To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice # 2
In spite of the many manifestations of justice, there is a very simple notion to which all this variety can be reduced. Plato already mentioned it as a truth known for a long time: that every man is to be given what is due to him. This is the basis for a just order on earth. An injustice means that something belonging to someone is retained or taken away from him. Not taken by what we usually call an act of God, a storm, an accident, an earthquake, but by man.
This idea, to give to each his own, which goes back to time immemorial, belongs to the common patrimony of humankind. We should add that, since we are dealing with justice as a virtue, we are speaking of a habit of the will. A habit that inclines man to give to everyone his own. St Thomas gives the following formula, taken from the Roman law: Justice is a habit by which a man renders to each one his due with a constant and perpetual will.
The idea is a very simple one, but its meaning is not so easily grasped. Several questions immediately arise from it. We ask ourselves what is his due (the suum) for each man? What is the reason for a due to exist? How is it that something corresponds to somebody, to the extent that everybody else is obliged to give it to him or let him have it? Since the answer to these questions is clearly not evident, an investigation becomes necessary.
Since the act of justice consists in rendering to each what is his own, the act by which a thing becomes one’s own property precedes the act of justice…It cannot be an act of justice. Justice comes second. It presupposes right.
Man’s work, for example, entitles him to possess as his own what his employer, by an act of justice, pays to him. Nobody however, ignores the fact that there are rights that are not the result of one’s work or due to an action of man. The right to one’s own life, for instance. Nevertheless, the question goes still deeper. In the same chapter of the Summa Contra Gentes, St Thomas states: By the act of creation, a created thing first possesses something of its own. This is not just a mere platitude and he draws from it this consequence: it is not, therefore, from a debt of justice that creation proceeds. That is, justice, in a strict sense, cannot be found in the relation of God to man.
Unless we agree to the previous existence of something due to somebody, a duty of justice cannot exist. This is the meaning of the statement. It is evident that right is the object of justice. It is also the reason for a special question on rights, which breaks somehow the order, to precede the treatise on Justice in the Summa Theologica.
Some rights are irrevocable or inalienable. This means simply that whoever, instead of giving what he owes somebody, retains it or steal it, injures and harms himself. He is the one who loses something and may even destroy himself. Socrates’ well-known sentence expresses precisely this: Any wrong done to me and mine is at once more shameful and worse for the wrongdoer than for me the sufferer. The deeper meaning of this is that justice belongs to man’s true being. Consequently, whoever does an injustice is to be pitied.
We should now look at the foundation of that irrevocable right, the basis of justice. One may begin by saying that a due can be made up in diverse manners. Sometimes by convention or common agreement, which may be private like contracts, promises etc. or public treaties, or legal decisions, that is, positive law. At other times, it has to be founded in the nature of the thing itself. This is precisely where Aristotle speaks of the just in politics as being natural or legal. Aquinas speaks of natural right, or law of nature and adds a very important observation: if something is opposed to natural law, it cannot be made just by human will. That is, human convention, either public or private, can only be the basis for a due and consequently for a right, if it does not contradict the nature of the thing.
That is, unless one has a conception of man and his nature, it is not possible to show the foundation of rights nor of the obligation of justice. When one claims there is no human nature, as Sartre does, then the formal legitimation of a totalitarian praxis logically follows. Right then becomes might. If there is something that is due to man without any restriction, if man has a right that he can plead against everybody else, which imposes on others the obligation at least not to violate it, it is because man is a person, that is , a spiritual being, a whole unto himself.
The deepest root of this can only be found when one looks at his absolute foundation. Man has inalienable rights because he is created a person by the act of God, an act beyond human discussion. In the final analysis, something is inalienably due to man because he is a creature. Moreover, as a creature, man has the absolute duty to give another his due. In the words of Kant: We have a divine sovereign and his divine gift to man is man’s right.
Justice, then, is that order in which man can exist as a person, in which he can form his judgment about himself and the world. There he can have a conviction that none can touch, can be master of his decisions and act according to his judgement. Justice is that order of existence in which man can participate in this world and carry on his work. This is true not only of one or another, not only of the powerful or fortunate or the talented person, but of every man because he is human.
- To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice #3
The word Justice as it has been beautifully said, has a lofty but tragic sound. It has enkindled noble passion and inspired the practice of the finest generosity. Yet, it also reminds us of great wrongs and of widespread destruction and suffering.