Justice can be defined as a condition that exists when everyone, regardless of position or circumstance, receives what they are entitled to receive. Justice does not demand that outcomes are equal – because one person goes to jail, it does not follow that everyone must go. Or if I become a best-selling author (how sweet that would be!) it does not follow that everyone must be a best-selling author. Justice demands that all must begin with the same endowments. If those endowments are supplemented by parental, societal, physical or political endowments (children born in the U.S. have a better shot at prosperity than do children born in Cambodia), justice is not insulted.
Our Declaration of Independence states that all of us are created as equal beings and that God endowed each of us, again, equally, with human rights. The clear message is that God is the source of this equality. And it is his positive will that we are equal. A corollary to this idea is that to compromise anyone’s God-given equality without “just” cause is an offense against justice. And people can “feel” it. So slavery or crony capitalism, no matter their rationale, cause people to be uneasy at least, and more often offended. And rightly so.
If Governments were the source of our rights, then there would be no moral problem with special grants of privilege to recipients whom the goverment happens to favor. Whether the recipient is a titled aristocrat or a company like Solyndra, if government determines morality, then such grants, being legal, would be fine. But we don’t feel that they’re fine, do we? When the laws of the Third Reich required the Jews to be sent to concentration camps, the action was clearly legal, but any reasonable person could discern its fundamental immorality.
This innate knowledge, which all human beings share, is called the natural law. This is why, in the Declaration, the writer used the term, “self-evident,” to legitimize his short list of rights.
So, to what are we all entitled? What are God’s endowments? Starting at the beginning, God created us. None of us is able to create another person. Only God appears to have that ability. So we do not have unqualified ownership of another person. Trusteeship, perhaps, as in parenting a child. But not ownership. Therefore we cannot, in justice, take another’s life, or part of another’s life.
Conversely, we do own ourselves. Employing the rights of a creator, one might metaphysically assume that God owns us. But God handed each of us over to our own person. In order to excercise this self-ownership, God gave us intelligence and free will in order to be fundamentally independent beings. We can hand over part of our “selves” to another, as in marriage or employment, but it is our choice – and we can change our mind and take that part handed over back to ourselves. We can also pledge part of ourselves to the rest of society and agree to follow law, even law we don’t agree with.
God also created the earth, the physical world. He created it for all of us. In Genesis, he gave us “dominion” over it. But we know that he did not give more of it to the strong, the ruthless, the better-born, or the first arrivals than he did to the weak, the scrupulous, the average, or the late-comers. He gave it to all of us, and, at root, harkening back to the natural law, we believe we are all equal inheritors of God’s endowment.
This point, being equal inheritors of God’s creation, is a sticking point for us in our recognition and application of justice. We will discuss it in the next post.