All people strive to have certain rights throughout their lives. Rights such as freedom, health care, and a minimum wage for work are just a few of the rights people expect government institutions to protect. The only way these rights are protected and survive is if there are enforcement mechanisms in place to prevent people’s rights from being taken away. First, however, people must agree on what these rights are and what amounts to unfair treatment of another’s rights.
It is difficult to imagine a society being successful without stability and order. Without rules and expectations that when those rules are not adhered to there will be consequences, societies will not be successful. Chaos would undoubtedly result. People buy into a social contract in society; people accept certain rights in exchange for some sacrifices to total freedom so that basic rights and freedoms can be protected and society will be stable and orderly. But the issue comes when people need to agree on what freedoms should be sacrificed and what acts should be restricted. Here, then, it is necessary to have a set of higher principals and values that maintain a society’s stability, order, and moral core.
Such a system is one of justice, and in order for the system of justice as a whole to succeed, a system of justice must begin as a virtue within the individual. What is just and what is unjust is different for all people, but all people do have needs of safety, health, freedom, and community wellbeing. The just individual must respect that what benefits oneself benefits everybody else. The just individual must work to ensure a system of justice at home, in his daily life. The unjust person, however, does neither of these things. The unjust person comes in many forms. There are those individuals who are unjust through directly harming others and a complete disrespect for the wellbeing of others. There are others who are unjust because they only want justice for themselves or a small group they are members of (like race or religion). Then there are individuals in between, those who are neither just nor unjust individuals. These are individuals who may want justice, but cannot fulfill the virtue of justice in action. They may support a system of justice for the community or society; they may follow certain laws and bring no harm to anybody else in a direct way. But these people may also be unjust at the same time. They may perform work that benefits themselves but that may also hurt other people or make other people’s lives unnecessarily harder. Those that are between just and unjust may be just in public but not at home. Those that are in between just and unjust are the most common type of individual, and these individuals usually are not able to be just in all aspects of their lives. Instead, they are only just because they fear the consequences of being unjust. In no way could this type of behavior amount to virtuousness in justice. One may ask why this is so, since people may have a different idea of justice at home and a different idea of justice for society? But if or when a system of justice, for example, breaks down or is really tested in society, how will individuals be prepared to serve higher principals of justice if they do not do so without the constant threat of consequences? Meeting the virtue of requires selfless commitment to justice for the sake of not just one’s own wellbeing, but for that of everybody else as well.
Justice, then, is fairness. The virtuousness practice of justice, however, requires selfless effort to achieve it in everyday life. Justice can be applied to four other kinds:
(1) First, is citizen justice. In any functioning society, the citizen lives within a set of rules and laws. Many people live that justice is simply that citizens support and remain loyal to these sets of rules and laws at all times. However, this is not enough to reach the virtue of justice. If rules and laws are violate moral values and principals that support fairness (definition of justice) in the community and society, then it would not be just for a citizen to follow such rules and laws. Here, then, citizens are not simply robots in a machine meant to follow instructions dictated to them. Citizens have power, and can use this power to make their society more just if rules and laws are not just themselves. Citizens must not be just only for the sake of themselves, but because injustice harms their fellow citizens. If citizens only and blindly follow rules and laws, then that is not just; it is only out of self-interest.
(2) Second, punishment that matches a particular injustice (or “eye for an eye”) is often thought to be just. But this is not the case. Simply because one commits a horrible act, it does not mean that an equally horrible punishment for that act would be fair. For example, if a child murders someone else, either another child or an adult, is it really fair to then put the child to death over his/her action? Or how about a mentally disturbed person who, because of disturbed mental thoughts, commits a number of murders? Putting these people to death would not be tolerated in any truly just system. In fact, doing so would be an injustice by itself. Fair and just consequences for injustice acts require much deeper examination of the person behind the act. A just punishment not only thinks of the reaction but of the moral principals that result from the punishment. In other words, with each punishment of an injustice act, society will think of fairness and justice in updated ways. Many people will form their idea of justice based on the way these punishments are carried and the justifications for them. As a result, eye for an eye punishment may seem fair and just, yet it is anything but just much of the time.
(3) Third, politicians and leaders are often seen as being fierce defenders of justice because they lead the institutions that enforce laws. While it is true that without politicians there would not be any proper system of justice, it is often not the case that political leaders are just. Political leaders try to appeal to values of justice, but often it is meant to benefit themselves. In a justice system that is virtuous, institutions will have no commitment to political leaders but to the founding values of justice that went into the founding of a society and which all people agreed upon. When political leaders twist the values of justice in order to convince people that they should support justice that benefits a power hungry politician, then injustice will soon develop in society. Power, then, can easily make a society seem just even when it is unjust. This is why it is so important that people are aware of the issues and needs of people in their fellow community, because if an unjust institution does not harm one individual, it may be unjustly harming another. As a result, a virtuousness system of justice is dependent on accountability of political leaders so that they do not twist the justice system in their favor.
(4) Many people also believe justice is only limited to people and crime, but virtuousness in justice requires being just to all life. This includes the environment and animals. How can people expect to be just and fair on a daily basis if they do not treat the natural environment and animals (who feel and have emotions)? Societies that only think of justice as preserving human rights are not actually just. Principals of justice go beyond structures of societies, but they go to the core of behaviors and morals. This must extend to treating the environment and animals fairly and with dignity, as opposed to treating both as if they do not deserve what humans do.
Justice is about fairness and equality, but it is not concerned with both of these in the same way. Justice has more to do with fairness than equality. Although most people believe equality is just, it is not always. Simply because there are people who have more money than others, for example, does not mean that society is unjust. What matters more is to what extent inequality rises, and at what point does it make something unfair. Once something becomes unfair, then it is unjust. A society can be fair, just, and unequal, but a society cannot be unfair, just, and equal.
Understanding the virtue of justice requires an acceptance of the importance of fairness, and that even though many different groups, religions, and cultures think of fairness in different ways, there are core values that should be adopted by all communities and societies. Basic justice requires moral principals. If one group believes that murder is perfectly acceptable because of someone else’s beliefs and not because they harmed anyone else, for example, that cannot be an acceptable form of punishment and justice.
Virtues of justice can be diverse at the societal level because different collective groups will have different demands and needs based on their beliefs and location. But at the individual level, a just individual must apply behaviors of selflessness, compassion, and strength. All of these behaviors are required for individuals to reach the virtue of justice. Selflessness ensures that an individual is not just for his or her own sake, but is just to improve the community and the lives of those around him or her. Compassion, at all times, is crucial because it allows an individual to see fairness not simply as strength but with a full and expanded view of each person’s individual issues and needs. This is extremely important when it comes to fairness, as a person’s action may not mean they deserve a certain degree of punishment. Strength, however, is also necessary. In order to be fully committed to justice, an individual must be willing to enforce consequences for the immoral and unfair actions he or she witnesses. Individuals cannot be afraid to defend others or stand up for what is morally right according to standards of fairness because if enough individuals let such behavior go by, then a system of justice in society will be unlikely to succeed and work for all people.
The virtue of justice has many layers, but here a deep examination has tried to peel those layers and explain what makes up the virtues of justice both at the individual level and for society.
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