The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 3. The Christian Rule of Justice
14 min read
14 min read
By some ancient moralists Justice was made to include all human virtues; the just man was he who discharged all moral obligations. Even piety was made a part of justice, and the impious man was said to be unjust to the gods. A similar use of the word is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The just man of the Psalmists and Prophets is the man who keeps all divine laws; justice is another name for righteousness, and includes all kinds of moral and religious excellence. But it is both common and convenient to give the word a narrower application. When a man demands justice he demands his “rights;” and if we give him his rights the claims of justice are exhausted.
In some cases the obligations of justice are perfectly plain and definite. A man has a “right,” for instance, to require that we should pay him in full all the money we owe him; we are, therefore, bound, not merely to pay him when we are able, but to take care that we are able to pay him. To indulge in a style of living which touches the very margin of our income is not only a violation of the obligations of prudence and self-interest, it is a violation of the obligations of justice, even though through a happy chance no unforeseen and inevitable expenditure lands us in difficulties which prevent us from paying our debts. We ought to leave a margin for misfortunes. To put another man’s money into a risky speculation is itself an act of dishonesty, even though the venture may accidentally turn out well and we may be able to pay him all that we owe him. To be honest through a fortunate accident is not to be honest at all.
A man has a right to insist that we should fulfil the terms of a contract in the sense in which we knew that he understood them, the sense in which we intended or permitted him to understand them. This holds true whether the contract is for goods or for services. It affects master and workman, manufacturer and merchant, tradesman and customer. It is not enough that we fulfil the mere letter of the engagement. We are bound to supply the goods, or to render the services, or to pay the money, which we knew the other party to the contract expected when the contract was entered into. To plead that we have done everything that the law requires is nothing to the purpose. The man who is honest only so far as the law compels him to be honest is not an honest man.
These are simple cases. The “rights” on one side are exactly defined by law or by contract, and the obligations of justice on the other side are, therefore, equally definite. But there are many provinces of life in which the “rights” are incapable of precise definition, and in which, therefore, the obligations of justice are less certain. To tell us to “be just” is very often to afford very little practical guidance. We meet the precept with the answer — “Yes. I wish to be just; but what does justice require?” It may be true, as moralists teach us, that the rules of justice can “be laid down with a degree of accuracy of which moral precepts do not, in any other instance, admit”; but in practical life the instances are innumerable in which it is almost as impossible to define the claims of justice as it is to define the claims of charity.
The most important relations of life involve obligations and “rights” which cannot be determined either by public legislation or mutual agreement. What, for example, are the “rights” of a wife? What freedom can she claim on the grounds of mere justice, in the choice of her friends, in the employment of her time, in the expenditure of money? What is the extent, what are the limits, of the demands she can make on the time of her husband, on the sacrifice of his personal tastes, of his friendships, of his amusements? Until the “rights “on the side of the wife are determined, the obligations of justice on the side of the husband are unknown. They cannot be determined by law, all the claims which can be enforced by law may be satisfied and the wife may still suffer flagrant injury. Nor can all the “rights” and “obligations” of husband and wife be determined by mutual agreement. Marriage is no doubt founded on voluntary contract, but the conditions of the contract cannot be varied or relaxed at the pleasure of the contracting parties. As soon as a man and woman are married, duties and obligations arise from which neither of them can be released in virtue of a private and preliminary agreement between them. To use a convenient legal term, the relations between husband and wife are not relations of contract but of status^ and any contract which professed to exempt either of them from the obligations created by the status would be immoral and void. Husband and wife have “rights “which they cannot surrender; they are under obligations which no contract can cancel.
