1.3.1 Justice

Back to 1.2.6

Unit 1 Contents


First of all, what is a ‘principle’?  So far I’ve simply assumed that it’s obvious what this word means.



What do you think a ‘principle’ is?

Be aware that this is, of course, a different noun from ‘principal’, the main meaning of which is a leading or head person (such as of a college).


Perhaps the simplest way to grasp what we mean when we talk of a ‘principle’ is to see it as a ‘criterion’, which is a “standard by which something may be judged or decided” (Oxford Dictionary Online).

To illustrate this, think about the principle of human dignity, which is centrally important in CST.  As explained briefly in 1.1.6, this expresses the idea that every human person has intrinsic and incalculable worth.  In consequence, we all must treat each other in a way that recognizes and respects that dignity.

In other words, the principle of human dignity gives us a criterion we must meet as we relate to one another.

What this means in practical terms can be subject to much debate.  For example, CST affirms that torture is always contrary to human dignity.1. But there is a difficult debate about what counts as torture and what doesn’t.

Yet the principle is clear: the standard or criterion of human dignity must always be respected.

All the principles of CST can be seen in this way, as articulating criteria or standards that we need to stick to if we are going to live well together in human societies.

You may ask: why?  Why are these things the principles we find in CST?  The short answer is that they arise from deep within Christian theology and Christian ethics.  That is, they make sense for us in the context of the whole way of seeing the world, and how to live in it, that Christian faith can give us.  The Church affirms that these principles are beneficial for human beings individually and for human society.

Our main aim in this unit will be simply to understand more fully what these principles mean.  As you then move through the module, you will have opportunity to explore further how these principles fit in relation to wider Christian understanding of the world.  Each unit from Unit 3 to Unit 8 focuses on one or two main principles.


You were asked earlier (1.2.1) to read from Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) (2005).  Later in that document, he addressed how ‘love’ and ‘justice’ are related to each other.  He connected ‘justice’ closely with ‘politics’ – which means with what people should do as citizens, and with what government should do – or, as he put it, what ‘the State’ should do.  He said:

The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice. (Deus Caritas Est, #28)

He added that those who govern “must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now” (#28, italics added).  Justice is an urgent need, not only a concept.

Benedict XVI then said: “But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice?” (#28)



What do you think justice is?

Do you think that everyone has some intuitive sense of what justice requires?

What are some actions that you see as just, and others you see as unjust?


In Black’s Law Dictionary online, the first statement in the entry on justice is: “The constant and perpetual disposition to render every man his due”.2. This definition of justice goes back to ancient Roman law.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a similar statement: “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour” (#1807).  This says that justice is a matter of what is due not only to human persons but also to God.  It is not surprising that the Church brings God into the picture!

From these two definitions, two points are especially worth appreciating.

First, justice is about what is due to someone or to a group of people, or, in other words, what is owed to them.  Indeed the word’s short, formal definition is that to do justice is to render what is due.

If you have worked an eight-hour day for your employer, what is due to you for that?  Your wages, and some rest.  What is owed by you to your employer?  To do the work they ask you to do.  What is due to a human being simply because he or she is a human being?  This depends on what a human being is – but many would agree on: respect, some freedom, access to enough food and water to live, among other things.  (What would you say?)

To render what is due requires recognition of the truth about the person or persons who need justice and about their circumstances.  If we mis-recognise what is true about them, we will get wrong what justice requires.  For example, if we fail to see the truth about human dignity, we may well treat human persons as if they are nothing more than economic resources.  Justice is inseparable from what is true.  In light of this, here is a fuller statement of what it means to do justice:

To do justice is to recognise persons for who they truly are, each alone and in community, and then to render to them what is due.

Second, the two definitions I quoted say that justice is, respectively, a ‘disposition’ and a ‘moral virtue’.  What these terms mean is that, as well as something people must do, justice is a quality of character.  The word ‘disposition’ means a well-established habit of acting in a certain way.  If a disposition is to act in a morally good way, it is a virtue.

This means that if someone has the virtue of justice, their character has the good quality of justice and they will, more or less as a matter of course, act justly in relation to others.  They will act in ways that mean others receive what is due.

Recognizing that one meaning of justice is that it is a virtue, a quality that is supposed to characterize people, is one really important starting point in addressing what government’s role is.

Clearly, we are never going to have a just society simply because of what government does.  Citizens cannot collectively hand over to government the responsibility to do justice and then forget about justice in our own relations with others.

