ethics, things that last

Sam’s Justice

legal2

Justice is simply defined as giving one his or her “due.” It means rendering to people what you owe them. What do we owe others? We owe other persons respect for their persons and responsibility in doing what we have promised. Here is a kind of parable of justice.

Sam and “Old Man” Ricketts

Sam was a teenager. One summer he went door to door in his neighborhood looking for odd jobs. Mr. Ricketts, a senior citizen, said he’d pay Sam $250 to paint his garage. Mr. Ricketts had already bought the paint and other materials but his back had been giving him trouble. Sam said it was a deal. Over the next three days, Sam scraped and sanded the peeling and blistered clapboards, then applied two coats of fresh paint.

When Sam finished, he knocked on the old man’s front door to get paid. Mr. Ricketts inspected the work but made no move for his wallet. Finally, Sam brought up the money. Mr. Ricketts said he couldn’t pay Sam until the end of the month when his pension check came.

Sam thought there was something wrong with that, but shrugged and left—what else could he do? At the end of the month Sam went to see Mr. Ricketts about payment, but the senior citizen said the check hadn’t arrived yet, so try again tomorrow. The next day, Mr. Ricketts said the same thing. The following day, he said the check arrived but he hadn’t been able to cash it yet—his back troubles made going to the bank hard. The next day, Mr. Ricketts treated Sam to a diatribe about how kids nowadays are money-hungry and how when he was a boy, he did jobs for free just to help a neighbor. Finally, Sam returned with his father and demanded payment.

Mr. Ricketts got angry, went inside, and came back with something in his fist. He pushed open the screen door, tossed a wad of cash outside where it unraveled on the front porch, then slammed the front door closed.

As Sam got down on his hands and knees to retrieve the money, he heard the front door click locked. He was thankful that the full amount was there.

In this situation, who was just and who was unjust? Who treated the other with due respect and who did what they promised? Why do you think each acted the way he did?

Self-Assessment: Justice

Do you consider yourself a just person? Here is a quick self-review.

Yes . . . . . No Give yourself a quick justice assessment:
5   4   3   2   1 I pay my bills promptly.
5   4   3   2   1 I treat people “below me” courteously.
5   4   3   2   1 I give my employer a full day’s work.
5   4   3   2   1 I cast an informed vote in elections.
5   4   3   2   1 I give my spouse and children the attention they deserve.
5   4   3   2   1 I follow through on my promises.
5   4   3   2   1 I return things I borrow in good condition.
5   4   3   2   1 I don’t engage in gossip.
5   4   3   2   1 I am willing to correct people under my authority who need it.
5   4   3   2   1 I don’t make assumptions about people I know little about.
5   4   3   2   1 I don’t ignore people or tasks just because I can get away with it.
5   4   3   2   1 I say I’m sorry when I need to.
5   4   3   2   1 Overall, I am a just person.

Justice and Mercy

In this Year of Mercy, what about the relationship between justice and qualities like generosity, mercy and love.

Strictly speaking, justice is about giving others what is owed to them. If you don’t owe someone something, it is no injustice if you do not give it to him. In the famous Gospel parable, a landowner hires harvesters throughout the day. When it comes time to pay, he gives everyone a full day’s wage. The workers who were hired in the morning complain that they should get more than they agreed. The landowner says no dice. He has a right to be generous with his own money.

On the other hand, an act of generosity does not cancel out an injustice. For example, say I borrow a car and it is clean and has a full tank of gas. If I return the car keys with a grande latte to show my appreciation, but the car is trashed and the tank empty, my generosity is ruined by my injustice.

Mercy means forgiving a debt that has not been repaid and perhaps cannot be repaid. Forgiveness is one example. Mercy ennobles the giver and relieves the receiver; however, the one who receives mercy has no right to it, nor does the person who offers it have an obligation, at least not according to justice. In the parable above, the landowner is probably being generous out of mercy, since those who were hired later in the day still needed a full-day’s wages to be able to feed their families.

Many people consider love the highest human value. Does love come under justice? That is, do we owe others love?

Christian Personalism

One philosophical school, called Christian personalism, says yes.

  • Christian personalism reasons that the most important thing to know about human beings is that they are persons—like God and the angels—not things, like animals, plants or minerals.
  • To be a person means to have an intellect and free will and the ability to love.
  • Stated negatively, Christian personalism says that we should never treat another person as an object of use.
  • Stated positively, Christian personalism claims that the only adequate response to a person is to love him or her, that is, to wish the other person the best and to act accordingly.

When we look at how we want others to treat us, most of us would agree that we don’t just want others to give us what they owe us. We want them to really care about us. For example, if we are in the hospital, we want the staff not merely to do their jobs competently (although we definitely want this), but also to care that we get better. The closer our relationships—for example, husband-wife, parent-child, friend-friend, teacher-student—the more we feel we should be treated with at least the minimum of love and respect.