It may be said that the relations between husband and wife involve mutual duties which cannot be defined in terms of justice; and that when either of them begins to insist on “rights “the ideal beauty of the relationship is lost. In a perfect marriage there is a frank and unreserved surrender of the life of each to the other. Love gives everything and claims nothing; and if anything were demanded and conceded as a matter of justice, the charm of the concession would be gone. All this is true. But love is sometimes blind in other senses than that in which the poets have said it. Genuine affection may, through ignorance, be guilty of grave injustice. There may be an inordinate and unconscious egotism and an iniquitous invasion of the “rights “of another even where there is passionate devotion. In a per> feet marriage the wife will never think of her own; claims, but the husband will never forget them; the husband will never assert his own “rights,” but the wife will never encroach on them. Love will always be eager to give very much more than can be demanded by justice; but only an intelligent and ethically cultivated love will prevent either husband or wife from sometimes giving less. But to define the “rights “which justice must recognise and which love will desire to transcend is not always easy.
Or, take the relations between parent and child; how are we to measure their mutual claims? What are the “rights” of the parent? What are the “rights” of the child? In this case, of course, there can be no question of contract; and when the legal obligations on both sides have been met, some of the gravest difficulties which have embittered the relations of parents and children remain untouched. Within what limits and up to what age has a parent the “right “to exert any control over the religious preferences of a child t Has a Catholic father the “right” to forbid a boy of seventeen to attend Protestant worship or read Protestant books? Has a Protestant father the “right” to forbid a girl of twenty to attend mass or to correspond with a Catholic priest? Has the clever son of a prosperous merchant a “right” to a university education? Can he complain of injustice if he is sent from school into the counting-house? Has a rich man the “right” to leave fifty thousand pounds to one son and only twenty to another, and only ten to each of his daughters? Or is he under an obligation, as a matter of justice, to give each of his children an equal share of his property?
Brothers and sisters have their rights as against each other. So have friends. So have lovers. Old servants have their “rights” which a just master will not disregard. Generous masters have their “rights “which just servants will be careful to remember and to honour. But these “rights” are in many cases extremely indefinite. It is not so easy as the moralists have taught us to lay down the rules of justice with any degree of accuracy. A man may honestly desire to be just, but if he cannot exactly measure the “rights” of others he will be unable to determine when the obligations of justice are satisfied.
Christ has given us a rule which will save us from many difficulties. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” This is not a scientific definition of justice, but a practical rule of conduct. It is to be taken with those obvious qualifications which are always necessary in applying rules of this kind. It is the Christian form of the ethical law — Be just.
It will secure justice; it will generally secure something more. For we are usually keen in discovering our own rights, and sufficiently generous in estimating them. Christ tells us to estimate the rights of others as we estimate our own, and then to govern our conduct, not by the claims which we suppose that we have upon them, but by the claims which they have upon us. In estimating our duties to other men we are not merely to make due allowance for the “personal equation; “we are to give them the benefit of it. I do not say that this rule will enable us, without a great deal of patient thought, to find a solution for the perplexing problems of life; but in most cases it will enable us to discover our duty at once, and in the rest will put us in the way to discover it.
We like other men, not only to pay the money they owe us, but to pay it punctually and without being worried to pay it. If we put ourselves in the place of a retail tradesman with a large number of small outstanding accounts, we shall see at once that carelessness and irregularity in paying small debts may sometimes cause almost as much trouble and anxiety as not paying them at all : “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” When we buy goods from other men we wish them to give us goods of the quality which they know we expect to receive, and we like good measure and full weight. When we engage their services we wish them to perform to the very best of their ability whatever services they have contracted to render. If they have charge of our property we wish them to avoid injuring it, and to take as much care of it as if it were their own. In all such matters Christ intends us to make what we know would be our own claims on others the rule of our conduct towards them.
