What are the essential characteristics of a just society from a secular and a Christan standpoint?
Justice, as defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary, means “just behavior or treatment; the quality of being fair and reasonable; the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this; the personification of justice.”
A just society, therefore, pertains to how citizens may secure, protect, and acquire justice in the context of communal operations. The ideal of a purely just society has been attempted for millennia, yet no recognized nation, tribe, or community has earned that crown. Accordingly, it is the perpetual pursuit of said justice that continues to persuade, motivate, and encourage countless groups of men and women to prescribe their own ideology in order to achieve this elusive goal. Invariably, perfect justice can never be obtained because in and of itself, justice requires compromise among individuals. My perfectly just outcome, therefore, comes at the expense of my neighbor, whose result will not be in his best interest, and thus less than ideal.
Furthermore, the concept of justice itself changes based on the lens chosen to view it. In this analysis, I will examine how two scholars—Murray N. Rothbard, a secular thought leader and architect of a modern political philosophy, and Reinhold Niebuhr, a church-affiliated theologian—detail and prescribe the essential characteristics of a “just” society. The former will prescribe his recommendations based on a branch of modern Western ethics (libertarianism), and the latter will rely on his own unique stance of Christian ethics. Ironically, although both men’s ethical stances can be categorized into broad categories, they both still make recommendations that diverge from what the layperson assumes to be justice from the standpoint of the “West,” “America,” “Christians,” and “the church.” What I will demonstrate is that at the core of the battle of secular justice versus “Christian” justice lies a conflict derived from Augustinian dogma—for the former, that the preservation of the self is the ultimate gauge for justice, and for the latter, that the focus is shifted toward one’s neighbor, with justice being the ultimate expression of love. After exploring the basic characteristics of said societies, I will specifically investigate what each means in terms of women’s rights, racial equality, property rights, criminal justice, and the struggle of the poor.
Murray N. Rothbard obtained his doctorate in economics from Columbia in 1956, has written numerous books and scholarly articles, and founded the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1982. In his book The Ethics of Liberty, he prescribes his ideal for a libertarian society based on the principles of limited government and voluntary cooperation. Rothbard is considered by many to be the father of modern libertarianism, an ideology that is commonly associated with selfishness, capitalism, and restricted authority, but its stated fundamental belief is its disdain for coercion of any kind—hence the NAP, or nonaggression principle. Rothbard said that for libertarianism, “[L]iberty is ‘the highest political end,’ the overriding goal of libertarian philosophy … Political philosophy is that subset of ethical philosophy which deals specifically with politics, that is, the proper role of violence in human life … Indeed, a libertarian would be one in which every individual would at last be free to see and pursue his own ends—to ‘pursue happiness,’ in the felicitous Jeffersonian phrase.”[i] Rothbard goes on to define liberty as being grounded in moral principle, which is in itself a principle of justice. He says, “Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force if liberty is to be attained.”[ii]
Essentially, the libertarian ethic is based on natural law, defined as quoted from Rev. Elisha Williams:
All are born naturally equal … and every man having a property in his own person, the labour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his own, to which no one has right but himself … Thus every man having a natural right to (or being proprietor of) his own person and his own actions and labour, which we call property; it certainly follows, that no man can have a right to the person or property of another: And if every man has a right to his person an property; he has also a right to defend them … and so has a right of punishing all insults upon his person and property.[iii]
Although Reverend Williams refers only to men, natural law has been extended to all persons in contemporary interpretations of the libertarian philosophy.
From this definition, a “just” society will have at its foundation the uplifting of the following principles: individualism, spontaneous order, the rule of law, limited government, free markets, voluntary contracts, peace, the natural harmony of interests, and the value of production. In the libertarian universe, the individual is the nexus around which everything else revolves. Each person is born with the natural right to pursue their own interests and happiness within their own autonomous sphere of operation, so long as that operation does not infringe upon the sphere of another free-willed individual. The limiting reagent of my freedom thus becomes another person, who stands in the center of his or her own universe.
Resultantly, justice in a libertarian sense essentially equates to an economic consideration, or the protection of, and the assuredness of the right to, private property. Rothbard insists that justice is the product of reason, and only through reason can the appropriate ethical guidelines for a just society be established. The author quotes A. K. Hesselberg and states that the social order is an “indispensable prerequisite to man’s well-being and happiness.”[iv] He goes on to say that the social order therefore must require maintenance by man because
“a social order is not possible unless man is able to conceive what it is, and what its advantages are, and also conceive those norms of conduct which are necessary to its establishment and preservation, namely, respect for another’s person and for his rightful possessions, which is the substance of justice. … But justice is the product of reason, not the passions. And justice is the necessary support of the social order; and the social order is necessary to man’s well-being and happiness. If this is so, the norms of justice must control and regulate the passions, and not vice versa.”[v] (Italics are my own)
The concept of private property as being intrinsically linked to the principle of justice is illuminated in the denouncement of governments seizing property and claiming it to be private property rightfully owned. Rothbard refuses to recognize the said government as having a valid claim to such property because it is an ethic “blind to all considerations of justice, and, pushed to its logical conclusion, must also defend every criminal in the property that he has managed to expropriate.”[vi] This rationale is based on the idea that all governments, at some point or another, never purchased private property. Instead, they either gained the property in conquest (aggression) or seized the lands themselves. This is why Rothbard thus considers all utilitarian free-market economists as lacking a proper conception of justice, because they would regard all existing claims to private property as valid, thus including the claims of governments who acquired the property through unjust means.
