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Chapter 6: Love, Justice, Mercy, and Social Responsibility

Question B: What Is Justice?

In fulfilling the whole law, love fulfills every requirement of justice. There are many theories of what justice is, and Jesus’ teaching concerning love of neighbor provides a criterion for evaluating them: the Golden Rule. This criterion makes it clear that most theories of justice are either false or inadequate, while an adequate account will reduce all other criteria of justice to the Golden Rule itself and to other moral requirements governing even those actions that do not bear on others.

Scripture uses justice in a wide sense to mean goodness and holiness in general—Joseph was a just man (see Mt 1.19). Here, however, the word is used in its usual, narrower sense to refer to rightness in people’s interactions and interrelationships. Even in this sense, justice expresses several closely related concepts rather than a single, simple concept. It is necessary to begin by making several distinctions and disengaging the three most important concepts. Then false accounts of justice must be examined and set aside. Next, several inadequate accounts can be criticized, and from that criticism the elements for an adequate account can be drawn. Finally, it is necessary to see how various kinds of rights are related to justice.

1. The Word Justice Refers to Several Distinct Realities

Considered from a moral point of view, people’s interactions and interrelations involve four distinct but closely related realities that can be called “just” (or “unjust”). Here, these referents of justice—that is, the realities to which the word refers—are distinguished. (The corresponding referents of unjust or injustice are obvious, and readers can easily supply them.)

a) Justice belongs to certain objective situations. In one sense, just refers to an objective situation involving either an action affecting others or an interpersonal relationship that is as it ought to be. The just is what ought to be brought about (see S.t., 2–2, q. 57, a. 1). Justice is used in this sense when someone says: “The stolen property has been restored and the thief tried and punished, so justice has been done.” Again, if a man does what is objectively required toward another but does it with an immoral intention, people say: “He did the right (that is, the just) thing for the wrong reason.” And when two children are dividing a candy bar and the perfectly just state of affairs would be pieces exactly equal in size, if one child accepts a slightly smaller piece, saying, “That’s fair enough,” the child refers to justice in this objective sense.

b) Justice belongs to certain morally good human acts. In a second sense just refers to the moral quality of a good act which bears on another or others and tends to bring about the objectively just: one speaks of a just choice or act as one speaks of a chaste choice or act. The word justly is used in this sense when someone says: “The jury’s decision was fully in accord with the law and the facts, and so the members of the jury acted justly.” Again, the child who settled for the slightly smaller piece of candy acted both justly and unselfishly. In what follows, the main focus is on justice in this sense, the justice of choosing and acting toward others.

c) Justice belongs to the character of certain persons. In a third sense just refers to a person whose just choices and actions have formed a character that disposes him or her toward, and facilitates, further just choice and action. Justice is used in this sense when someone says: “That judge and that jury are conscientious people, men and women of real justice!” Again: “That child, young as she is, has the virtue of justice.” Justice in this sense is defined in a classical formula as “the enduring and unwavering willingness to give to all other persons what is rightfully theirs” (see S.t., 2–2, q. 58, a. 1).

d) Justice characterizes certain societies and social structures. In a fourth sense just refers to the quality of interpersonal relationships which are harmonious rather than disturbed by wrongdoing and ill will. Thus, justice is found in a community whose members’ just acts have provided their community with structures—laws, practices, and institutions—embodying their own habitual justice. The word just is used in this sense when someone says: “Good citizens seek to build a just society.”

2. There Are Narrower and Broader Concepts of Justice

Justice is giving others their due, what is owed them (see S.t., 2–2, q. 58, a. 1). But giving others their due can be understood in different ways: in a narrow sense, as fulfilling responsibilities defined by prior undertakings toward others; in an important, wider sense, as being fair to others, that is, acting in accord with the Golden Rule. And it can be understood even more inclusively: acting uprightly in any action bearing on others. In this broadest sense of giving others their due, all the goodness of a good act counts as justice insofar as that act has some bearing on others. So in this third sense, fulfilling duties and being fair are important parts of justice but not all of it.

a) Justice is fulfilling one’s prior undertakings toward others. In making a promise, entering into a contract or covenant, or accepting a social role with its responsibilities, one usually owes the other or others that undertaking’s fulfillment. Duties in a narrow sense refers to such obligations in justice.

