Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

What is Justice

by Jeff Polet

An essay I wrote on justice recently appeared in the journal Religion and Liberty. It’s a lengthier essay, and anyone who reads it hoping that they’ll get a good definition of justice will be disappointed.

In many ways, the concept of justice has fallen on hard times, not because of its lack of use but rather its overuse. As I point out in the essay:

This indefinite nature is in part why justice admits of appending endless qualifiers. We know about distributive and retributive justice, procedural and restorative, but we also now hear of racial justice, environmental justice, criminal justice, sexual justice, and so forth. It wouldn’t make much sense for us to talk about racial courage, or criminal prudence, or environmental temperance. We will take to the streets demanding justice, but no one holds placards calling for prudence. The desire for justice inflames our passions in a way the other virtues don’t, and it also seems to connect directly to our interests. Indeed, we too often dress our naked interests in the cloak of justice.

The main effort I make in the essay is to contrast Plato’s understanding of justice with that defended by the framers of our Constitutional system. Both alluded to justice’s indefinite nature and realized that for the most part we only get traction on the question of justice when we witness its violation. But whereas Plato’s just society required unity of thought and interest and thus was somewhat indifferent to liberty, the framers of our Constitution wanted to “establish justice” while securing “the blessings of liberty.” My essay ponders James Madison’s curious remark that the hunger for justice wouldn’t be satiated until “liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

I suggest that Madison’s skepticism concerning “perfect” justice creates an opportunity for liberty that previous thinkers missed and that this opportunity results in a defense of the system of government that renders liberty safe from power. When our demands for justice lead us to destroy those systems, then liberty is truly imperiled. If Madison is right, we will not end up with a more just society, but we will end up with a less free one.

Plato’s obsession with unity resonates pretty deeply in politics. Unity seems calmer, more peaceful, and more cooperative; it anticipates that “universal brotherhood of man” is envisioned as a heavenly kingdom. Madison’s constitution is messy, unsettling, and chaotic because it doesn’t insist that we agree on things; rather, we turn our disagreements to our collective advantage, and this means that politics will always be psychically distressing. As Madison well knew, the easiest way to deal with disagreement is to get rid of people who disagree with you, and all-too-often those efforts to silence and remove go by the name of justice.

Publius balanced the agonism of factional politics with the conviction that Americans remained unified by common experiences, commitments, and beliefs—in short, a common culture whose capital could not be spent down without replenishing it, an idea to which Washington testified in his farewell address. The threatening feistiness of our contemporary politics reminds us of both the need for a principle of unity as well as the dangers inherent in locating that principle in a particular person or faction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you know what the four cardinal virtues are? Is any one of those virtues more important than any other?
  2. Can justice be achieved without prudence and temperance and courage, or do those virtues need to be unified?
  3. How can one be trained in justice without substituting an obsession with unity in its place?
  4. Is there a relationship between divine justice and human justice?

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