On the Cardinal Virtue of Justice

A while back I began a series on the cardinal virtues taken from a term paper I wrote for my Moral Theology class last semester. I realized in the busyness of final exams that I never finished that series. So here is the section on the cardinal virtue of justice.

Justice is seen as the preeminent virtue in the culture. The vast majority of the culture wars are centered around some notion of justice. With this in mind, it is clear why prudence must come before justice. A person cannot be just unless they know and desire conformity to the truth through reasoned understanding. The biggest stumbling block for far too many people is that the truth, including a proper understanding of freedom, must come first and then justice. If the truth is not rightly understood then great injustices arise, as is evidence through practices such as abortion. Justice itself must be properly ordered to God in order for men and women to live justly in society. “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and the common good (CCC 1807).” In order for this harmony to occur there must be a clear understanding of what is due to others.

Freedom is at the center of many disagreements concerning justice, as well as great injustices that occur. Once again, freedom is not about the ability to do whatever a person desires. Freedom is the ability to choose goodness and truth without constraint.[1] This type of morality is less concerned about fulfilling obligations and more concerned with the love of truth and goodness.[2] Justice then allows for all individuals to conform their lives to their ultimate truth, which dwells in God. Justice and prudence are ontologically and eschatologically driven, as are all of the virtues.

The order of human beings from the family level to the global level relies on justice to protect the dignity of each person. Through justice the habit of rendering each man or woman their due is fostered, not through coercion, but through a desire for their goodness and freedom, as well as within the individual who renders that due. St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Justice is a habit (habitus), whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will (ST II-II 58 1).” This requires a discipline of action in each encounter with persons throughout the day.

Within this framework it becomes clear that men and women have rights through a universal source. In order for something to be due to another there must be something prior to that encounter which resulted in a particular right. The grounding of rights rests in God and creation. “It is through creation that the created being first comes to have rights. By virtue of creation first arises the possibility of saying: “Something is my due.”[3] It is by the nature of God’s creation of man as “embodied spirits” where rights dwell.[4] Since the notion of “due” is a primordial concept from the beginning of creation, it is directly linked to the ontological drive in human beings for goodness.[5] For this reason the rights of others cannot overrule the truth. Thus in choosing the just due of another it must be an authentic right and conform to goodness and truth. If a person has not fostered the habit of discovering truth through reason via prudence, as well as the just due to each man and woman, the moral life will be greatly impeded if not entirely corrupted. A person who does not conform their lives to prudence and justice is doomed to error and vice until virtuous living is encountered and put into practice.

[1] Pinckaers, 359.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pieper, 731.

[4] Aquinas, 25.

[5] Pieper, 741.

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