Justice in its wider senses usually requires that such duties be fulfilled. But not always, for sometimes a promise is rightly broken or an undertaking is rightly left unfulfilled in some respects. For example, citizens rightly make exceptions to their allegiance to their country if it engages in an unjust war, and parents properly break their promise to take the children to the zoo on Sunday afternoon if the weather is cold and damp and one of the children seems to be coming down with the flu. It may also be just to leave such a duty unfulfilled in a particular case because one impartially judges that some other duty’s conflicting demands ought to be fulfilled. (On resolving conflicts of duties, see 5.K.)

Something due because of one’s own prior undertaking is an especially obvious requirement of justice. Supposing justice never to require anything except fulfilling duties of this sort, children (and even adults) therefore often deny its less obvious requirements. Thus, an adolescent is likely to rationalize disobedience, and so violate justice toward his or her parents, by saying: “I didn’t choose my parents, so I don’t see why I must obey them.” Again, there is a political theory which maintains that citizens have no duty to obey laws they neither directly nor indirectly consented to (see 11.B.3.b, below).18

b) Justice is being fair to others. An injustice can be done without breaking any prior commitment, for example, robbing and killing a harmless stranger. In considering that act unjust, one presupposes a meaning of justice, based on equal personal dignity, which is wider than fulfilling one’s prior undertakings. This meaning, recognized by most people if not all, is formulated in Scripture as the Golden Rule, which requires fair treatment of everyone without exception. Plainly, the robbery and killing are unfair—excluded by the Golden Rule—although they violate no prior undertaking to the stranger. Similarly, rebellious children and extreme libertarians nevertheless want the advantages of familial and political community for themselves, and if they occupied different positions in the family or society, they would want others to obey certain decisions to which those others had not consented.

Justice in this second sense also undergirds justice in the first sense. Since, in general, people want others to fulfill their undertakings, they generally violate the Golden Rule if they fail to fulfill their own. Yet there are times when the Golden Rule requires not fulfilling a prior undertaking. That is the case with citizens who set aside their oath of allegiance when their country engages in an unjust war: they would not want the citizens of another country to carry on a similar war against them. Again, if changed circumstances gave the children disappointed about missing the promised trip to the zoo a good reason for breaking some promise of theirs, they would not wish to be held to it.

c) Justice is moral goodness as a whole in its bearing on others. If justice is taken in the widest sense, even the requirement of fairness is not broad enough to cover all cases of injustice. In this widest sense, injustice is any immorality a person does precisely insofar as he or she knows, or should know, that it harms, is to the disadvantage of, or bears wrongly upon one or more other persons.

For instance, someone not only does wrong but wrongs others in knowingly leading them into sharing in wrongdoing, so that they give in to temptations they otherwise would not have experienced. This can happen where there is no prior undertaking or preexisting definite relationship—and without any unfairness, if the one who leads others into wrongdoing harms himself or herself in the same way, and they consent to the sin. For example, Jane, a drug addict, shares her supply with a fellow addict, who otherwise might be driven to seek rehabilitation. It also can happen where a social institution embodies other immoral principles without violating the Golden Rule: John challenges George to a round of Russian roulette, to be conducted in a way involving no partiality. In such cases those who participate in the wrongdoing act unjustly toward one another even though they act impartially.19

d) Moral goodness in its bearing on oneself is not justice. It might be objected: If doing wrong that harms others is unjust to them even when it involves no partiality whatsoever, it could just as well be said that doing wrong which harms oneself is unjust to oneself. But no one says that. For example, nobody considers overeating unjust, except to the extent it affects someone other than the person who does it. This is because the ideas of justice and injustice always include a relationship with another or others (see S.t., 2–2, q. 59, a. 3, ad 2). (Of course, people do say figuratively of those who fail to do something as well as they can that they are not doing themselves justice, or of those who modestly disclaim the praise due them that they are not being fair to themselves; but, as everyone recognizes, these are extended uses of justice and fair.)

3. Certain Theories of Justice Are Simply False

Proponents of some kinds of legal positivism more or less share the view of Thomas Hobbes that justice is nothing else than what the law actually requires.20 As this account would have it, each society’s justice is peculiar to it and relative to its particular system of law: justice changes as the law changes. Moreover, no law can be unjust, unless in conflict with some more basic law within the same system. This theory is at odds with faith’s teaching that there is a moral law written on the human heart, clarified and interpreted by divine revelation (see Rom 2.15; CMP, 7.A–B). Closely akin to cultural relativism, it is vulnerable to the same critique (see CMP, 4.E).