The rule is admirably simple in relation to interests and duties of another kind. When we are ready to take up and to repeat a report to another man’s disadvantage, we should ask whether we should like a similar report about ourselves to be believed and repeated on similar evidence. When we are on the point of condemning a man severely, and forming a hostile estimate of his general spirit and character, on the ground of words which we ourselves have heard him speak, or on the ground of some unworthy action which we know he has committed, we should ask whether we should think it just for other men to form a summary judgment of our own character for similar reasons, and without taking into account our general conduct. We should be equally prompt to challenge lighter censures. We call on a man — a friend — and he meets us coldly and without sympathy; we can see clearly enough that he is glad when we leave him. But are we to feel resentment and to say that his friendship is fickle, and that he has no real kindness for us.” Does it never happen that people for whom we have a genuine affection come to us when we are so absorbed in speculations or inquiries which detach us for the time from all the affairs and relationships of our common life, or when we are so completely mastered by anxieties about our own concerns or the concerns of persons dependent on us, that we receive them almost as if they were strangers — are unable to find our way to them, speak to them as if we had no interests in common, and dismiss them with a sense of relief? We call on a stranger, and he hurries us off with indecent haste. He is guilty of a fault; but are we to go about the world saying that he is brutally discourteous ? Does it never happen that strangers call on iis when our strength is almost exhausted, and when what strength we have is hardly equal to inevitable work; when there are letters to be written which there is hardly time to write; when practical questions of great difficulty and of great importance to ourselves or other people are pressing for settlement, and every moment we can command for thinking about them is precious ? And at such times have we not, in our weariness and impatience, shown scant courtesy to people for whom in more fortunate hours we should gladly have killed the fatted calf? Do none of us speak rudely, and even with irritation, to most innocent persons when we have just heard that we have made a bad debt, or after a sleepless night, through which we have been tormented with neuralgia, or when we are fighting hard with the miserable depression caused by a bad liver? I am not excusing offences committed in such circumstances; I condemn them. But should we think it fair for other people to form an adverse judgment of our general character on the ground of these occasional transgressions? If not, let us remember the words of Christ: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” Be just.
There is a very common mistake about the meaning of the precept. It is sometimes taken as though it required us to rule our conduct towards other men by their wishes; to do this would often be a folly and a sin. It really requires us to rule our conduct towards others by what our wishes would be if we were in their place; and this is a very different matter. In other words, we are to make what we see are their real interests our own. I have heard of a foolish father who, when one of his girls was fourteen or fifteen years old, gave her the choice of a pony or of remaining another year or two at school. The child naturally elected to have the pony, and most children of her age would do the same. The father’s conduct was ruled by the child’s wishes, and he inflicted on her a grave injustice. From what I remember of him I believe that he knew no better. A sensible father will not always act according to the wishes of his children, but will consider how those wishes would be modified and corrected if the children had a larger knowledge and a larger experience of human life. No wise man would wish to enjoy temporary pleasure at the cost of lasting injury. We are unjust to our children if we do not give them the benefit of our wisdom as well as of our love. And we are unjust if we do not, in applying this rule of conduct, give to other men who maybe excited by passion, by hope, or by fear, the benefit of our calmer judgment; and if we do not in all cases guide our conduct towards them by what we may be sure is our clearer perception of their true interest, even when this requires us to act in direct opposition to their most earnest wishes.
This rule may sometimes restrain us from acts of mischievous good-nature; it may sometimes even nerve us to a stern severity. A man applies to me for a testimonial, and I may have reason to believe that if I give it him he will have a good chance of securing an excellent appointment. He is in urgent need of it, for he is in a great deal of trouble. There is no harm in him, and I should be glad to help him.. But I am doubtful, and more than doubtful, whether he would discharge the duties of the position satisfactorily. He says that if I were in his position and he in mine I should plead hard for his recommendation. But I have to think not only of the man himself, but of the people ‘to whom he wishes me to recommend him. If I had to make the appointment myself should I like them to recommend me a man about whose fitness they were uncertain? Should I like them to tell me of his merits and not even to hint at his disqualifications? Is it just even to the applicant himself to give him the support he asks for? If I were in his position should I — if I were a wise and honest man — wish to be recommended to a post the duties of which I was unable to discharge ? Apart altogether from the obligations of veracity, this “golden rule” may require me to refuse to support his application. The Christian law would diminish the immorality of testimonials.
