Justice (virtue)

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Justizia, by Luca Giordano

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues in classical European philosophy and Roman Catholicism. It is the moderation or mean between selfishness and selflessness - between having more and having less than one's fair share.[1]

Justice is closely related, in Christianity, to the practice of Charity (virtue) because it regulates the relationships with others. It is a cardinal virtue, which is to say "pivotal" because it regulates all such relationships, and is sometimes deemed the most important of the cardinal virtues.

Early developments

In Aristotle's wake,[2] Thomas Aquinas developed a theory of proportional reciprocity, whereby the just man renders to each and all what is due to them in due proportion: what it is their moral and legal rights to do, possess, or exact.[3]

This is equal insofar as each one receives what he is entitled to, but may be unequal insofar as different people may have different rights: two children have different rights from a certain adult if that adult is the parent of one of them and not of the other. Aristotle developed the idea of equity to cover irregular cases so that “the ordinance is framed to fit the circumstances”.[4]

Macrobius saw Justice as existing on four different planes or levels, rising from the everyday political virtue at the lowest to the Archetypal Form of Justice at the highest.[5]

Modern developments

With the late modern rise in interest in virtue ethics, a new interest in articulating the virtue of justice has emerged. John Rawls saw justice as the typical virtue of the institution; Irene van Staveren saw it as that of the state, marked by such indicators as votes, legitimacy, public fairness and distributive rules.[6]


Moral justice has been linked to the sixth and highest of Kohlberg's stages of moral development.[7]

Freudians consider that in the unconscious the image of the Father embodies a stern but fair justice;[8] Jungians similarly see the archetype of the King as representing the right ordering of society.[9]


Dante made Justice the virtue of his sixth heaven (the sphere of Jupiter), and illustrated it through such martial figures as Joshua and Roland.[10]

Sir Philip Sydney wrote of “justice the chief of virtues”;[11] Edmund Spenser devoted the fifth book of The Faerie Queene to the same theme.[12]

Wallace Stevens rejected what he called “galled Justicia/Trained to poise the tables of the law” as part of the obsolete images of the past, and favoured instead the modernist seeking out of new ruling images – new “sovereigns of the soul”.[13]

See also


  1. Aristotle, Ethics (1976) p. 186
  2. Aristotle, p. 182-3
  3. D. Manuel Jr, Contemporary Social Philosophy (nd) p. 58
  4. Aristotle, p. 198-200
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (1976) p. 68-9
  6. Deidre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues (2007) p. 286 and p. 431
  7. L. P. Nucci, Handbook of Moral and Character Education (2008) p. 60
  8. Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychooanalysis (1976) p. 45
  9. R. Bly/M. Woodman, The Maiden King (1999) p. 155
  10. Dante, Paradise (1975) p. 215
  11. Sidney, A Defence of Poetry (1984) p. 31
  12. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1971) p. 201
  13. Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1984) p. 124

External links