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Editor's 1-Minute Essay:
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The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts:
While Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are ideas we judge by, Liberty, Equality, and Justice are ideas we act on.
Among this latter triad, Justice rules as sovereign: one can want too much liberty and equality -- more than would be good in terms of safeguarding the rights of others; more than one has a right to -- but Justice knows no such restrictions.
No society can ever be too just; and no individual can act more justly than is good for him or for others. In other words, Justice tells us when Liberty and Equality have gone too far.
Adler asserts that the pursuit of happiness is our primary obligation in life. Happiness, defined by the ancients, is no mere transitory, pleasant state of mind but the acquisition of all real goods -- goods that men and women need and have right to, by virtue of their essential humanity, in order to properly live life.
Justice speaks to the safeguarding of these rights; of giving to others their due, that which is deserved. "Justice, alone of the virtues," says Aristotle, "is thought to be 'another's good,' because it is related to our neighbor."
In other words,
Justice relates to our actions toward others. A person alone on a desert island cannot be just. Justice, strictly speaking, is not a matter of beneficently showering goods upon others; this is the domain of Love, a virtue that surpasses Justice in excellence as that latter deals only with such things as devolve to others by right.
Discussions concerning Justice often raise the objection: "The subject of Justice is to big to discuss -- there are too many possible interpretations of it."
And this is true. Justice has been variously defined from antiquity. But, in a small step to clarify the issue, similar to difficulties in defining Truth, it will be helpful to differentiate the questions "What is Justice?" and "What is just in a particular circumstance?" -- the former, we will find, is somewhat easier to address than the latter.
While the discussion of Justice by the great teachers takes many forms, it is possible, in very general terms, to define the debate in terms of two grand principles:
(1) Natural Justice: reason alone tells us that, even if there were no laws to the contrary, certain activities such as murder, rape, theft, and other vile actions are unjust. Intrinsically unjust -- again, even if local government turns a blind eye or says all of this mayhem is okay.
All of these just-mentioned atrocities, some ancients contend, become attempts to deny the natural rights of others. For example, by nature men and women are endowed with free will and the ability to exercise free choice; as such, humans, by nature, by virtue of what it means to be human, require a measure of freedom to live their lives as fully functioning human beings. Freedom, then, becomes not a mere want but a need; and if it is a need, it is also a right, a natural right of human beings by virtue of what we are.
And since all humans share a common, essential humanity, all will understand the basis for these needs; in other words, if I understand that I, as a human being, require freedom, it is then a short path to knowing that you, too, require the same. And when I understand this, it becomes unjust for me to withhold from you that which I now know all humans not only require but have right to.
Jefferson called these "unalienable rights" -- rights which cannot be given by government nor taken away, but only hindered -- rights antecedent to government. A "just" government, in this view, is one which safeguards the natural rights of men and women; its "just" laws will reflect mankind's intrinsic dignity, and laws failing to acknowledge these natural rights will be deemed "unjust."
(2) "Might Makes Right": another view, as ancient as the other, denies the proposition of natural justice. This position states that governments and its laws define justice; that justice is solely a creature of legislation. The citizen, because he is a citizen of a particular realm, must obey the laws of the land, and, if he does, he will be called "just." In this view, it matters not what the laws compel one to do -- all laws are of equal value if duly consecrated by the powers-that-be.
In such a world, by logical extension, there can never be "justice" among nations, since that virtue can exist and be defined only within particular States.
Also, under this conception, the struggle between the democracies of the West and totalitarianism of the East is not, as recent Presidents have characterized it, a battle between good and evil -- but simply a quest for power -- and may the mightiest gladiator win.
While both of these major views enjoy the support of antiquity, it is very clear which platform proved most convincing to our Founding Fathers -- and, shall we say, thanks be to heaven?
For those who would like to argue in favor of the second position, may I offer the reminder that, in fairly recent history, such thesis found itself dragged through the mud in a little German town called Nuremberg. The contention, then, that "I was just following orders" or "... just obeying the laws of my country" didn't cut much ice with Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" and should cut even less with us, now, enjoying the full perspective of history.
Some ideas, thoroughly bankrupt as they are, though supported by heavy-weight intellectuals of the past, have had a very long run, but, now, must die the disreputable death that they've long deserved.
The essential meaning of "injustice" is "injury." It is to deny another that which is rightfully his or hers -- a right based not on arbitrary legislative decree but on the intrinsic high dignity of what it means to be a person.