According to utilitarianism, justice is whatever arrangement will bring about the “greatest good of the greatest number.” The underlying assumption is that human interactions and relationships create a social situation as their product, and justice is the disposition of those interactions and relationships which, under the given conditions, is most likely to result in the best possible social situation.21 This theory emerged as nonbelieving humanists shifted their hope from the heavenly kingdom to this world; it overlooks the truth that, so far as human efforts are concerned, human life and community do not draw their value from anything they produce. Rather, they have an ongoing and open-ended character, and, considered as materials for the heavenly kingdom, their value is inherent in them. Thus, utilitarianism is radically at odds with Christian faith and hope. Moreover, it offers no practical account of justice, since it requires that judgments be made by means of proportionalism, which is intrinsically incoherent (see CMP, 6.F).

4. Some Widely Accepted Accounts of Justice Are Inadequate

Besides theories of justice which are simply false, there are others which are true up to a point but inadequate. This is so because the reality of justice is complicated and the concepts of justice multiple, so that people often mistake the special features of what is just in particular kinds or aspects of interpersonal relationships for essential features of justice itself. To understand justice as fully and accurately as possible, these mistakes must be avoided.

a) Justice is not reducible to fulfilling agreements. This point was made (in 2.b, above), but it is worth adding another reason why this concept of justice is inadequate, namely, that some agreements, although knowingly and freely entered into, are unjust. For example, a woman whose automobile breaks down in a rough neighborhood, and who fears that she might be attacked or her car might be vandalized, may willingly agree to the demand by the driver of a passing tow truck to pay him fifty dollars more than he usually charges. The driver is plainly taking advantage of the woman’s plight, and so the agreement lacks objective equality in exchange and is unjust. The same is true of any agreement in which one party takes advantage of another’s special need.22

b) Justice is not merely objective equality in exchange. While objective equality in exchange might be necessary for justice in contractual arrangements, this requirement cannot be the fundamental principle of justice. For many questions of justice arise quite apart from any exchange, for example, questions about the justice to future generations of exhausting natural resources and to people around the world of polluting the environment. Moreover, even in exchanges, the comparative evaluation of what each gives and receives, which is necessary for determining equality, presupposes some just standard. But what can determine the justice of a standard used to measure equality in exchange? Not the mere fact that it is accepted by the parties, since the same motives leading people freely to enter into unjust agreements can lead them to accept unjust standards for measuring equality in exchange.

In economic matters, market price often is used to measure equality in exchange. Of course, some participants can manipulate markets unfairly to their own advantage. But even if a market is not manipulated, there are three reasons why market price cannot always serve as a just standard.

First, some exchanges—for instance, those involved in friendships—involve goods such as affection and evils such as suffering for which there can be no market. Here it seems to be a just standard for equality in exchange that the parties receive what they merit by their contributions to the relationship.

Second, some exchanges involve goods such as persons or sexual acts for which there can, but should not, be a market. Here the market price, whatever it is, cannot settle what is just in the relationship, inasmuch as what is exchanged should not be treated as a commodity, and so should not be priced.

Third, the market itself often reflects injustices in the system of which it is a part. For example, when unemployment is high, the market price of a person’s work often falls below what he or she needs to survive. Again, the market price of commodities exported by underdeveloped nations often is inadequate for them to import what they need. Here it seems that a just standard of equality must at least allow both parties to the relationship to continue living and contributing to it—in other words, justice will require that the weaker party receive enough in return to meet basic needs.23

Besides, the criterion of objective equality cannot be applied to those interpersonal relationships and interactions which do not involve an exchange. For example, something other than objective equality in exchange excludes killing strangers, since that exclusion does not originate in cooperative relationships involving exchange. Similarly, objective equality in exchange does not regulate the relations of parents to children; in treating their children as they should, parents do not benefit by receiving from their children goods and/or services objectively equal to those they provide, but by becoming good parents and enjoying the fulfillment proper to that role.

c) Justice is not always determined by one’s merits. Some hold that, since justice consists in giving everyone what he or she deserves, its fundamental principle is merit. However, this view’s plausibility depends on the ambiguity of deserve. In a broad sense, people deserve whatever is due them, and desert in this sense is coextensive with justice. In a narrower sense, people deserve something only if it is due them on a specific kind of basis, namely, performance that both meets some standard of excellence and has a social value; desert in this sense is merit, but it is not coextensive with justice.

