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Thomas, II–II, Q. 58, Art. 1.

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight."

- Book of Proverbs, 11:1

What is Justice?

Justice is giving others their due, where that ‘due’ is what is owed to them in virtue of their nature.

In the most general sense, justice involves equalizing a situation of owing between people or groups of people. What is owed is defined in reference to the nature of the parties in a relationship of owing. We are ‘rational animals’ whose fulfillment consists in the attainment of happiness by living well. Our rationality gives us the capacity to know through cognitive and emotional understanding, and to choose on the basis of that knowledge. We owe things to others and are owed them in turn; our happiness turns on this mutual relationship of owing.

The different contexts of justice are distributive, commutative and social. Distributive justice pertains to the divvying up and distribution of wholes, commutative to rendering others their due in numerous contexts where there is a direct situation of owing, and social justice to the equalizing of situations of owing that arise from broader social circumstances.

Like other virtues, justice is found when the action strikes a mean between excess and deficiency. Whereas virtues such as temperance and fortitude pertain to rectifying the emotions and their standard is therefore measuring a person’s action against their own inner state, justice is about action owed to others, and therefore pertains to the will. It is something that is objectively measurable because it is about equalizing a situation of owing in external matters, which is a kind of proportion between an external thing owed and the person to whom it is owed. For example, if we owe someone money for having lent it, paying it back in the terms agreed upon equalizes the situation of owing.

As a virtue of a person, justice is the steady, habitual disposition to give what is due to others. To act justly, we must act knowingly, by choice and for a correct end, and with constancy and to completion. In its full sense, the external act must reflect the inner disposition of intending to do right. Justice is both about fulfilling our responsibility to others in the personal sense, and in the sense of what we owe our larger community.

Justice is unique in that all acts of virtue pertain to it. Since virtues are conducive to happiness for each person, and personal happiness depends upon our relationship with others, living virtuously is something good for individuals and the ‘common good’ of the community to which they belong. For this reason, “the good of any virtue is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue pertain to justice, in so far as justice directs man to the common good.”

It is common to see justice conceived without regard for the state of knowledge and intention of the agent, or without a connection to an objective understanding of what’s good for people. For example, many think that the obligations of justice are fulfilled by giving people the ability to live their own lives as they please so long as they do not harm others in a direct and concrete way. Others, that it is just to prevent serious harm by permitting and actively encouraging lesser harms, such as by allowing the supervised use of lethal drugs in lieu of unsupervised use of more dangerous substances. While it is a precondition of moral action to guard the sphere of freedom and enable people to choose of their own volition, failing to properly prevent the negative effects of disordered action or failing to properly assist those suffering is a failure to render justice to both the individual and community – duties are left unfulfilled, and the common good suffers as a result.

A proper understanding of justice takes into account the natures of all parties involved. What is owed to them flows from the mutual dependencies that arise therefrom. It is therefore important to act justly for the sake of the debtor as well as the creditor. In summary, justice is the stable disposition to render another their due, where that which is owed is according to the equality of proportion in a situation of owing.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Justice with Brendan Scott

How do you define justice?

Justice can be understood as a scale that weighs things proportionately.  Another apt symbol is of someone blindfolded – justice is blind to a situation and tries to look at things as objectively as possible. When people say: “That’s not fair, he deserved that, now we’re even,” they are applying the virtue of justice.

On reflecting on the virtue of justice, it is helpful to think of the other side of justice, which is mercy. These are two attributes often associated with God. God is just, but God is also merciful. When trying to figure out what is just in a situation, it helps to consider what is merciful. We can think of situations where mercy has its limits, and where justice requires some sort of reparation. For example, you might want to be merciful to a robber, but at the same time you might require them to return what was stolen. Likewise, there are limits to justice. You might want to punish someone with a severe penalty, but you recognize that they made an honest mistake (like we all do).

How does the virtue of justice relate to work?

Justice relates to work in that people deserve a just wage for their labour and they should be treated justly. A just society tries to protect people from being exploited. It is also just to try to organize the economy so people have access to work and compensation to support themselves.

Some people’s work is unjust in itself, such as thieves, traffickers, etc. Other jobs bring justice to our society, including social workers, police officers, judges and lawyers.

Why is it important in a work context?

Justice is important in a work context because colleagues, co-workers and opponents should be treated fairly. For example, if an employer has different expectations for workers in the same position, that could be unfair. When some of us are allowed to leave early from work during a snowstorm, everyone should be permitted to. Justice brings order and predictability, which is important.

Justice is also important because if someone breaks a rule or acts unjustly, there should be consequences.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

As a lawyer advising clients, analyzing a client’s situation and trying to determine what a just outcome looks like is a good exercise because you are predicting how a judge or jury will decide on your case. If you can do that, you can better serve your clients. Being able to look at a lawsuit objectively and considering how justice might apply leads to a better understanding of justice in general.

On a case-by-case basis, you should learn how to better understand the facts in order to better predict what is just in that situation. You might feel sympathetic for a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle, but when you discover he was watching a YouTube video on his cell phone, you have less sympathy for them.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about justice?

A lawyer I worked with said to always advise young lawyers to consider “the equities of the case” because a judge will do the same. In other words, aside from the black letter of the law, what is fair?

I recently heard a lawyer giving an acceptance speech for an award, and he described how he took on a case standing up for migrant workers in their fight against a large, powerful company. He described losing the case at every court level until he finally won at the Supreme Court of Canada (the highest court). Stories like this inspire young lawyers to take on cases to uphold justice.

At this stage in my career, I try to pass on these stories to younger lawyers to demonstrate the importance of equity in a case and to share the wisdom and battle stories of other lawyers.

How have you lived this virtue at work?

I try to apply the principle of justice to all cases, my interactions with colleagues, opposing counsel, and our clients. I also try to reflect on past actions and how I might have better handled various situations.

For example, after a mediation, I might reflect on whether I was too harsh with the other side, or, conversely, I might think that I could have been more aggressive.

Trying to be more just involves developing your conscience. It helps to regularly talk with trusted advisers and mentors and receive their feedback.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and how did you overcome that?

Sometimes, I have failed to be just in my interactions with other people. This includes showing the appropriate amount of gratitude for peoples' help and recognizing people and their value. It is very easy to race through life and work engaging in transactions, buying things, and giving directions without taking the time to acknowledge the tremendous value of each person that you interact with, who helps you, and who you work with. Justice requires that you show gratitude and kindness to people, always.

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

I had a boss who was almost always fair, which is an important attribute of justice. He listened to what a person had to say and understood where they were coming from. If someone is hastily penalized before considering their specific circumstances and the larger picture, that is unjust. This boss never did that.

He also understood why someone might behave a certain way or take certain actions. For example, he said it might take a worker longer than normal to complete a task if they weren’t actually assigned it in the first place, but instead took it on to help a colleague. He said that person might have been forced to finish the task after a full work day when they are less productive, and as a result, it just took longer. This person has been a good model of justice. It also demonstrates the link between justice and understanding.

Brendan Scott is a civil litigation lawyer from Toronto with a wife and two children. Born in 1988, Brendan has a broad insurance defence practice encompassing personal injury disputes, property damage disputes, product liability matters and fire losses. He also advises clients about insurance coverage. Brendan’s practice includes other areas of civil and commercial litigation, and he successfully obtained a Mareva injunction in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2020.

After graduating from St. Francis Xavier University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy (Honours), Brendan completed his Masters of Arts degree at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Ottawa Law School in 2016. While in law school, he attended the University of Notre Dame’s Law School for a semester. He was admitted to the Ontario Bar in 2017.

Brendan has appeared at a variety of courts throughout Ontario and has participated in trials. He has a keen interest in trial work.

Brendan is a member of the Advocates’ Society and the Toronto Lawyers Association. He regularly volunteers at the University of Notre Dame’s trial advocacy program.

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