Posted by: dacalu | 2 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (Part I)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at justice as another possible standard.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Proper Proportion

Many people see justice as a key component of ethics. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Indeed, many passages of the Bible point toward the importance of justice and it forms a cornerstone of modern American civil ethics. I have two major concerns, however, for setting up justice as a core ethical principle.

First, I think we have a tendency to be imprecise.  Most people agree that justice is important, but few people agree on exactly what constitutes just behavior. In a post last year, I set out five notions of justice, all of which have enjoyed some success in Western culture: egalitarian, meritocratic, need based, hierarchical, and pragmatic.  You can read the full argument, but I would note here only that the mottos “from each according to ability, to each according to need” and “equal rights, equal responsibilities” lead to radically different ethical outcomes. If we use justice as a core ethical principle, we’ll need to have a common understanding, and I don’t know what that would be.

Second, and this may surprise you, justice is only rarely invoked as an ethical principle in the New Testament. A quick word search shows that it almost never appears and when it does, it refers to God’s justice and not humans’.  Rather, we are admonished to not judge (Matthew 7:1; John 8:15; Romans 2:1, 14; James 4:11-12). God may have a standard of justice that is not love, but we do not.

Thus we will need to be very careful when invoking justice as a principle for human action.  I think it serves as a useful by-word for love, rights, responsibilities, and respect in proper proportion, but I’m not convinced it has any value for us beyond what may be found in the other principles. I value justice, but mostly as a word for private and communal ethical behavior.  With that in mind, I want to say a few words about ethical principles which people often try to sneak in under the rubric of “justice” (other than love, obedience, purity, and stewardship, which I already addressed).  We can spell them out and see if they are worth adding in.


Perhaps, the most popular American virtue, I can find no evidence of it in the Bible, or much in Christian theology.  There will always be a tension between the desires of individuals and the desire of communities.  The Bible always favors communities while at the same time demanding that those communities care for the last and the least.

I find liberty to be a useful tool when figuring out how to apply love. We must allow others the freedom to express themselves so that we may know them, truly and fully. Only in that knowledge can we come to love them deeply and well. This will turn out to be especially important in questions of sex and sexuality.

Liberty must be bounded, though, by concern for others, for their liberty but also for their well-being. I believe that the deepest hell is, in fact, the absolute fulfilment of liberty.  With no concern for the will of others, with no responsibility, we will find that we have nothing to live for.  It is the constraints of life that provide the greatest blessings, ever acting for the good of others. This is nowhere more apparent than in sex and marriage, where one discovers the challenge, intensity, frustration, and fulfilment that come from exploring exactly where the self ends and the other begins.

I value liberty to the exact extent that it restrains the powerful from overwhelming the weak. It is a manifestation of love that we nurture and strengthen those without strength so that we can come to know them better. It is also a manifestation of love to express the deepest part of yourself so that you can share it with another. I see no role for liberty beyond the end of love. Whenever it arises in conflict with concrete care for another, I think it must be viewed as a vice.

It looks like justice will require a couple more posts as I explore concepts like equality and responsibility.  Stay tuned.



  1. […] the last three posts (here, here, and here), I have explored the idea of justice as a core ethical principal. Largely, I have […]

  2. […] Justice […]

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