Cardinal Virtues: Justice

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Traditional conservatives are sceptical of the State and believe in strong defences of liberty such as trial by jury, habeas corpus, Magna Carta and Common Law. Britain’s acceptance of Continental style ‘Rights’ as well as InterPol arrest warrants, attempted imposition of ID cards and abolition of jury equity in cases of terrorism are grave threats to our liberty.

We’re at the last of the four classic Cardinal virtues, Justice. Of the four: prudence, temperance, courage and justice, it seems the most immediately obvious and intuitive. Justice, it must be fairness, balance, redistribution, correction? In the tradition of the Golden Mean justice would be the middle ground between selflessness and selfishness. This Aristotelian view understands justice as re-establishing some form of equality between competing parties, while making allowances for the inequity between them – such as the justice between an adult and a child. The Christian adaptation of this accepts that humans have natural and God-given rights and that justice is training one’s self to render to each person what is theirs. Christians also see justice as the natural state between humans and God, that humans should behave towards God in a just manner and act accordingly.

Implicit in these definitions is the idea of a certain harmony which is broken or disrupted and which requires a debt of some sort to be paid. If I injure you then there is a natural requirement for me to restore the balance with an act or punishment which restores the balance. For Nietzsche this indebted relationship is the origin of morality itself. A person who finds themselves in debt to some form of creditor will feel guilt and a compulsion to repay. This of course, as with a lot of Nietzsche’s work, strips all human interactions down to power relations. The relationship between children and parents, where children may feel obligated to care for their parents as they age, is a form of justice motivated by love. But in either direction we see a broken bond and an effort to rebalance the scales.

Most religions have some version of the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would them do unto you”. This is an exhortation to just behaviour which uses one’s own self-interest to ensure that others are not harmed by your actions. Nassim Taleb, in his latest book – Skin in the Game, ponders that a negative version of this rule, “don’t do to others as you wouldn’t want done to yourself” is more robust, since you don’t need to imagine what others want, only what they don’t want, which is much easier to imagine. He terms this the Silver Rule. Having Skin in the Game is a strong measure of whether someone is being just or not. Anglo-Saxon Common Law refuses to allow anyone to be above the Law, thereby subjecting the same judges and parliaments who help create it to the consequences.

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One contentious version of justice is ‘social justice’ which has become a pejorative in recent years. Social justice concerns itself with the distribution of justice between societies and the individuals and groups within it. One of the cornerstones of the philosophy is the notion of ‘rights’. A ‘human right’ is a claim that humans are born with inalienable and inviolable demands and requirements that must be satisfied. For Burkean conservatives rights are a contentious issue – all rights carry the flip side of responsibility. Someone demanding that WiFi is a human right is of course stating that someone else has the responsibility to provide it. The same could be said of water, health, food, shelter and so on. English legal tradition has long assumed that people can do whatever they choose so long as it doesn’t impact on others in an unjust manner – this is negative liberty. Human Rights is the positive version of this, codifying what we may do and thus gifting the responsibility for our lives to the authorities. The excessive protection of the rights of those who have harmed others is a long running sore point in many countries, who feel, ironically, that the rights afforded to terrorists and criminals are unjust.

Traditional conservatives are sceptical of the State and believe in strong defences of liberty such as trial by jury, habeas corpus, Magna Carta and Common Law. Britain’s acceptance of Continental style ‘Rights’ as well as InterPol arrest warrants, attempted imposition of ID cards and abolition of jury equity in cases of terrorism are grave threats to our liberty. These institutions are the collective wisdom of how Britain distributes and upholds justice. Between selflessness, a impossibility outside of small groups, and selfishness, guaranteed between different groups, lies just action. For the Silver Rule to work we need decisions to be made at the most local level, for those who distribute justice to be equal to those who receive it, for Rights to be negative to prevent an overbearing State, and for our institutions to protect the wisdom of the ages. As Burke wrote: “the individual is foolish, the species is wise”.

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