Many responsibilities in justice do not depend on merit. Parents have great responsibilities toward their newborn babies, who plainly lack merit based on performance: babies do nothing to deserve the protection and care their parents owe them. Even in the wider political society, merit cannot be the sole standard for requiring contributions and distributing benefits. For some are incapable of contributing enough to earn even as much as they need to survive, yet if an affluent society neglects them and allows them to die, it violates justice.

In cases in which justice clearly consists in treating people according to merit, the responsibility can be reduced to the requirement of fairness, which is determined by the Golden Rule. For example, in a business organization, pay and promotions are given to motivate and facilitate the performance which the organization needs to achieve its purpose. So, those who work harder and more productively merit by making a greater contribution to achieving the business’s purposes; they deserve more in the way of pay and promotions. If, in the absence of compelling reasons, salary increases and promotions instead go to those whose contributions are mediocre, the manager clearly is acting on the basis of favoritism, and so violates fairness. Therefore, other rational considerations being equal, fairness requires that all employees be treated according to their merits.

d) Justice is not always a matter of satisfying basic needs. Not only Marxists but many others hold that justice consists in members of a community contributing according to their abilities and receiving according to their needs.

Sometimes this plainly is so. For instance, when a man and a woman marry and have children, the family forms, as it were, one body. As with a natural body, where each part contributes as it can and receives, so far as the whole can manage, what it needs, so in the family each member should contribute as he or she can and receive from common resources what he or she needs, so far as the whole family can supply. The various human goods served by family life, together with the requirement of fairness, demand this unequal sharing of burdens and benefits because of the special kind of community a family is.

Indeed, even in the relationships between employers and employees, and between more and less developed nations, need certainly is a factor in determining what justice requires. Here too the goods at stake and the requirement of fairness demand that the needs of the weaker party be taken into account in setting the standard of justice in the relationship.

But need cannot be a principle of justice in every human interaction. The injustice of killing strangers, for example, does not arise from any need of theirs; in contracts between parties who cannot take advantage of one another, need is irrelevant to the standard for determining fairness in exchange; in a business partnership or an athletic association, the members’ needs are not the right standard for distributing profits or praise.

e) Justice is more than equal distribution of benefits and burdens. Some people focus on justice as objective equality in the distribution of benefits and burdens among members of a group, especially a political society. This objective equality also is required by fairness under certain conditions, namely, if there is nothing that morally calls for inequality in distribution.

But this notion plainly does not cover all cases. Respecting the lives of strangers is not a matter of distributing anything—for example, the sanctity of life—whether equally or otherwise; parents who distribute everything equally to a newborn, a six-year old, and a teenager do not treat them justly; in business partnerships and athletic associations, differences in merit justify inequality in the distribution of benefits and burdens.

f) Justice is not reducible only to fairness. Even though most other proposed principles of justice, insofar as they are at all helpful, are reducible to fairness, fairness is not the only principle of justice. It is always a necessary condition, but not always sufficient, for justice. In other words, while no unfair act can be just, sometimes acts involving no partiality to anyone are unjust. For, as has been explained (in 2.c), one can do wrong, and harm others in doing it, without being unfair. That constitutes injustice in the broadest sense.

5. The Principles of Justice Are Moral Rectitude and Fairness

Partial accounts of justice describe it accurately only to the extent they specify applications of the fundamental conceptions of justice previously stated: in general, and most broadly, what the modes of responsibility (see CMP, 8) require in actions bearing on others; more specifically, the requirements of fairness, that is, the Golden Rule.

a) The inadequate accounts point to useful standards of justice. Provided a person acts fairly and violates no other mode of responsibility, justice is done whether or not there is balance in exchange, equality in distribution, giving and receiving in proportion to capacity and needs respectively, or treatment on the basis of any specific sort of merit. Still, in appropriate circumstances, each of these criteria can point to what fairness requires; rightly understood and applied, they are useful standards of justice. But because they are not principles of justice, their use must be governed by the Golden Rule and everything else required for actions to be upright, whether or not they bear on others.

b) The traditional kinds of justice presuppose the same principles. In the Church’s teachings and in theological works, one often finds a distinction among various kinds of justice: legal, commutative, distributive, and social. They are not always understood uniformly within the tradition, but no matter how interpreted, they do not point to principles of justice independent of the Golden Rule and the other modes of responsibility.

