The Lost Meaning of Justice

The traditional meaning of justice defines the virtue as the obligation or debt that is “due” or owing to another person. This debt, however, is not always something monetary or quantitative and goes beyond contractual obligations or agreements between employer and employee. While employers owe just wages to their workers and all who purchase goods are bound to pay the stipulated price of the product, all human relationships require the virtue of justice, not just business transactions or binding legal settlements. Human justice, however, goes beyond the contractual or economic realm and encompasses what each person owes to another person based on the nature of their relationship.

What does every person owe to every other human being besides the payments or costs of goods? All persons owe to one another the virtue of respect and courtesy because of their dignity as human beings, because they are created in the image of God, and because each person possesses, In St. John Paul’s phrase “inestimable worth.” The commandment “Love thy neighbor” and The Golden Rule encompass this duty to honor all persons because of their humanity. The ancient world’s custom of hospitality that abounds in Homer’s Odyssey—a law sacred to the Greek gods—obligates all people to welcome travelers with the rites of kindness and welcome because it is a debt all human beings owe to one another and to the gods who often come  in disguise as poor beggars.

What do parents owe to their children as their due as a form of justice? Parents owe their children loving care, constant attention, the security of a stable home, a proper education, and the example of a happy marriage. Parents need to instruct the young with justice and mercy, discipline and love, and manners and morals. Fathers need to provide models of manhood and mothers examples of womanhood to teach the young the complementary virtues of men and women that form families. Parents owe unconditional, generous, and sacrificing love to their children, love which surpasses all economical calculations. Justice is not an amount owed by a parent to a child but a virtue that cherishes and nurtures them in mind, body, and soul. The love of parents for a child cannot be measured by any calculation of cost.

aeneidWhat do children owe to their parents as their due? The virtue of justice acknowledges that many debts are unrepayable in kind and do not require compensation; therefore, the criterion of amount or quantity does not provide an adequate standard to determine the proper degree of justice.  While parents bless their children with the gift of life, children cannot compensate in kind and repay their parents with the same equivalent in a simple transaction of giving and receiving the same. Children, in turn, render justice to their parents—also to grandparents and ancestors–in the form of piety: the honor, respect, obedience, affection, and gratitude they deserve for a lifetime of care beyond measure. In Virgil’s Aeneid the Roman hero Aeneas, called throughout the poem pious, devoted, true, dedicated, fatherly, and dutiful, personifies this form of justice known as piety (pietas). In a famous scene when he leaves the burning city of Troy carrying his father on his back, holding the hand of his young son, and glancing behind to assure the safety of his wife, Aeneas personifies the justice a man owes to those near and dear to him:

Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck:

I’ll take you on my shoulder, no great weight.

Whatever happens, both will face one danger,

Find one danger. Iulus will come with me,

My wife at a good interval behind.

Aeneas cares for his father in his old age like a son honoring his parent, cherishes his young boy with a father’s protecting clasp, and shields his wife by caring for her safety. Justice renders homage to the elderly, protection to the young, and devotion to the spouse. The love of Aeneas for his family does not count the cost.

What do husbands and wives owe to each other? In the Sacrament of Marriage men and women owe each other lifelong fidelity, respect, affection, selflessness, sacrifice, mutual helpfulness, and the gift of self. St. Paul explains these obligations in his famous statement in Ephesians 5: 21-22): wives obeying their husbands, husbands loving and dying for their wives as Christ loved and died for his bride the Church, both rendering to each other their due. They both owe each other also the willingness to please (“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”). Because they are one flesh, man and woman are to love one another “as their own bodies”: “For no man ever hates his own flesh, bur nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body.” Man and woman owe each other a commitment to the indissolubility and unity of marriage. Sacramental love does not calculate in terms of profits or losses because it is for better or worse, for richer and for poorer, and in sickness and in health.

The meaning of justice as the debt every person owes to another person in the form of what it is “due” by way of respect, dignity, kindness, civility, obedience, hospitality, care, affection, and loyalty according to the nature of the relationship has suffered violence in modern society–a consequence of the sexual revolution. Abortion blatantly ignores what human beings owe to the young in their utmost innocence and tenderness. Contraception withholds what husbands and wives owe to each other: the gift of self or self-donation in an act of total giving.  Euthanasia does not render to the elderly their due as venerable men and women deserving of all the loving care they tendered to their own children. Divorce withholds from children their proper birthright, the constant attention and love of both parents and the security and stability of a permanent home. Supreme Court decisions redefining marriage fail to render to their society their due in the form of the truth that all honest persons owe to each other, the highest wisdom of civilization, the timeless truths of the natural law, and the sacred truths of religion.

Instead of understanding justice in its fullest sense as the offering of the payment of a debt in the form of a virtue owed by one person to another person, contemporary man imagines justice as a kind of entitlement decreed by courts, determined by lawmakers, or imposed by rulers. Justice is no longer a relationship between two persons but a government’s relationship to those under its rule. Virtues do not render the act of justice, but executive orders, court decisions, and ruling political parties decree that human beings do not owe anything to one another except money and conformity to contracts and civil laws that eliminate the primary categories of obligation in human relationships based on the family. What C. S. Lewis at the end of The Abolition of Man summarizes as the essence of the natural law—the virtues that order all human relationships– has no binding force in the modern world of jurisprudence or political thought:

The Law of Special Beneficence: “Nothing can change the claims of kinship for a right thinking man” (Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, 2600)

Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors: “Children, old men the poor, and the sick, should be considered as the lords of the atmosphere” (Hindu, Janet, I, 8)

The Law of Magnanimity: “There are two kinds of injustice: the first is found in those who do an injury, the second in those who fail to protect another from injury when they can.” (Roman, Cicero, De Officiis. I, vii)

All the primary obligations of human beings to fellow human beings, all the debts owed by parents to children or children to parents, all the moral duties of husbands and wives to each other– The Law of Magnanimity that puts others first and self last—has been reversed to put the self first and the other last.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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