Or I may happen to detect a man in some criminal act. I may discover that he is an old offender. All the evidence may be in my hands, and by using it I shall send him into penal servitude. The impulses of compassion make me shrink from prosecuting him. The man himself attempts to turn me aside by appealing to the precept, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” If I were in his case and he in mine, should I not passionately appeal for mercy } Yes; but this does not decide the question. This very law may compel me to prosecute. I have to think not merely of the individual man, but of those whom he will wrong if his criminal course is not arrested. I have to think of the community whose interests I happen to be in a position to protect from unknown, unmeasured injury. While the man is at large and unpunished I cannot tell who may receive harm. If another man were in my place I should wish him to prosecute; and if I am to serve others as I wish them to serve me I must send the criminal to gaol. The claims of the innocent are stronger than the claims of the guilty; and even for the guilty man himself a prison, with all its hardening influences, may be safer and better than freedom to repeat his crimes.
The “golden rule” is a guarantee of justice. Justice without generosity is cold and unlovely, but men who are conscious of being generous must not suppose that for them the rule has no practical value. I have known people who could be nobly generous, not in money merely, but in things far more precious — in affection, in sympathy, in appreciation of the work and character of their friends, in the unsparing devotion of time and thought and labour to the service of those who attracted their interest, touched their pity, commanded their confidence. And yet they could be guilty of atrocious injustice. For the most part men of this sort have an inordinate sense of their own importance; they carry themselves as though they were born in the purple. There is a certain regal manner in their admiration of the powers and services and virtues of others. They bestow their honours with a royal liberality and grace. But it never seems to occur to them that those to whom it is their delight to be generous have any “rights” which mere justice obliges them to acknowledge. They are Caesars in their way — not constitutional sovereigns; absolute monarchs under no “obligations “to any man. Like Herod they will swear to give half their kingdom to any one that pleases them, and they will keep their oath; but like Ahab they will take Naboth’s vineyard if they happen to fancy it, and will take it without scruple : no Jezebel is necessary to urge them to do it. To make men of this kind sensible of the fatal defects in their moral life is a very difficult matter. They think they are rich in works of supererogation, that they have “merit “to spare for the commonalty of mankind. They are the very Pharisees of morality; they do so much more than justice requires that it is impossible to persuade them that they do less. They regard themselves with unqualified moral complacency. There is a delight, an exhilaration, in speaking generous words and doing generous deeds to which the man who is merely just is a stranger. When we have given a ten-pound note, which we can hardly spare, to an old schoolfellow who has got into trouble, our hearts are flooded with a certain noble satisfaction. There is no such after-glow when we have merely paid our baker’s bill. It is much more pleasant to be generous than to be just; but it is much more necessary to be just than to be generous.
The Christian Revelation is a discipline of justice as well as of charity. Men become unjust through their covetousness; Christ has told us that the wealth which we call ours is not ours but God’s, and has taught us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Men are unjust through their ambition; they trample on the rights of others in their passionate desire for rank and reputation; Christ quenches the feverish thirst for earthly fame by revealing to us the possibility of winning the Divine honour.
Men are unjust under the pressure of anxiety and misfortune; in trying to save themselves from calamity and loss they are reckless of the wrongs they inflict on others; Christ has made the surprising discovery that we can rely on God’s sympathy, defence, and help, through all the chances and changes of this uncertain life, and has encouraged us to cast all our care on Him. Men are often unjust because they form the habit of supposing that if they respect the rights and meet the claims which are protected and enforced by law they have done all that in strict justice can be required of them : Christ has warned us that there is a judgment to come, and that when this life is over we shall be judged by a law more searching and more equitable, and sustained by more terrible sanctions, than any that human tribunals can administer.
Above all, Christ has revealed the august greatness of every man — however obscure may be his earthly position, and however helpless he may be to vindicate his personal rights. We wrong men because we have not sufficient reverence for them. This is the root of all injustice. Brigands who will plunder a palace will leave the unguarded treasures of a temple untouched; their superstitious reverence for the gods restrains them from sacrilege. Men who will treat a peasant with reckless and insulting cruelty will treat even a fallen prince with the most tender courtesy. To those who really believe all that Christ has revealed of the present relations of every man to God and the infinite possibilities of righteousness, wisdom, power and blessedness, which are the inheritance of every man in Christ, every man will be invested with an awful greatness which will make an invasion of his rights an act of irreverence and profanity. Perfect justice is the fruit of a profound sense of the greatness and sanctity of human nature.