Rather, a just society depends on its citizens being just.  It can exist only if people generally have the disposition to practise justice day-by-day.



Which do you think matters more, that governments do justice, or that people are just?

Or is it impossible to say that one is more important than the other?  Is it both/and?

Do you think that, generally, people in the society you live in are just?  You could think about this in relation to any of the following: locality, town, city, nation, world.

Or do most people simply look after themselves, regardless of whether others suffer injustice?

Are you just?


To sum up, to do justice is to render what is due, and it is both a virtue that people need to have and a special responsibility of governments.

Before we move on to the concept of the common good, it will be helpful to distinguish two different kinds of justice, both of which we’ll come back to in later units.

Distributive justice

‘Distributive justice’ is about who has what and how much.  It is to do with the distribution of goods among people and among groups.  The term can apply both to a small number of people (say, you and your siblings) and to a large society (say, the various employers and groups of workers that make up a country’s economy).

In using the word ‘goods’ in that paragraph, I mean not only material things and money but also non-material goods, such as freedoms and employment opportunities.

To be clear: using the term ‘distributive justice’ does not assume that there is a single pool of resources that aren’t already connected to anyone in particular and that it is simply government’s job to allocate to people – i.e. a pre-existing pot that just needs to be handed out.  On the contrary, most goods – whether material or otherwise – are at any one time in the possession of particular people or groups.  It is certainly not government’s job to take them all off those who currently have them and then redistribute them.

But if there is going to be distributive justice across a society, and if, as Pope Benedict said, the “just ordering of society… is a central responsibility of politics”, then it is the job of government to make sure that the laws according to which goods are distributed – through the innumerable dealings people have with each other every day – lead to just outcomes.

It is the fact that laws either enable just outcomes or, if they are bad laws, produce unjust outcomes which means that Catholic Social Teaching rightly speaks of ‘structural’ justice and injustice.  When bad laws are enforced, it is as though injustice is structured into the very design of society.  This means that if there is going to be distributive justice, laws that perpetuate ‘structural’ injustice have to be challenged and changed.  We shall examine this important topic of structural justice and injustice in Unit 6.

A term with a very similar meaning as ‘distributive justice’ is ‘social justice’.  Indeed these two are often used in synonymous ways (even though some people argue that a clear distinction can be made between them).  You are probably familiar with ‘social justice’ because it is widely used, including in some documents of CST.

You need to be aware that ‘social justice’ has been a hugely controversial term during the past 50 years. This is because some representatives of economic liberalism or, as it is now widely known, neo-liberalism have argued that ‘social justice’ is a meaningless concept.  The most well known proponent of this view was Friedrich von Hayek.  It is easy to show that they are wrong, as we shall see when we look at their argument in Unit 5, but their influence in politics has been extensive.

In the meantime. though, I shall use only ‘distibutive justice’; it will not be necessary to use ‘social justice’ until we reach Unit 5.

Retributive justice

‘Retributive justice’ is about what people who have committed crimes should receive if they are found guilty in court.  Literally, ‘re-tribute’ means ‘pay back’, so it is about what should be ‘paid back’ to people for crimes committed.

There is almost no disagreement in society – among people of all faiths and none – that a primary responsibility of government is to operate a criminal justice system.  I say ‘criminal justice’ here, and we could use this term as an alternative label for ‘retributive justice’.

Moreover, the Bible shows, as we’ll see in Unit 2, that a major concern of writers of Old Testament books was that there should be a fair and just system of criminal courts – so that people who were oppressed or afflicted or were victims of violence could come to court to get justice.

Given these points, it is surprising that the main documents of CST, as listed on 1.2.3, give almost no attention to the subject of criminal justice.  Arguably this is a major gap in current CST.  However, some national bishops’ conferences, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, have done work on this subject.

In Unit 5, we shall look at the material that there is on this highly important area in order to try to understand what the perspective of Catholic teaching is on it.



To conclude this screen, see if you can answer each of the following questions, in a single sentence each.

    • What does it mean to do justice?
    • Who is responsible for justice?
    • What is distributive justice?
    • What is retributive justice?



End of 1.3.1

Go to 1.3.2 The Common Good

Module B outline

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  1. On torture, Pope John Paul II said, “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim” (Address to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1982, quoted in Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #404).  After quoting this, the Compendium adds, “International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” 

  2. The Law Dictionary, Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary Free Online, 2nd ed, ‘Definition of Justice, n’, at http://thelawdictionary.org/justice-n/, accessed 28 May 2012.