Commutative justice, regardless of the precise definition given it, pertains to fairness in the interactions and interrelationships of two more or less equal parties. Discussions of commutative justice refer to standards such as objective equality in exchange, contractual duties, and so on. As has been shown, all these are reducible to the Golden Rule. Similarly, distributive justice, regardless of the precise definition given it, requires fairness in the relationship between communities and their members. Discussions of it contain references to standards such as merit, need, and ability to contribute—all, again, reducible to the Golden Rule.

Legal—or, as it is sometimes called, “general”—justice has been interpreted in two quite different ways. One sees it as the complement of distributive justice: the duties a community’s members have to it. The other considers it the underlying duty to respect and promote every common good, which gives rise both to communities and to cooperative relationships between and among individuals and groups.24 Considered either way, legal or general justice cannot be reduced to the Golden Rule alone, since the Golden Rule presupposes an interrelationship requiring fairness, while legal or general justice not only requires fairness within relationships but obliges one to act as a responsible person in constituting and participating in various communities. This requirement, however, is reducible to other modes of responsibility (see CMP, 8). For, as will be explained (in C.1, below), it is the basic human goods and the modes of responsibility governing each person’s action in respect to them which require individuals to form and participate in communities.

Social justice is never mentioned by St. Thomas; commutative and distributive justice, as he understands them, take in all social interactions and interrelationships. However, during modern times, commutative and distributive justice came to be understood more narrowly, so that they no longer seemed to require that all individuals and groups in a society direct their private actions bearing upon one another to the common good. This narrowing had the bad effect of seeming to imply that only justice in its narrowest sense—the duty to carry out one’s prior undertakings—is required in private interrelationships and interactions. The magisterium therefore developed the idea of social justice in order to affirm the responsibilities and rights which were being ignored or denied. But since all of these responsibilities are reducible to the other kinds of justice as St. Thomas understood them, social justice does not presuppose any additional principle.25

In any case, none of these distinctions is needed to deal with concrete questions of justice. That is clear from the historical changes in the interpretation of the kinds of justice, especially the magisterium’s introduction of social justice, as well as from the fact that these various kinds of justice are all reducible to more basic principles. Since the distinctions are not needed, they will not appear in the remainder of this work except in references to the teaching of the Church or to other authors.

6. Rights Are Not an Additional Principle of Justice

One way of articulating the most general notion of a right is: a right is a relational moral attribute of a person or group which corresponds to a responsibility that another or others have toward that person or group. So, if X acts unjustly toward Y by not doing or doing A, then Y has a right that X do or not do A. (If Carl acts unjustly toward Jane by not paying her a certain sum of money, then Jane has a right to be paid that sum by Carl; since Carl acts unjustly toward Jane if he kills her, Jane has a right that Carl not kill her.)

Because there are different sorts of responsibilities toward others, there are different sorts of rights. As that suggests, rights are a consequence, not a principle, of what justice requires.26 Thus, while the Church’s teaching often refers to rights in order to call attention to the demands of justice, simply affirming rights does not clarify why justice requires what it does.

a) Two distinctions with respect to rights must be kept in mind. To understand the relationship between rights and justice, it is necessary to distinguish various sorts of rights corresponding to diverse responsibilities.

i) Some rights are natural but others are not. Since some responsibilities toward others are not specified by any choice or action either on their part or society’s, some rights are natural, for example, the right of everyone not to be sexually assaulted and the right of children to be cared for by their parents (see S.t., 2–2, q. 57, a. 2). But many responsibilities toward others do arise from some sort of mutual agreement or social choice, for example, the rights of parties to a contract or of citizens to be treated according to the law. These rights are not natural and sometimes are called “conventional” or “positive”; they include the rights conferred by law. In the United States, for instance: the right not to be tried for a felony without first being indicted by a grand jury, the right of those covered by Social Security to receive payments according to the law’s provisions.

