The Unattainability of Perfect Justice

Here we see the pathos, the sheer sadness that impinges at every turn upon the pursuit and practice of justice. There can be no end to the business of making things fair, definitively and purely so. Not in this life anyway. 

When Christianity finally took possession of the pagan world, plundering it of all that was good, among the treasures that remained to adorn the Catholic Thing, treasures unimpaired by the sins and imperfections of pagan men, were the Cardinal Virtues. This is because nature herself had revealed them, both their existence and exigency rooted in right reason. 

Truth stood at the summit of that staircase, the love and defense of which were seen as essential to the maintenance of a fully human and societal life. Only truth would set us free because in its absence we can neither know nor aspire to anything worth having. “We are made for truth,” writes Luigi Giussani, “and truth is the correspondence between reality and consciousness.” The period spent between naps, as some wag once put it. Without the freedom to make true judgments about that which is, we remain slaves to fashion and force.   

Then justice followed, which is the virtue of giving to each man his due. If truth is respect for reality, for seeing and receiving what is there, justice is that same respect applied to others. It is what enjoins us to honor and uphold the rights of other people, particularly those whom we do not know. “To be just,” Josef Pieper tells us in his masterful study of the subject (The Cardinal Virtues), “means to acknowledge someone in case one cannot love him.” 

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In other words, when we love another, it is always in excess of justice, aiming in the most intimate and sacrificial way to give far more than what mere fairness may require. That is because with love one’s focus is always on the other person. In the case of justice, however, it is the process that matters. Is the transaction one of fairness or not? We might speak of justice as that virtue in which we are forced to be fair to those for whom we cannot bring ourselves to be fond.

All of which may lead one to think of justice as something of only marginal value, which would be a huge and costly mistake. Indeed, so indispensable is the practice of this virtue that it is far worse to inflict injustice than to suffer from it. In a paradoxical way, the agent of injustice loses more of himself than his victim; yes, even were he to deprive him of his very life. He would have destroyed himself far more than the poor wretch left to die in a pool of his own blood.

Plato has given us the classic formulation of the problem when, in The Republic, he writes: “It is not the most shameful thing to be wrongfully boxed on the ears, nor again to have either my purse or my person cut…any wrong done to me and mine is at once more shameful and worse for the wrongdoer than for the one who suffers.” The need for justice is among those elemental exigencies inscribed deep down in the human heart, which is why those who seek to thwart the hunger and thirst men have for justice do a terrible violence. To do so is to prevent an essential human fulfillment without which man is left bereft of his full humanity.   

But we must not imagine that we can ever bring about perfect justice in this world. Here we see the pathos, the sheer sadness that impinges at every turn upon the pursuit and practice of justice. There can be no end to the business of making things fair, definitively and purely so. Not in this life anyway. 

Why this should be so is not difficult to know. It is the fact that we live and move in a vale of tears, a fallen world in which, every day and in every way, we aspire to an ideal we cannot completely possess. So we make this adjustment and that accommodation, always reaching for some point of balance amid the conflicting forces, an equilibrium never finally realizable this side of the grave. To live, therefore, is to maneuver, coursing along a continuum that, like an asymptotic curve, will never arrive at its baseline. 

Those who ignore this ineluctable fact, who disdain to accept the limits of human justice, who wish to deny what the poet Yeats has called “the perpetual injustice of life,” are dangerously romantic, becoming a danger to themselves and to others. It is to engage in a kind of utopian logic, which is a species of idealism wholly illusory and unreal. To be sure, politicians are especially prone, their decisions drawn to what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott has called “making politics the way the crow flies.”

Here is the sin of rationalism, he said, and it has been tried many times in history, most especially in the last century among despots like Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, with results both predictable and catastrophic. “The conjunction of dreaming and ruling,” he wrote, “necessarily generates tyranny.” There is no humane way, in other words, to make an omelet without breaking a great many eggs. Lenin understood the logic, declaring that the hour had come when, “it is no longer possible to listen to music, because music arouses the desire to caress children’s heads, while the moment has come to cut them off.”    

One could easily sum up the history of the last century with that sentence. Perhaps the final chapter is being written even now. “That the fundamental act of commutative justice,” writes Pieper, “is called ‘restitution’ implies that it is not possible to achieve a definitive ideal condition among men.” The very best we can do is to bring about, “the non-definitive and provisional, the repeated mere ‘improvement’ in all historical action…thus the claim to erect an imperturbable permanent order in the world must necessarily lead to something inhuman.”

The truth about perfect justice is that it is not finally ours to give. Maybe that is why, in the prayer Christ taught us to pray, the petitions we place before the Father are not ours to give but only to receive—that if and when God’s Kingdom should come, the inbreaking of it will not be our doing.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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