When I say that justice is of the four foundation stones of character, you will readily agree with me, because no one can be said to have any sort of a good character who is not just. But if I ask you precisely what you mean by justice, you may give me various replies. In the very widest sense, justice is almost equivalent to goodness, and, in this sense, when you speak of a just person, you mean one who is good in every regard, and so this word covers the whole of an upright life.
But in speaking of the foundation stones of character, we do not give the word such a wide significance. Here we mean by justice that habit of the will which inclines us to give everyone his due, to discharge our duty toward all to whom duty is owed, and to render to everyone what he has a right to receive from us.
Thus justice means giving to God due service and honor, giving to our parents filial love and helpfulness, and giving to others what we owe them in the way of service, recompense, and material goods. In other words, to be just is to live up to our obligations toward everyone else.
Recall the last year of your life, and ask yourself, “How far have I been living up to all my duties toward others? And in what regard have I failed to do my full duty toward others?”
These two questions, honestly asked and answered, will go very far toward showing you to exactly what degree you possess the virtue of justice. If you habitually render to others what belongs to them, in the way of service, honor, material goods, truthfulness, and so on through the list of the things we owe to others, you may be thankful that the habit of just dealing is yours to a high degree. Yet you can perfect this habit by constant practice, until you become more and more dutiful, more and more wholehearted in giving to others what you owe them, and more and more just toward God and man.
But if you find by experience that you are continually cutting corners in your work, shirking your duties, defrauding others of what you owe them, even in little things, then you have reason to be very regretful that the virtue of justice is not strongly rooted in your character, and you ought to take all the more care to implant this fine virtue, even at the cost, as need be, of sacrifice, of effort, and of self-discipline. For no one can keep his self-respect unless he is first just toward others.
Let us briefly go over some of the elements of justice, the virtues that group themselves under this great habit.
Truthfulness is a part of justice. We owe it to every person to tell him the truth. Of course, we are not always bound, or even allowed, to tell all the truth, for sometimes we must keep confidences and preserve secrets; but we are not allowed to tell positive untruths to others. When we speak to others, our words should truly express our thoughts. Just as you have a right to the truth from others, so have they from you.
Not only in words but also in actions, a person ought to be honest and sincere. Craftiness, cunning, and slyness are all unjust. And they do you far more harm than they do to others, because they eat at the foundation stone of your character, the habit of justice.
Fidelity and faithfulness to one’s promises and engagements is another aspect of the virtue of justice. To be dependable, straightforward, and true to one’s word requires a goodly proportion of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. You should neither make promises hastily nor break them easily. These two things often go together. Be slow in giving your word, and sparing of promises, but once you have entered into an agreement, be faithful to it. You owe this to others in justice, and you owe it to yourself. Once one gets the reputation of being slippery and undependable in his agreements and promises, he is done for.
Firmness and strength in resisting evil are also a part of justice. Be kind and gentle, but firm as a rock when there is a question of principle. Good fighters are common enough, and kind, gentle characters are quite frequently found, but when a man is mild, kind, and agreeable, and yet he can stand like a cliff against what he knows to be wrong and evil, he is close to being a perfect character. If you find yourself very much inclined to be easygoing, stiffen your upper lip and straighten your backbone, so that when evil comes, you can stand against it. If you find yourself to be of a hard, unyielding character, make sure that you combine gentleness with strength.
The habit of obeying the law is also an important part of the virtue of justice. Unhappily, respect for the law has diminished considerably in recent times, partly because so many laws have been passed and because some of them have been so unpopular that people dispense themselves from observing them. Remember, though, that the authority of the state comes from God, and it is a sacred thing. When you feel that a law is wrong and unjust, work with all your might to repeal it, but do not ridicule it or get the wrong idea that you are obliged to obey only the laws you like.
It might seem strange to speak of kindness, generosity, and friendliness as part of the virtue of justice, but no man can be entirely just who does not possess these qualities. If we try to measure out to others what strictly belongs to them, without any generosity, without friendliness, we shall surely fall short of the measure we owe them. We all belong to one great human family and therefore are all brothers and sisters; we owe it to each other to be friendly and kind, helpful and generous. The surest way to give to all what is their due is to try to give them a little more than their due.
In all your dealings, therefore, try to be generous, openhanded (with prudence), friendly, and kind. In spite of all the efforts that you make in this direction, you will always find something with which to reproach yourself, because our nature is selfish, self-centered. We have to make strenuous efforts to be generous to and thoughtful of others. Even for the sake of justice, therefore, lean in the direction of unselfishness. The Golden Rule will help you here immensely. If you treat others as you would wish yourself to be treated in like circumstances, you will grow more and more kind, forgiving, and generous, and in so doing, you will grow more and more just.
Finally, gratitude is an important part of justice. We owe it to others to be grateful to them when they have been good to us. It is true that there is no exact measure of gratitude, so one cannot say precisely where we pass the borders of justice in being ungrateful. This is all the more reason, then, for being as grateful as we can.