Virtues for Civil Discourse: Justice

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on three prior entries: civility, toleration and humility.  In today’s blog I want to propose, as others before me have also done, that the entire purpose of civil discourse is the promotion of justice.  This insight is often forgotten, in part, because in our contemporary world, civil discourse is simply viewed as the autonomous right to say whatever one wants in the public arena.  While that right to free speech is guaranteed in many contemporary democracies, the purpose of civic discourse is not to provide the opportunity to bloviate, but to promote the well being of human society as a whole and of all its members.    

We know that ethics itself exists for human flourishment, that is, ethics exists to improve the well being of each and every one of us.  The future of human society, its common good, depends then on a civic discourse that promotes that ethical search to enrich and develop the common good and the world in which we find it.  Here we can think, for instance, of those discourses that sought to improve the well being of all and yielded significant designs toward that end: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thomas Aquinas recognized the virtue of justice as being about giving to each their due.  In more contemporary theories, John Rawls has understood justice to be about fairness.  There’s a lot of resonance with fairness since a child’s first moral perception is usually expressed as, “That’s not fair.”   When a child makes that expression, the child in all probability is trying to make her/his first entrance into civic discourse.  

The humanity of this insight is that while the child is capable of recognizing that fairness is in jeopardy, but the child often cannot name what specifically would be fair.  Still, the child’s remark reminds us, that the child has been dependent on and the recipient of fair distribution until this one day, when something provokes the child to question whether the daily modes of distribution are fair.

Like welcoming the child into table discourse, we welcome one another into civic discourse today precisely because we are, like the child, trying to find greater fairness.  And like the child’s parents, family, or caretakers, they and we have a responsibility to make sure that this pursuit of fairness can occur, whence for instance we articulate virtues for civil discourse.

The virtue of justice requires therefore that we care for one another.  Like the family around the table surprised by the child’s outburst, we too need to see how much the welcome and care for each other needs to be constitutive of civic discourse.  That care and hospitality means that we have to take the child’s claim seriously, a point I tried to make in discussing the importance of the virtue of tolerance as the willingness to understand others.   Let me add that I hope here we can see these concerns are quite similar to the concerns for hospitality and fair understanding that Mark Logsdon made in his comments on July 2nd.

Let me just add three simple insights to demonstrate how justice is the virtue that animates true civic discourse in its pursuit of fairness for all. First, Aquinas, like others before him, held that the virtue of justice is in the will, what he calls the rational appetite.  The will is the hunger that prompts human reason to think, reflect, and judge.  I love that justice in the will.  Like the child wanting to grasp what really is fair, justice is the virtue that wants fairness for everyone.  That desire leads us to other virtues, like prudence, which can help us reasonably to name what is exactly just or fair.  But Thomas realizes that first we need the will to be just, that is, we need to have the hunger for fairness for each and all.

Second, often in civil discourse we can get distracted from the agenda to pursue justice for all.  Listening to one another’s ideas of fairness, we can often forget to include many others and their claims.  For instance, we can only imagine that when the G 8 engages in their discourse, the first beneficiaries of it are the citizens of the member nations of the G 8.  Catholic Social teaching significantly offers a corrective when it proposes the option for the poor.  This corrective is an automatic summons to those who pursue justice to ask about the fairness for those often overlooked, excluded, or marginalized.  It is, rightly, a landmark development in Catholic social teaching and in the general contemporary understanding of the virtue of justice.

Third, in order to develop true civic discourse we need social structures that advance the virtue of justice.   Reflecting on notions of structural and social sin, Daniel Daly suggested that we also need to think of structures of virtue that could enhance our society to make us all more just.  Here we can think of how educational institutions can be structures of virtue just as much as churches and parishes might be.  Even certain dedicated media outlets interested in promoting the sharing of information to benefit the common good could be virtuous structures.  Following him, Kevin Ahern reflects on structures of grace like the Jesuit Refugee Service or the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS/ Pax Romana) that promote the Global common good.  Reflecting on their contributions we might begin asking whether our social structures promote or inhibit a civic discourse in the search of justice for all.

There’s a lot more to say, but hopefully this gives us enough for now.  In a few days, I will post on the next virtue, solidarity.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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