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To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice #4

Updated on August 19, 2020

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. So much so that the whole history of mankind could be written under the heading: The battle of Justice.

Obligation

Justice consists in communication, says Aquinas. The action of the just man is, by its very essence, referred to another. In obligation, the primary focus is not on the person who is the recipient of the rightly deserved good, but on the individual who by duty is moved to give the other his right. To oblige is to necessarily do the needful. Thus, we are faced with the individual who is under obligation to render to another his due.

There are essentially two degrees of obligation. First, we have those of the just obligation, made compulsory by law, and second, those that imply only a moral obligation, hinged on values and principles. The nature of the first makes it compelling, the law is already entrenched, and thus a failure to comply infringes the law. However, the second one is more personalized, for it depends exclusively upon my own good will and moral standard.

Moral obligation is solely based on the discretion of the giver and his goodwill. For example, when out of goodwill a person presents a gift to another. The receiver is morally obliged to show gratitude. Gratitude here includes both the affection and the gift. Concerning the affection, gratitude should be shown right away, with a good heart for the gift. As far as the gift is concerned, one should wait for a time when the reward would be useful to the benefactor. Reciprocating the gift immediately or not willing to when able to, will be an ungrateful act.

Still on moral obligation, one could also make a similar distinction concerning simple moral obligations, that is, those that are only morally binding. First, violating these simple moral obligations, for example lying, is said to be a dishonourable act. However, it may also happen that without being dishonourable, an action can be said to be unseemly, as when a person behaves discourteously.

Nevertheless, all these forms of obligation fall under the virtue of justice: in all these forms of obligation there is something common to all. In all forms of obligation, there is a debitum, a duty, something due. To be just means to owe something and to pay the debt. The duty to do the right is the core of obligation.

One should now raise an important question: namely, that when there is a moral action, no matter the virtue involved, it is always to satisfy a debt. The fundamental principle of moral obligation, of duty, of what one ought to do, has its origin in the field of justice. The terms suggesting moral obligation also belong to the realm of justice: debt, debit, to be indebted etc., and so do the verbs: owe and ought.

It is thus evidently clear that the structure of the act of justice reveals the whole structure of ethics. If ethics have a structure of obligation, it must certainly have gotten it from the structure of justice. At first glance, it might seem that man is the lord of himself and free to do as he pleases in the things that pertain to him personally. However, we are presented with quite the opposite; we aren’t totally free in ourselves and from others. Even in the most personal life of the individual, there is the inevitable obligation that is owned and directed to the other person.

An insightful investigation does reveals to us that just like justice, moral obligation also has a personal character: it is a bond to another person who in certain situations I am obliged to render him/her the due required. Moral obligation makes this clear in moral situations, but it is in justice that the notion of duty, which is essential to a precept, appears distinctly. It is more clear in justice because it applies to all in the society regardless of values; and also because it has the backing and the force of the law.

Justice is meant to bring about the good. When we do good, we are thus proclaiming justice and acting in accord with the laws and principles of justice. Good is not related to some abstract norm, but a working principle that is aimed at bringing the desired result. Whether in the most private decisions that relate to our lives or that which is directed to the other person, to do good always means to give what is obligatory to ourselves or to a person to whom we are committed.

However to effectively see that the society is just, and individuals are just too, there is the enforcer of justice who confronts us even when we are not being just or unjust in the strictest sense of the word. There are two answers to this

The first enforcer is the community, the social whole. It is indeed true that the individual person is part of the social whole, but also the social whole stands as a juridical body in the society. As a juridical body, it seeks and enhances the common good and frowns on anyone and any action that tends to jeopardize the common good.

Outside the needed duties and fulfilment of the civil laws, like the payment of taxes or the performance of electoral duties, the community requires also the performance of good which furthers the common good. The common good is however at stake when one is disorderly or indolent in a purely private capacity. The community does requires every individual to be good, to be just.

The nature and acceptance of virtue is such that it brings about good. The good of any virtue, whether such virtue directs man in relation to himself or in relation to another person, is always referable to the common good, to which justice as establishing order directs so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice.

Inversely, every immoral act can in a certain sense be called an injustice. This logically entails a widening of the idea of justice. It is in this sense that Aquinas speaks of legal or general justice, which contains all virtues and is the most perfect of all. In a society where this is accepted, there is a holistic idea of justice which will be informed and strengthened by the community as the enforcer.

The second is the eternal law giver God. The thesis that any moral action follows the structure of justice can be interpreted in this sense: that anybody who does good or evil is placed before God as another, to whom is given or withheld what is owed to Him. Regarding justice and good, we deal with God.

God is the true judge who gives to each one what is rightly his due. Good is the corresponding due to him who does good, and evil is reciprocated to the evil doer. It corresponds to general justice to do good as due to society or to God, and to avoid the contrary evil. When fulfilling or transgressing precepts, man is not dealing with objective legality but with a personal law-giver, who is God.

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