and say things like "that's not fair"? 

In sum, justice arises from the human ability to order ourselves and choose how we relate to others. The great question is whether this order can or should be whatever we choose or whether there is a greater order to our make-up and the universe that we ought to seek out and participate in, and with.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


The question of justice from the human standpoint is one humans can’t help but pose before God and before the cosmos. It is easy for us to contemplate what a fundamentally unjust world would be, indeed many believe this world is such a world, even as God’s justice exists and ultimately prevails. There is no justice among the animals in a human sense, and yet the orderliness and sustainability of the animate world suggests a certain cosmic justice. But why justice at all? Why order, why sustainability? The big question is whether justice is discoverable with reference to nature alone. Some suggest that philosophy says yes. I suspect philosophy and theology both say no, which makes one wonder about what under cover of justice materialists really want.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


A friend tells me that when he was in junior high school there was a kid in his class who was not blessed in looks, deportment, social skills, or athleticism. But this unfortunate lad would insist that his brains and intellect more than made up for his deficiencies, and that in the future his smarts would elevate him far above his classmates.

"But if that's true," my friend asked him, "why are your math scores lower than mine?"

My friend says he patiently and cruelly explained to the nerd that Nature isn't concerned with balance on the granular level. She doesn't make up for a lack of musicality in an individual by supplementing one's facility at carpentry. She doesn't take pity on the endomorph by making him quick-witted. In fact, to those who have, more will be given: as often as not, beautiful people may be intellectually gifted, artistic, athletic, and even cheerful—who wouldn't be, with that package. Conversely, to be blunt, you can be both ugly and dumb.

This all falls under the rubric of "Not Fair," which is an appeal to justice. But justice is specifically a human concern. It's a way to make society livable, restrain the strong, and provide for the weak. As black liberationists like to say, "There's no justice; there's just us." They aren't wrong.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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Neither. Justice is "giving to each his due" (suum cuique—see first Plato, Republic 4.443a). Thus justice is relative to something or someone in the sense that one cannot know what is just tout court in the abstract—only what is just for such and such a person in such and such a situation. Is punishment just? Yes, if it is deserved, no if it is not: the answer is relative to the recipient of punishment.

If any form of justice can be said to be "independent of humans," therefore, it is that justice which God metes out to angels, to animals, to plants—in that he gives to each what is fitting for each. For plants, sunlight. For animals, food. For angels, heavenly glory. For all, himself.

What we mean when we talk about justice, though, is usually justice for humans in political communities—what kind of laws, customs, and social roles are fitting for each of us. This question is relative to us in the sense that it depends on the kinds of beings we are and the kinds of nature we have.

But it is an ancient mistake—the mistake of Thrasymachus and Protagoras no less than of Hamlet in his madness—to infer that because human justice is relative to humans, it is therefore arbitrary and so malleable by human will. Precisely because we do have natures, and because our acts do have moral character, certain things are just whether we recognize their justice and enshrine it in our mores, or not. Justice is about us and for us, but we may not remake it as we please by willing it so. In this regard, it is exactly like the whole world.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind