26 Feb Justice: The Foundation of Society

Many times over the course of his pontificate Pope St. John Paul II spoke about our modern world as a culture of death. We see the signs of this all around us in the widespread acceptance of such things as contraception, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, fornication, adultery etc. All of these things are attacks on the dignity of human life and sexuality, and because our society accepts them we are on a path which, unless we change course, can only lead to the destruction of society itself. This is a tragedy but it is inevitable. A culture of death always leads to destruction. History is full of examples of cultures who embraced sinful practices and it lead to their destruction. Even great empires like Rome, Egypt, Greece, and Persia were not immune to the destruction of immorality.

Pondering this idea of a culture of death can lead us to speculate when the destruction of society might occur. We can begin to ask questions like; how bad can it get? Or when will we hit rock bottom? Or at what point has a culture embraced so much evil that it can no longer recover?

I was recently thinking about these questions and discussing them with a friend of mine who pointed out to me that currently our society has embraced “only” sexual disfunction and we have seen the breakdown of the family. This is a tragedy but a society living in sexual confusion and immorality can last a long time before it begins to disintegrate, because while sexuality is at the heart of how we understand ourselves and it is at the core of the family the basic existence of society is not founded upon sexuality, but rather, upon justice.

Without justice it is impossible for a society to function because justice is the virtue by which we give one what is owed them. There are three forms of justice which are important for us to understand.

  1. Distributive Justice – “which regulates what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their contributions and needs” – CCC 2411
  2. Commutative Justice – “which regulates exchanges between persons and between institutions with a strict respect for their rights.” – CCC 2411
  3. Legal Justice – “which concerns what the citizen owes in fairness to the community.” – CCC 2411

To help us understand these types of justice let us look at some examples.

What distributive justice means is that certain people have authority over us, such as a teacher, doctor, politician, priest, etc, and by virtue of their position they owe us certain things. For example, a teacher owes students his time by ensuring that he never ends class early and makes time for them outside of class, he owes students his knowledge by ensuring that what he teaches is truth, he owes them fair grades. A politician owes citizens his time because he represents them in parliament. He owes them his honesty. A government owes its citizens fair taxes, just laws, effective means to participate in how they are governed, etc. These are all things which distributive justice deals with.

Commutative justice is justice between equals. These deals with our obligations towards our family, friends, neighbours, etc. Things such as the safeguarding of property rights, paying debts, and fulfilling contractual obligations are all covered under commutative justice.

Legal Justice is the one we are most familiar with as our criminal justice system is based on legal justice. Legal justice is what we owe to those in  authority over us. For example, if we are students we owe our teacher our time in showing up to class, our preparation, by doing the readings before class, our attention, i.e. not falling asleep in class, etc. Another example is a politician or the government. As a citizen of Canada we are obligated, by distributive justice, to participate in the governance of the country through voting, we owe the government taxes, we owe the government obedience to laws, so long as those laws to not contradict God’s laws, etc. These are all things which we owe to people who have authority over us.

These three forms of justice are the foundation upon which society is built. Without justice civilization breaks down into anarchy. We see signs of this breakdown already with increasing taxes, with citizens refusing to vote and participate in the process of governance. We see people refusing to pay their debts and not respecting property rights.

What happens is that as we lose our understand of morality and as the family breaks apart there is no longer any objective, or external, reason for us to live just lives. If we, as individuals, do not live moral lives than justice towards our neighbours and those in authority will lose its importance.

Looking back in history every major civilization was destroyed because they first began to throw out the moral code and than justice was no longer valued so there was an increase in crimes such as theft, murder, fraud, etc.

Justice is the most basic component of a society. Without justice people cannot live in community with each other. Justice needs to be based on objective truth which exists outside of us. In the modern world we will slowly lose our understanding of justice because we no longer believe in objective truth or the dignity of human life. If people do not have dignity than it makes no sense to talk about how a person ought to be treated. If there is no objective truth than there is no way of knowing whether my ideas of justice and how society are any better than your ideas.

Justice may be the foundation of society but without objective truth and people submitting themselves to natural law and choosing to live a moral life than even justice will be done away with.