I have a friend who lives in the same res hall as I do, and we also share the same calculus class. She hates calculus; she is a music major and she just wants to get her math requirements over with and has no problem with doing so with a D. She doesn’t really study, she doesn’t take the class very seriously, and she only does the minimal amount of work on the assignments. I work extremely hard in this class; as math is not a strong subject for me, I still need to put in a lot of extra effort to get my A. I probably spend more time studying and getting extra help for calculus than any other class and I take the assignments very seriously. So, imagine if, when grades are posted, that I get my A and the instructor decides that she likes my friend and doesn’t want to punish her for disliking math so she gives her an A, also. How would I feel? The word “unfair” comes to mind. Instead of saying it’s unfair or not fair, I could also say the result of our grades was also unjust or not “just”.
When we think about justice, we think about the law, or God, or even our parents dishing out punishment that is rightfully deserved because of our actions. Justice is served when the bad guys get their just desserts. But that is justice in action. What exactly is the nature of justice? What makes justice right and deserving of being sought, be it by man or God? The Catechism defines justice as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” Let’s go back to me and my friend. A nihilist or an objectivist, for example, might say “Megan, what do you care? You got your A. Don’t worry about her grade.” But thinking about what the Catechism says, we need to remember the objective of justice. In this case, it is our instructor who is wronging both of us; she is failing to give what is due to me because she is discounting my work by demonstrating that the end result of my efforts is the same as the end result of my friends lack of effort. Justice is not only punitive toward the offender, it is an example for those who make the effort to not offend. Those who do wrong get their due through punishment and those who do right get their due, in part, by reward and lack of punishment.
There has been a lot of Christian hand-wringing in the last 24 hours over the concept of justice. We need to be careful to separate Eternal justice and Earthly justice, of course, but there is no question that Osama Bin Laden’s fate yesterday was a just result for his actions. It may seem simplistic to say that it would be unjust for those of us who avoid terrorist murder sprees to see him be allowed to live, but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. It is just that those who do bad are punished be it death for those who do bad in an act of war, Hell for those who offend God, or a bad grade for those who offend calculus. Reward and lack of punishment, Heaven, and a good grade are the opposite ends of this virtue that I think we sometimes misunderstand.