Pieper: On Justice

August 30, 2013

On Justice
Josef Pieper
(Notre Dame, 1966) [1955]
74 p.

This small book belongs to a series which Josef Pieper wrote on each of the cardinal and theological virtues. In it, as in the others, his purpose was not to make an original contribution to the subject, but rather to summarize ┬ácentral claims of the Western tradition of moral philosophy. As always, Pieper’s lodestone is St. Thomas Aquinas (himself so often a superb reference for classical and medieval sources), but he does not neglect the modern period.

Stated briefly, justice is “the notion that each man is to be given what is his due”. As such, justice is dependent on a prior determination of what is or is not due to a person, and, even more basically, on the notion that something can be due to a person, that a person can have a “right” to something which another is obligated to respect. The tradition states that a thing can be due to a person either by convention (due to legal agreements, promises, and so on) or naturally (that is, independent of any particular legal body or political system). The idea of a “natural right” underlies the contemporary discussion about human rights in international affairs.

One to whom something is due must be the sort of thing that can claim a right. It makes little sense, for instance, to speak of a moral obligation to a stone or a flower. This implies that we cannot fruitfully speak about justice without a concept of human nature. Our tradition’s principal concept of the human person Pieper summarizes as “a spiritual being, a whole unto itself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own perfection” and it is “created a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion.” There is perhaps some ambiguity here as to whether personhood derives principally from our origin (as creatures) or our nature. Pieper seems to argue that our nature makes us capable of claiming rights and of thereby entering the orbit of justice, but our origin, deriving ultimately from a source outside the human community, places limits on the scope of rights derived from convention or authority and provides an opening for natural rights. He quotes Kant: “We have a divine Sovereign, and his divine gift to man is man’s right.”

If justice is to give what is due, then to be just means “to owe something and to pay the debt”. The stress on action here — pay the debt – is appropriate, for justice resides in an external act, not in an intention or disposition. In this, it differs from several other classical virtues, notably temperance and prudence. One may intend to be just, but unless one follows through with the act of justice, one cannot actually be said to be just. Justice is, in this sense, a “public virtue”. Pieper remarks that in the sphere of justice, people rightly regard one another objectively, almost as strangers. And there is a reverse side to the public character of justice: “every external act belongs to the field of justice”.

According to our moral tradition justice is a virtue of higher rank than fortitude or temperance, and this for two principal reasons: first, because it has a wider scope, ordering not only individual lives but also the life of communities, and, second, because while fortitude and temperance are virtues related to the body, having to do with mastering appetites and desires and so forth, justice is spiritual in nature. Moreover, it is quite possible to imagine being very “moral”, in the sense of being self-controlled and courageous, while nonetheless being unjust. (Such, Pieper notes, is the traditional character of the Anti-Christ.) So justice is an essential element in the conduct of a truly moral life.

Pieper identifies three basic forms of justice: reciprocal (the justice one person owes another), distributive (the justice a community owes to individual persons), and legal (the justice individual persons owe to the community). Perhaps because of the post-war context in which he was writing, with the threat of totalitarian governments a matter of constant concern, he focuses most of his discussion on distibutive justice, which is concerned with what the social whole (not specifically the government, note) owes the individual.

We might be tempted to suppose that distributive justice is more or less served in society today by a government-supported welfare system, but Pieper makes a few pointed remarks that call this identification into question. First, he anticipates some comments which Pope Benedict XVI made in Spe Salvi when he states that the nature of distributive justice is endangered when one’s relationship to the community is conceived in impersonal terms, when we think of a “welfare system” operated by bureaucrats rather than a network of personal relationships with a human face. And a second doubt is raised by consideration of the nature of the “communal goods” with which distributive justice is concerned; we are apt to think this means money and other tangible goods, and it does (“food, clothing, shelter, means of communication, care of the sick, education”), but is means more too: “the bonum commune extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means” to include the full measure of the human good, spiritual as well as material. It includes knowledge of truth and moral guidance, for instance. If we are looking for a model of what Pieper means I believe that we might advantageously look to the Church rather than to civil society; there, at least, one sees the attempt to minister to the full dignity and capacity of the human person.

