SA 47. Justice and the Common Good by Joseph Milne

I begin with a quotation from Aristotle’s Politics:

“And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”

― Aristotle, Politics Book I Chapter II

It is worth pondering what this is saying. The human species is distinguished from all the other species because it alone has a sense of what is good and evil, and a sense of what is just and unjust. When the Greek philosophers said man was the ‘rational being’ this is what they meant, that reason can distinguish what is true or false, and what is just or unjust. And the true and the just are regarded as inseparable. This means that knowledge and ethics are bound together. To live truthfully is to live justly. This sense of the just and the unjust is the ground or basis of human community, the common understanding from which the sense of belonging in society originates. It creates the state, the city, and civilisation.

This, as I am sure you appreciate, is quite different to most modern theories of human society. They tend to argue that community arises from material need or from seeking protection together. But for Aristotle this is wrong. In his view society arises from what is most characteristic of human nature, not from basic needs or animal nature or instinct. And what is characteristic of human nature is reason, the capacity to discern the nature and the order of things. Man ponders the motions of the heavens and the laws of nature. Human intelligence naturally does this, and from this discernment of things arises reflection and consideration, and from this arises human speech. For Aristotle it is speech, or language, that distinguishes human nature as social and as political. This means that the first kind of human dialogue is deliberation on what is just and unjust. This deliberating is itself society, or political society. Thus Aristotle says it is “the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”

From this it also follows that human society or the state is natural, a part of nature. This means that human society arises naturally out of human nature, just as the ways of life of other species arise out of their nature and are part of nature. As Aristotle puts it:

“. . . if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.”

Here we have another great insight from Greek philosophy; that the nature of a thing lies in its completed form, or in the end for which it came into being. Human society comes into being for the sake of human flourishing, and human flourishing takes the final form of a just society. Putting it another way, a just society is the natural form of society, where each citizen may attain the good life proper to man. Everything has in it a tendency to grow to completion, so the foal grows to a horse, the acorn to an oak tree, the child to an adult. And so it is for the state or society. The family grows to the village, and a collection of villages to the state. It is when this happens that ‘politics’ comes into being, which is the art of deliberation on justice.

To deliberate on justice is to be a citizen. One finds this in the Stoic philosophers too, in Cicero for example. To deliberate on justice is to consider the common good, the good of the whole society. Justice therefore is grounded in the active relations between citizens. It takes the form of general justice for the common good, and of particular justice between individuals. General Justice is concerned with the laws and customs of a society, and therefore with the active relations that uphold the common good or the general welfare of a society. Particular justice, on the other hand, is concerned with active relations between individuals.

These two kinds of justice have a further distinction. The citizen may choose to act justly because the law demands him to do so, or he may act for the sake of justice and the common good in themselves, that is, he may act either from obligation or from the love of justice in itself. Aristotle says that the one who acts for the love of justice itself acts with a generosity beyond justice, and gives more than justice demands. This is the true excellence of citizenship. It is to be observed in friendship, because friends give each other more than they are due. According to Plato in his Laws, friendship is the true and ultimate aim of all law-making, and that the love of justice leads to friendship, and that only just citizens can be friends. We find the same noble idea in Cicero. We also find it as the foundation of monastic life in the twelfth century.

Notice that Aristotle sees justice as an activity. It is tempting to think of justice as a principle, but Aristotle shows us more about the nature of justice by seeing it as an action. This is especially true when we consider how justice works in all human undertakings, not only between citizens. For example, since society or the state is natural, or a part of nature, the relation of man to nature as a whole is part of justice too. Aristotle observes that nature does nothing superfluous. Nature therefore provides the human species with all it needs to flourish, but not with an excess. Therefore justice involves the proper use of things in nature, as well as in the community. For example, the physician puts his medicines to right use in securing health. The farmer puts to soil to right use in securing food. But if the physician prescribes an unnecessary medicine so that he can charge a fee and make money, he is putting medicine to a wrong use. This is injustice. Likewise with the farmer. He grows food for the community in the right measure and in harmony with the soil. But if he grows for monetary gain he puts the soil and his calling to a wrong and unjust use. This is to act against nature. To act against nature is unjust. All these things are actions.

Just action involves acting justly in relation to nature as a whole. Acting justly means acting according to the right use of things. In this sense, nature and the cosmos itself acts justly. This again is something the Stoics saw with particular clarity; how the whole universe moved in an intelligent harmony, and how man was meant to align his actions with this universal harmony. This is the idea that underlies the Roman care for law and jurisprudence. Something of this cosmic justice is being rediscovered in modern ecology, in the Gia Hypothesis, or in systems biology, for example. Nature works for the whole. This is justice at work. There is no need for environmentalists to speak of the ‘rights’ of trees or animals, which abstracts them out of nature and makes them into legal entities. Real justice is the right use of things according to their nature. The sun shines because that is its nature, not because it has a right to shine. That is the classical way of seeing justice. There is no need to confer justice on nature as it is already just.

If justice is action in accord with the nature of things, then man or society performing justice is to act according to human nature. When put this way justice becomes a ‘virtue’. A virtue is a quality of character, both in relation to oneself and in relation to others. According to Aristotle and the medieval scholastics, justice, as a virtue, embraces all the other virtues and is therefore the most complete virtue. Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics,

And it [Justice] is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbour also; for many men can exercise virtue in their own affairs, but not in their relations to their neighbour. . . For this same reason justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be ‘another’s good’, because it is related to our neighbour; for it does what is advantageous to another, . . . Now the worst man is he who exercises his wickedness both towards himself and towards his friends, and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself but he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task. Justice in this sense, then, is not part of virtue but virtue entire, nor is the contrary injustice a part of vice but vice entire. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5, 1)

Justice when formulated in positive law can command only what is due, while justice as a virtue is action for the good of oneself and the good of another. Goodness cannot be commanded by law, while it is natural in the virtuous person. So while justice is the most complete of the virtues, embracing all others, its aim is beyond itself in seeking the good of all things. Likewise, while positive law may compel citizens to do what is right by way of duty, only action for the sake of the common good itself fulfils the final aim of the law and justice. This is why a society of perfectly virtuous citizens would need no laws. But since this is not likely to come into being, the art of law-making and the deliberation on justice is an essential part of human activity. According to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, the quality of that deliberation on justice will determine the quality of society itself.

These insights of philosophy endured through the Middle Ages, so that the enquiry into the nature of society was always in the light of justice. And the question of justice always concerned the common good or the whole. In his treatise on law Thomas Aquinas links the love of the common good with the love of God, saying:

One naturally loves oneself more than something else of equal rank because one is more united to oneself, but if the other thing is the entire ground of one’s own existence and goodness, then by nature one loves it more than oneself: by nature parts love the whole more than themselves, and individuals the good of the species more than their individual good. God however is not only the good of a species but good as such and for all; and so by nature everything loves God in its own way more than itself. (Thomas Aquinas Summa I. 60.5)

In different words, this is to say that all creatures love the ground of Being itself more than themselves, because this gives each its being. All beings seek their fulfilment in the universal good, and this is the principle that orders nature as a whole. The quest for justice in society is the human way of seeking to live in accord with the natural order of the whole. But whereas the other creatures seek this by way of an instinctual inclination, the human species seeks it through reason and deliberation, or through speech. It belongs to man not only to do justice, but to articulate his understanding of it. This understanding enters tradition, so that successive generations may also seek the good of future generations. The idea of the common good includes all mankind at all times.


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