ii) Some rights are immunities; others are entitlements. Since some responsibilities toward others are fulfilled simply by not doing things which harm or interfere with them, some rights are immunities, namely, from that harm or interference. Since other responsibilities toward others are to do things that help or benefit them, other rights are entitlements, namely, to that help or benefit. Thus, the natural right not to be sexually assaulted is an immunity; the natural right of children to their parents’ care is an entitlement. Similarly, the legal right not to be tried without being indicted is an immunity from that jeopardy, and the legal right to receive Social Security payments is an entitlement to that income.

b) The Church’s teaching mainly concerns natural rights. In the Church’s teaching, the concept and language of rights are used to articulate the requirements of justice in political society, especially but not exclusively with respect to economic matters. While social doctrine is of course concerned with legal rights, it has far more to do with injustices in laws, policies, and social and economic practices which directly and gravely violate human dignity and the natural rights of persons and families.27 Therefore, the rights mentioned in the documents of the magisterium almost always are natural rights.

Vatican II speaks of “fundamental rights,” in respect to which all persons are equal, as they are equal in basic dignity (see GS 29). Fundamental rights are a kind of natural rights: those which every human being has just insofar as he or she is a person, for example, the rights not to be killed, to be treated with respect, and to have and use a portion of subhuman creation to meet basic needs. These correspond to equally universal duties, which all human beings have toward one another. But fundamental rights do not include those natural rights corresponding to duties within specific relationships. The right of children to parental care, for instance, is natural but not fundamental, because it corresponds to the duty assumed by couples in becoming parents. (Obviously, in drawing this distinction, there is no suggestion that rights which are natural but not fundamental are unimportant or that violating such rights is not, in general, gravely wrong.)

c) Rights are consequences, not principles, of justice. Some natural rights that are immunities correspond to moral duties always and everywhere incumbent on everyone. These rights and duties are grounded in basic human goods and the modes of responsibility which exclude choices to impede, damage, or destroy them. So, to each moral absolute forbidding certain acts which affect others, there corresponds a right which everyone enjoys. Every society should recognize, respect, and protect every person’s inherent dignity, and so should do nothing which violates any moral absolute. What is at work here is justice in the widest sense.

Other natural immunities correspond to moral duties limited by other morally relevant considerations, and these rights and duties are grounded in other modes of responsibility, which lead to norms that generally but not always exclude doing certain harms to others. For example, the right affirmed by Vatican II to practice one’s religion corresponds to political society’s duty not to interfere with the free exercise of religion, but this duty itself is limited by the requirements of social peace and public morality (see DH 7). Similarly, one’s right to one’s property corresponds to the duty which others have to respect one’s peaceful possession and use of it; but this duty itself can be limited by the fair claim which these others might have to one’s property. Rights of this kind also belong to everyone, and should be respected by every society, yet their proper limits need to be recognized. In the instances cited, these follow from the way fairness and, in some cases, other modes of responsibility set limits to political society’s tolerance of religious activity and to everyone’s duty to respect others’ property.

Some natural rights that are entitlements correspond to general, affirmative responsibilities always and everywhere incumbent on everyone. These rights are grounded in basic human goods and the modes of responsibility which require everyone to be prepared to cooperate with others and to treat them fairly (see CMP, 8.B, 8.E). Among these entitlements are everyone’s right to be admitted as an equal into any human community unless its common good requires that he or she be excluded or be treated differently from other members. While such natural entitlements are conditional (“unless its common good requires . . . ”), they are important, because they put the burden of proof on those who would exclude others or treat them unequally.

Other natural entitlements correspond to duties which some have toward others in specific kinds of relationships and which must be fulfilled in such relationships for the interaction to be fair and otherwise just. Thus, those to whom the duty pertains are not permitted to evade it. For example, children have a natural right, which is an entitlement, to be cared for; this right corresponds to the duty of their parents to care for them. People have a choice about whether to become parents, but if they enter into the relationship, they violate the Golden Rule in failing to care for their children. Another important instance is the right of workers to a living wage (on this right and the corresponding duty, see 10.A.3.f–g).