An oddity about distributive justice is that it cannot be enforced, for the obligated party is ultimately the authority itself:

Since institutional precautions and controls could entirely prevent the abuse of power only by precluding any form of effective authority, there is nothing and no one that can restrain the man of power from doing injustice — if not his own sense of justice. In the affairs of this world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just.

This provides a good reason to hold those in authority to high moral standards, and the greater the authority the higher the standard.

The closing sections of the book take up a rich theme: the limits of justice. There are, of course, some debts which are not paid, some obligations which are not met in this life. A secular account of justice must concede that the reign of justice is only partial and incomplete, for sometimes injustice carries the day. A religious account — or at least a Christian account — extends the reign of justice so that it is ultimately triumphant: those injustices which appear to triumph in this life are themselves judged by the ultimate justice of God.

Yet in addition to debts which, for one reason or another, are not paid, there are some debts which cannot be paid, some obligations which, by their very nature, cannot be met, and these mark out additional limits on the domain of justice. Such limits are especially evident in a person’s relationship to God, for each person receives his or her very being from God, and no repayment can ever be adequate to this gift.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” This must not be taken to be merely an edifying thought. It is a very precise description of man’s condition in the face of God. Before any subsequent claim is made by men, indeed even before the mere possibility of a human claim arises, comes the fact that man has been made a gift by God (of his being) such that his nature cannot ever “make it good,” discharge it, “deserve” it, or return it again. Man can never say to God: “We are even.”

And divine justice must be understood in another way as well, for if justice means “to owe something and to pay the debt”, then God cannot, in this sense, be called just, for he owes nothing. Unfortunately Pieper does not elaborate on this question of what it means to say that God is just — only, as above, that his justice is allied to mercy.

Pieper argues that the practice of religious sacrifice is rooted in this same basic inability to give adequate thanks for the gift of being. No human effort can ever overcome the debt. When Hector pours his wine on the ground to honour the gods, or when a priest offers an unblemished lamb to the altar, or when a pilgrim sets out in a spirit of humble trust in God, the very extravagance of the act highlights its inadequacy:

Helplessness and impotency prompt this extravagance; because it is impossible to do what “properly” ought to be done, an effort beyond the bounds of reason, as it were, tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

Religious sacrifice is thus seen, from this perspective, to be rooted in justice. (I am aware of other accounts of the nature and significance of religious sacrifice, but this is one which I have not considered before.) The same is true of piety, and for much the same reason: St. Thomas says that “It is not possible to make to one’s parents an equal return of what one owes to them; and thus piety is annexed to justice.”

*

This is a very good book. It is potent and concentrated, as Pieper’s books usually are.

I close with a few aphorisms lifted from the text, several of which are paraphrases or quotations from St. Thomas:

*

Thomas, via Seneca: “A person who wants to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and an ungrateful person.” (ST, II, II, 106, 4)

Thomas: “Creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone’s due.”

“The common good requires every individual to be good.”

St. Thomas: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.”

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4 Responses to “Pieper: On Justice”


  1. I read this book for a course earlier this year—well, actually a book containing his essays on all four cardinal virtues. The other three essays are equally good.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Adam, you may have marked that the word “prudence” was hyperlinked above; the link would take you to my notes on his book on that subject. I have recently finished reading the short book on temperance, and I hope I will post some thoughts about it soon. (Mind, I actually finished reading this book on justice about a year ago, so things may not happen as quickly as I would like!) The book on fortitude is for the future.

    Have you read his books on faith, hope, and love? Excellent all around.

  3. cburrell Says:

    It has been over a decade since I read the books on the theological virtues, and my memory is a bit hazy. But St. Thomas is central to nearly everything Pieper wrote, so I am confident answering your question in the affirmative.


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