The Virtue of Justice and Lawmaking
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2009

This column continues the examination of the cardinal virtues and how they should guide the making of public policy.

The second cardinal virtue is justice. The Catechism defines justice as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” “Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.”

Justice, therefore, concerns making things “right” by giving each person his or her “due.” What is a person’s “due” and from where does it come? The need to do justice comes from the obligation to respect the dignity of every human person. This dignity comes from being created in God’s image. Failing to respect human dignity, including failing to do justice, is to disrespect God.

There are three kinds of justice. Commutative justice concerns the relationship between one individual and another. Legal justice concerns what the individual owes the community. Distributive justice concerns what the community owes its citizens.

Since justice concerns relationships to another, it has much to do with public policy. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI writes in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics” and that the origin and goal of politics is found in justice.

In the making of public policy, the virtue of justice can take two forms. Justice is both the goal of politics and the means of politics. To put it another way, we must do justice to achieve justice. Justice must exist in the means and the ends.

The ends of justice are achieved when legislation furthers commutative and legal justice and accomplishes distributive justice. For example, laws establishing and enforcing a system of contracts, public safety, and taxation further those ends.

Distributive justice is the primary function of those in political life. In part, it also concerns matters such as public safety and taxation, but it also concerns establishing a political system whereby everyone receives that which is essential to his or her dignity. In Catholic teaching, this means life, education, health care, work, food, shelter, and religious liberty. These are due to people as a matter of justice. They should not be considered gifts dependent upon charity.

When the North Dakota legislature considered whether to expand the state children’s health insurance program to cover children without health care, it was a question of justice. When it passes legislation to protect the unborn and help pregnant women, it acts for justice.

It is also important for legislators to exercise right reason, prudence, and understanding when enacting laws in the name of justice. Otherwise, government can grant what is not due. Giving the rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples, for example, is contrary to justice, as is giving tax breaks to friends or special interests without first taking care of the needs of the poor.

The methods of achieving justice also require the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice demands that legislators treat each other with respect. Political games, favoritism, and refusing to work with certain legislators runs afoul of the virtue of justice. Even partisan politics can contradict the virtue of justice. The guiding rule for politics should be the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do to you.

The same call for justice applies to lobbyists and citizens involved in public policy. Of particular importance today is how we act in the anonymous, but still influential, blogosphere. Ask before posting: Would you want someone to write something about you the way you are about to write about them?

In all types of actions, the virtue of justice obligates us to get the facts, reflect on them, and to exercise prudence. Too often good people, including our bishops, are treated unfairly by people who have not done their research. Some people care little about the underlying issue, but just want to humiliate the subject of their communications.

Virtues put our bad tendencies in check. We need more of the virtue of justice in politics.