Justice, Politics, and Thomas Aquinas

A 2017 Gallup Poll found that Americans are becoming more and more partisan on a number of issues. The two parties are as far apart as they have ever been in the past half a century. More alarming is the separation between parties on a large variety of issues. In the past when party tensions rode high, they usually focused on a single issue. However, now the parties have grown more partisan on a number of issues simultaneously. Lack of inter-partisan dialogue, increasing tribalism, and decreasing association with members of opposing political viewpoints all lead to a place where people see the opposing party as the antithesis to justice itself. When progressive politicians enact policies that expand welfare, many conservatives woefully declare Communist intentions. Similarly, when conservatives dial back welfare programs or place restrictions based on ability to earn support, progressives often cry insults of racism and hatred for the poor. These reactions only propel the opposing side to become more entrenched ideologically and less willing to open to a discussion.

Recently, I wrote a term paper looking at Aquinas’s understanding of justice and how this understanding could be used to help turn down the intensity of the partisanship within American politics remotely. This article expresses my own views that are informed by those of Aquinas. With this disclaimer out of the way, I am going to analyze the three principles of productive political conversation, as informed by the Summa Theologica Q 58.


Unjust Means always lead to Unjust Ends.

Imagine of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, a famous Pragmatist of the late Middle Ages.

It is often temping to advocate for a policy position and take shortcuts in order to achieve one’s goals. When the Democratic Congress in 2013 invoked the nuclear option for Judicial Nominees and Republicans followed suit in 2017, partisans bypassed the proper course of action in order to achieve the end goal. The logic is easy to understand: if my view is just and the view of the other side is unjust, then I should procure any means to achieve justice. Yet it is this very framework that encourages a breakdown between political tribes and eliminates the opportunity for conversation on tough issues. Once the lens of ‘us’ verses ‘them’ is introduced, it becomes markedly harder to engage in discussion that changes minds and brings the many disparate notions of justice towards true justice.

Aquinas is not a utilitarian, and his theory of justice reflects his lack of utilitarian ethics. His whole concept of how virtue is created and how just actions reflect a virtuous man is not ranked in isolated incidents, where one action is called just independent of the agent. While there are just and unjust actions for Aquinas, the lack of moral virtue among the perpetrator of a just action may render the same action unjust. Consider a man who gives money to a homeless woman for the purpose of getting the woman off his back. The man acted without regard to justice—in fact, to see the woman as a flea to swat away with a ten-dollar bill is an injustice. Yet the end action, given different motives, would be just and admired.

One of Aquinas’s key insights is that relationships, which form the basis of justice, are mediated through objective structures of right relations. Justice should govern our actions with others. Likewise, if justice does govern our relationships, the ideal of justice will aid in the transformation of societal and individual injustices.

Justice should not be separate as a political ideal from our day to day interactions with people.

Accomplishing policies in the political realm that conform to our understanding of justice are often seen as the end goal in conversations of justice for the poor. While this may be the case, administrations can only have their policies last beyond them when the mind of the American people has been changed, not when such policy has been forced down. Politics is not the goal of conversations on justice; changing minds – even our own – is what we strive for. Dialogue that does not caricature or dismiss the arguments of those with differing views of justice but engages with them. This engagement creates a culture where real, common sense change is able to flourish.

For if one’s own views are correct, then one need not worry about considering other arguments. And if there are errors in one’s views, it is only in dialogue with other views that one can see the flaws of one’s own beliefs. Disagreements will persist between those with contrarian views of justice. If  both individuals realize the discussion of difficult issues to be a matter of justice as much as the broader issues at hand, respect and openness will follow. Though imperfect, thoughtful conversation and dialogue will bring us closer to the reality of justice which is defined by God, not letting us become too ensconced by our own human conceptions of justice.


Justice doesn’t always need a Bad Guy


How often do we hear that Trump is the evil of our time, or that the Democrats seek to destroy the country by letting in criminals, rapists, and evil men through our border? Demonization is all too common in politics today and I struggle to think of a recent moment in my own life where policy rather than the inherent evil of the other side was discussed.

While there is an overwhelming number of examples of bad people who must be fought in order to achieve justice, most day to day cases involve people who want to do the right thing. Justice is not inherently combative; instead it should be focused on resolution. As one does not fight a friend one disagrees with but seeks healing, so it should be on the larger level. By understanding justice for the community akin to justice between two individuals, we can begin to see the problems in many contemporary approaches to achieving justice.

The language of justice in politics is usually one of conflict rather than resolution. In the real world, principles of justice become distorted and messy throughout the brokenness of humanity. This leads to a view of others who stand in the way of our principles of Justice as obstacles, furthering conflict. Instead of respecting relationship with others as a necessary precondition to achieve a more just world, we find ourselves unable to tolerate the presence of serious dissent from our own views. As per Aquinas, “Justice is about man’s relations with another” and so justice is rooted in beings who are “capable of action.” Aquinas goes on to argue that justice, as it is properly understood, can only exist in actions between individuals, since justice entreats an individual according to what is due to that person. Disagreements on justice will still occur, but combative dialogue  that prevents relationships between opposing parties makes injustice worse.


Forming Justice in Oneself


According to Aristotle, and enumerated by Aquinas, General Justice (Group Justice) tends to lead towards totalitarianism as it demands the actions of the larger community (the polis) interfere within the affairs of the smaller community. General Justice is useful, but its goals can only be fulfilled by Particular Justice.  Particular Justice is that justice which directs us to act justly unto our neighbors, friends, and others we come into individual contact with. Since justice is cultivated as a virtue, its origins are in the individual, and one must first build this virtue as an individual, according to Aquinas, before proceeding to make implementations on the general level. So, Particular Justice is necessary for General Justice to exist.

Phrased in other words, if Republicans and Democrats do not act justly unto one another as individuals, they cannot act justly on behalf of society.

Justice concerns relationship, the giving of oneself to others. The virtue of justice is established within us when we form a habit of individual justice. As justice develops, it informs our will by which we implement justice as a virtue into our dealings with others. For all who are in a community “stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole“; a society with many members cultivating the virtue of justice will act justly as a common whole.  The individual formation of justice depends on the cohesiveness of this process.

Aquinas does not simply define justice as any relation between persons. He makes a distinction between a ‘just’ relation between people, and other ways by which people relate. For Aquinas, “justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will.” Aquinas continues, “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.”

Within a Christian context what is owed to God and owed to man (who is made in His image) is of such worth that no human can fully render this duty. To render the respect and love each person is due is an impossible task. Still justice compels us to respond to this duty.

It is in forming their virtue of justice in our actions with others that we are able to have fruitful discussion, dialogue, and debate on important political matters. Justice comes not in having such inter-partisan communications with the goal of securing a ‘win’ against the other side, but in deciphering our core principles and seeking true justice together.


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