Is the Modern World Too Obsessed With Justice?

By pintswaquinas June 13, 2024

Everyone talks about justice these days. Some people demand it by sitting in roadways and throwing soup on artistic masterpieces.

It’s easy to hear the word “justice” and feel a moral obligation to join the cause. But while justice is a Christian virtue, it has been perverted into something other than its authentic meaning.

Here’s what real justice is — and isn’t.

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The true definition of justice
Justice is the virtue by which we give to another their due with a constant and perpetual will. Humans are born into a network of relationships. We’re created by God, given to a set of parents and enter the world as citizens of a particular country. From these relationships emerge things we owe others and things they owe us. We have rights and they have rights.

These rights are based on our human nature. God gave us this nature to accomplish certain goals in life, such as knowing and loving Him and others, preserving our existence, and (for many) bringing children into the world.

The types of justice
St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between two types of justice: general and particular. When people talk about justice, they’re usually referring to particular justice.

There are two forms of particular justice. Distributive justice is what the state owes the citizen, such as when it honors a military hero. Commutative justice involves an exchange. For example, you go to a sandwich shop and pay $9 for a pepperoni sub.

General justice is the idea that individuals are ordered to the common good, which is the network of relationships that creates things of value that transcend our individual needs and desires (but which, nevertheless, helps us find individual fulfillment). Consider a sports team, for example. Sports teams connect people in a way that transcends individuals and is shared by the whole, yet still benefits each individual who shares in the glory of the team’s victories.

Modern distortions of justice
The problem with many of our contemporaries is that they demand recognition of rights but lose sight of justice’s connection to human nature. The result is an overly individualistic and often selfish insistence on rights without regard for others. Those climate activists who block traffic may think they’re working for a just cause, but they violate the rights of people by preventing them from getting to places they need to be.

We tend to focus on what the state or others owe us rather than what we owe them. But, because we are part of the human family, we have obligations to others. First of all, we owe praise and worship to God, our Creator and Redeemer. We provide respect and love to our parents, who brought us into the world. And, yes, we even surrender certain things to the state — such as taxes — since some form of government is necessary for the preservation of the common good.

Demand justice, but make sure you’re looking at the big picture. Remember that while you’re a recipient of rights, you must respect the rights of others. And love sometimes challenges us to go beyond a strict analysis of what we owe and moves us to give superabundantly as God gives to us.

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