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To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice #3

Updated on August 20, 2020

The three basic forms of justice

A fruitful communal life is the seedbed for justice. One may be tempted to say that the subject of justice is the community since in it propagates justice. However, only the individual person can be just in the strict sense of the word, because justice is an action of man. The question then arises: when may justice be said to prevail in a community?

Aquinas succinctly answers this by saying that: justice is fully entrenched in a society or state when the three main forms of social relationship between men, the three fundamental structures of social life are right; that is, disposed in their proper order.

These three forms are: first, the relations of the individuals to one another; second, those of the social whole to individuals; and third, those of individuals to the social whole. These three basic forms of social relationship correspond to the three main forms of justice: commutative, distributive and legal justice.

In commutative, distributive and legal justice, the justice to be rendered varies in character according to each respectively. Just as the rights varies so also is the subject different. In commutative justice it is the individual person, in distributive, it is the political government, and in the legal, the law.

However it is man, in the final analysis, who is subject, who realizes the three forms of justice. Each individual is involved in different ways: as a party in a contract or as a member of the community, as a taxpayer, as a citizen or subject in legal justice. As subject, man is expected in any form he finds himself to carry out justice.

In legal justice, the law is not intrinsically the subject, but the law makers, the lawyers and judges. Also in distributive justice, the subject is not the State or social whole. It is the minister, the civil servant or the individual himself, as he participates in the administration of the commonwealth. In all cases it still comes down to the individual person.

Notwithstanding, individual persons and the social whole should be seen different entities. Yet, the individual who confronts the social whole is also part of it, as its member. Individual persons cannot be reduced to the reality of the social whole as they are a reality of their own. Here, is where both individualism and collectivism falsify social reality.

For the individualist, there are only individuals. When one of them confronts the social whole, it is the confrontation of one versus many. That is, the social whole has not a reality of his own and, consequently, there is only one form of justice, commutative justice. Any social life is just a compromise or equilibrium of interests among individuals absolutely equal in rights.

For the collectivist, there is nothing like the individual, it is an unfounded reality. Persons naturally and rightly are said to be subjects of social relations. If this is so then collectivists argue that private relationships between individuals is null and void. Since the individual is a member of the social whole which is the only reality, human life therefore has a totally public character. There is no such thing as privacy.

Obviously, no social theory can alter the fact that individuals are actually in relation to one another. Even in the most totalitarian system, one has to deal with concrete men, that is, individuals. Even when those relations do not have an official character, there is the possibility, of being obliged to interpret them as if they had it. In this way, what was a personal relationship becomes the fulfillment of a function imposed from above.

Naturally, from this point of view, commutative justice becomes something absurd. The same thing happens with distributive justice as a right of the individual. Finally, the idea of legal justice, although it may not appear so at first, also becomes unthinkable. No sense, therefore, in speaking of justice, as there is no sense of speaking of rights. Without fulfilling the demands of this complex reality expressed by the terms individual and society, there is no justice.

Commutative Justice: the Other

The word “commutative” is derived from the word “commutare” which can be interpreted to mean “to exchange”. It is a sort of giving, a rendering to each other that which is due and rightly belongs to the other. It is justice because it is the right and proper thing to do.

Justice is more robust and engaging if compared with the other virtues. For the other virtues perfect man only in those matters that concern him and in relation to himself. Justice goes the extra length to include others in our relations and duties. Thus justice is outpouring.

Justice is directed to the other man. The separateness of the other party is intended here more precisely than it appears at first glance. Justice appreciates separateness, it is made pure and full in the realization of the other as distinct from the self.

This is precisely what distinguishes justice from love. In situations where justice comes in, human beings act in the role of the other, as strangers. Justice requires in a strict sense, the reciprocal diversity of parts. For instance, in the relations of father and son there is no room for justice, because none of them is strictly separated as an individual. The son belongs to the father who, then, behaves towards him as he does towards himself.

Formal justice does not strictly appear in love’s case: the beloved is not truly another for the love, they are seen as one. The due given in love is based on the desire to make the other happy as one’s other self. To be just, on the other hand, is to recognize the other as “other”, or to be ready to respect when one cannot love.

Justice teaches that there is another different from me, a distinct entity that does not necessarily have any close relations with me but who has a right to his own, and that right has to be upheld. The just man is just in as far as he sees the other in his otherness and gives him what corresponds to him without prejudice.

This is not just a formal convention or an unnecessary exercise, it is a function proper to all. It is important to scrutinize justice and make known the intrinsic quality and element making up the idea of justice. It is only when we realize the great demand that is entailed in understanding this idea that the task to submit it to a careful reflection imposes itself.


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