d) In the the social teaching of the Church, rights are not basic principles. Various documents of the magisterium, especially since the social encyclicals of John XXIII, speak of rights in ways which might be taken as suggesting that they are basic principles. For example, sometimes the magisterium speaks broadly about rights without specifying who has the duties corresponding to them.28 Pope John, however, clearly teaches that both rights and duties flow from moral principles: “These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other. . . . Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty.”29 Thus, the Church’s teaching about rights presupposes a whole body of moral truth, including but not limited to the requirement of fairness.30

By proclaiming rights, recent Church teaching calls attention to areas of social life where people’s real needs are not being fairly met and those who should meet them may not see their duties because they view justice too narrowly. Thus, sometimes the Church’s teaching about rights points out that efforts should be made to discover what the requirements of justice are: to clarify what agent can and should meet people’s needs. In some cases, fairness will require that the state step in and in others some other existing agent, while in still others it will be necessary to form some new community or modify an existing one.

18. The American Declaration of Independence, 1776, invokes that theory in asserting that legitimate governmental authority rests on “the consent of the governed.”

19. This concept of injustice is analogous to the concept of sin, which is any immorality one does considered precisely insofar as it offends God (see CMP, 13.B.1). Thus, Scripture calls moral goodness as such “justice” (“righteousness”) inasmuch as it is consonant with God’s will. See H. Seebass and C. Brown, “Righteousness, Justification,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975–78), 3:352–77.

20. A critique of some current forms of legal positivism: John Finnis, “Natural Law and Legal Reasoning,” in Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays, ed. Robert P. George (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 134–57.

21. Today utilitarianism often takes other forms, for example, the economic analysis of law, as promoted by the Chicago school of economics and law. See Richard A. Posner, “Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory,” Journal of Legal Studies 8 (1979): 103–40; he claims that the proper goal of the legal system is maximization of social wealth, that is, the state of affairs in which all goods are in the hands of those who value them most, where value is defined by willingness and ability to pay in money. More recently, Posner has modified his position; see his The Problems of Jurisprudence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

22. Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 662, PE, 115.45, applies this to wage contracts: “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” Paul VI, Populorum progressio, 59, AAS 59 (1967) 286, PE, 275.59, generalizes the norm, which he applies to contracts made between nations: “When two parties are in very unequal positions, their mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract; the rule of free consent remains subservient to the demands of the natural law.”

23. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 34, AAS 83 (1991) 836, OR, 6 May 1991, 11, points out that “there are many human needs which find no place on the market,” and explains: “Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.” Again, in 40 (AAS 843, OR, 12): “Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages . . .. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an ‘idolatry’ of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.”

24. See John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 184–88.

25. For the history of social justice and its meaning: Jean-Yves Calvez, S.J., and Jacques Perrin, S.J., The Church and Social Justice: The Social Teaching of the Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII (1878–1958) (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), 138–53; Jean-Yves Calvez, S.J., The Social Thought of John XXIII: Mater et Magistra, trans. George J. M. McKenzie, S.M. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965), 94–99. Pius XI most clearly defines social justice in Divini Redemptoris, AAS 29 (1937) 92, PE, 219.51 (translation amended): “In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand from each individual all [id omne ab singulis exigere] that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member—that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality—is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions.” This definition itself suggests that social justice involves no new principle of justice, but was needed because other traditional kinds had been narrowed to exclude some of justice’s requirements. This narrowing was in part due to an ideological limitation of viewpoint to the contractual and individual; see, John Paul II, Address to the Workers of the Solvay Factory (near Livorno), 6, AAS 74 (1982) 599–600, OR, 5–12 Apr. 1982, 10. But it also was due to theoretical confusions; see Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 184–88, 196.

26. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 264, PE, 270.28–30, teaches that rights and duties correspond in two ways: (i) in the same person, for example, one’s right to life corresponds to a duty to preserve one’s life; (ii) in different persons, inasmuch as a right in one person corresponds to a duty in others to recognize and respect it.

27. Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 646, PE, 115.13, teaches: “A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, ‘at least equal rights’; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.”

28. For example, John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 260, PE, 270.13, teaches that everyone has the right to a good general education, but does not consider who can and should provide it.

29. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 264, PE, 270.28, 30.

30. Like the duties to which they correspond, some rights inevitably conflict, and when they do, conflicts can be resolved only by reduction to more basic principles: goods and modes of responsibility. See Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 218–21.