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WEEK 18: Being just

See this cardinal virtue in your life 

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This week you will focus on the cardinal virtue of justice and meet again with your character friend.

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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The domains of justice

In the last two weeks you have seen the ‘cardinal’ virtues of temperance and courage, and this week you will consider a third cardinal virtue: justice (you will have to wait until Week 24 for the final cardinal virtue of prudence).  The word ‘cardinal’ is used to classify these four virtues because they are  considered hinges on which all the other virtues turn.  And surely, they are among the most important.

It is difficult to state the importance of the virtue of justice.  It is at the same time simple and incredibly complex as the virtue which regulates the relationships between living beings and all things.

The virtue of justice can be broadly thought of in two different domains:  communal justice and justice and an individual character virtue.

Communal justice

Justice is first of all a communal affair, and political philosophers have written volumes on how societies should be justly arranged. The 1338 fresco below by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is entitled Allegory of Good Government hovers in the city hall of the Italian city of Siena.  It is a graphic illustration of the complexities of communal justice (you many need to zoom in on the image or download it to see more detail).

At the far left, we find Justice holding a set of scales that are administered by two angels. The angels are performing acts of commutative justice (we see one man being decapitated and another one crowned) and distributive justice (the angel is providing two merchants with measuring instruments). Justice looks up to Wisdom, that is holding a book to provide guidance. Just below Justice, we find Concord who sits with a shaving plane in her hand, as a symbol of equality and of the need to level out civil conflicts. A rope links Concord and Justice to each other and to twenty-four citizens representing the various components of the Sienese community. The rope also joins the Commune, representing the city government with the symbols of Siena.

Hovering over the Commune we see the three theological virtues; Faith, Hope and Charity. Sitting at the side of the Commune, we find the four cardinal virtues, each holding symbolic objects: a sword and crown for Justice, an hourglass for Temperance, a club and shield for Fortitude and a mirror for Prudence. We also find Peace, lying gently over a heap of weapons with an olive branch in her hand, and Magnanimity who is dispensing crowns and coins.

As a citizen in whatever country you live, it is important to reflect carefully on what justice is and to support good government.  But communal justice also applies to many other kinds of communities, such as work environments, schools, families and faith-based communities.  Anywhere humans live in collectivity, justice is needed to regulate their relations.

Individual justice as a character virtue

Justice is also an individual virtue that you need to cultivate in your character.

A rich description of the virtue of justice is ‘an actioned desire that what is due should be given in order to favour the ideal interaction between individuals in a community’.

Let’s unpack that by asking personal questions.

  • Do you experience justice as an actioned desire.  It is something that you feel and want, and that then leads to concrete action? This might be, for example, a desire to see more financial equality that leads you to make generous contributions to the welfare of those that are less well off than you.
  • Do you feel a desire that what is due should be given to your neighbour?  Justice sees the rights of all individuals, and recognises that somethings are ‘due’ to them.  These might be in economic terms, freedom of speech, human dignity, right and punctual wages, or more simply the right of an elderly person to have a seat in a crowded bus.
  • Do you seek to favour ideal interaction between individuals in a community? There is nothing that will devastate a community more quickly than injustice.  Most of the bloody revolutions in the world bear witness to this fact.  Are you part of the rich and powerful that oppress the powerless? Or of an ethnic group that prevails over another?  Or do you use your leadership position for personal gain?

If justice is a virtue in your character,  you will respect of everyone’s rights, strive to establish harmonious human relations and treat your neighbour for the common good without distinction of rank or position.

Justice is seen in the sister virtues of equity, fairness, honesty and in obedience to the laws of men and of God. Severity should be included as the virtue in being inflexible in the infliction of punishment when right reason requires it, but at the same time the virtue of mercy always needs to be in dialogue with  justice to mitigate its harshness.

Does this describe you? If so, well done, you are a just person.

The opposing vices

Stanley Hauerwas suggests that just as we cannot avoid acquiring habits of justice, so we cannot avoid acquiring habits of injustice.  Growing up an American Southerner, he tells of how he grew up in a context of discrimination towards African-Americans and that it did not occur to him that these arrangements were unjust until he was challenged in his way of seeing things [SH].

This is an important point, for you may well harbour vices of injustice without being aware of them and it is only through training and conscious re-evaluation that you will see the world as it really is.

Some of the vices that oppose justice are illegality, which breaks rightful laws; unfairness, which denies to each what is due; dishonesty, which breaks covenants of truthfulness; partiality, which accords undue favours; and corruption, which bends what is right for personal gain.

There are also some excesses in the virtue of justice found in oppressive tyranny and some deficiencies that are found in submissiveness, which passively consents to oppression.

Do any of these describe you?  If they do, and if your score in the Virtue Test was low in this virtue, then you may want to work on the virtue of justice in your character.

A story of justice

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky moves our spirit with the following dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha.

“There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men — somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then — who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys — all mounted, and in uniform.

One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken — taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry…. ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs…. ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!… I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates.“

“Well — what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!“

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile. … Ivan for a minute was silent, his face became all at once very sad.

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing… I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair.“

What feelings are roused in you as you read this story?

Engage your character friend

This week you will need to meet with your friend for a third time. Here is a suggested outline for your time together:

  1. Give account of your habituation plan.
  2. Talk about communal justice as you have considered it this week.  Analyse the fresco  on the Allegory of Good Government and discuss where you can see analogies or shortfalls in our own country.
  3. Talk about individual justice as virtue and ask your friend for critical input around this virtue in your life.  Read the story by Dostoevsky and discuss the feelings that are aroused by it. Discuss the issue of justice and forgiveness, commenting on what Ivan states later in the text: ‘I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him!’ (here is the full quote).

Additional resources

You are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 19 – Being compassionate

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