To clarify the point, Rothbard states that governments in and of themselves owning property is not inherently evil (nor is property in private hands inherently good) but rather the means by which said property is acquired. Voluntary cooperation and mutual consent will be the desired means in a just society, while conquest, theft, and confiscation will be the products of an unjust society. He does say that “there is only one reason for libertarians to oppose the formation of governmental property or to call for its divestment: the realization that the rulers of government are unjust and criminal owners of such property.”[vii]
On the issue of racial justice, the libertarian ethic is very progressive. Because every person is born with natural rights, we are all equal under the law. As such, as a function of being human, a white male and a black male are exactly the same on the scales of justice and thus afforded the same rights, privileges, and treatment. To deny either one of them any privilege based on race would be an intolerable, direct violation of natural law. On the question of slavery, libertarian justice is very clear and even transcends the concept of justice that modern civilized society had adopted. Mr. Rothbard says, “[T]here was only one possible moral solution for the slave question: immediate and unconditional abolition, with no compensation to the slavemasters. … A vital part of such necessary compensation would have been to grant the plantation lands not to the slavemaster, who scarcely had valid title to any property, but to the slaves themselves, whose labor, on our ‘homesteading’ principle, was mixed with the soil to develop the plantations. In short, at the very least, elementary libertarian justice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, on the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated.”[viii]
A similar logic applies to the rights of women. Again, the thinking would follow that we all are persons, not one sex subordinate to another. In a libertarian society, for example, women’s suffrage movement would not have existed since denying a woman the right to vote would be an aggression against her person by denying the free exercise of her will. On the other side of the coin, this idea of egalitarianism can be taken to a somewhat absurd extreme. Rothbard says, “The time honored principle of ‘women and children first’ is surely morally intolerable; by what principle of justice do men have inferior rights to life or self-ownership than women or children?”[ix] In his eyes, “elevating” the status of women and children in extreme circumstances is deplorable, at the expense of “downgrading” the status of men.
In the struggle of the plight of the poor, libertarian justice essentially equates to no proactive action. As long as the economically depressed were not in any way aggressed upon, their situation would be considered to be the result of the free market, and thus their lot in life was their own responsibility. Certainly, if affluent individuals voluntarily desired to support a member of the poor, they were free to do so, but any system that coerced members of a society as a whole (e.g., the confiscation of wealth via taxation for social welfare programs) would be considered unjust aggression. The same rationale would apply, for example, to universal health care or free social services offered by government agencies.
On the issue of criminal justice, Rothbard recommends a well-formulated system of punishment and proportionality. Accordingly, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of this justice is the complete absence of morality, a decision left solely up to the citizens. The courts were to enact said punishments equally and without moral bias. Rothbard even cites a renowned theologian (C. S. Lewis) when he states,
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under the omnipotent moral busybodies … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. … But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better” is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.[x]
An established proportionality, then, would tell the courts how much punishment a defendant may exact from a criminal aggressor without the defendant himself overreaching the limits of justice and becoming an aggressor himself. In addition, libertarian justice does not regard a wrong to be committed against society, only a person. For example, in the case of murder, if John Blue murders a member of the Red family, proportionality would set the maximum penalty against Blue as execution. However, because capital punishment is a maximum, the Red family may also decide to have John Blue pay a fine or provide free labor for a specified period of time. The thinking goes that society has lost nothing, but the Red family has—debts are only paid to victims. It makes no sense to incarcerate Mr. Blue (at taxpayer expense) when the taxpayers have not been aggressed against.
Viewed in another light, in proportional justice, the criminal “loses rights to the extent that he deprives the victim.” So in the case of theft, for instance, a thief would have to return double the amount stolen so that he ends up with a loss proportional to the offended’s original deficit. This also serves as deterrent to theft in general. A very interesting extension of this concept would preclude criminal punishments against those who either sell or are in possession of illegal drugs. It would be unjust, and a reflection of “tyrannical” morality, to criminalize the drug trade. A libertarian ethic mandates this since two free-willed individuals engage in a transaction voluntarily based on mutual consent. There is no coercion, no aggression, and therefore no need for any type of judicial authority to be involved in this matter between two individuals involved in a private matter. The case could then be made that if the user subsequently dies from use, the dealer is to blame for the death. The counterargument would be that any rational person would be cognizant of said risks in purchasing a product and therein assumes all associated risk. Hence, blaming a dealer for the death of a drug user would be analogous to blaming the car dealer for a subsequent motor vehicle accident.
Reinhold Niebuhr was an ethicist, theologian, and minister at Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church before teaching at Union Theological Seminary for more than three decades. Niebuhr is renowned for his ideas concerning social ethics and has written prolifically on love and justice. In his mind, human beings are inherently incapable of perfect love and therefore are incapable of perfect justice. Cognizant of this fact, they still strive for perfection in an imperfect world—a pursuit that is doomed for failure. He has written volumes on the concept of justice, but I will focus on selected excerpts from Love and Justice.
For Dr. Niebuhr, one cannot contemplate justice in its purest form without considering first the Christian faith, for in that faith one finds “the final law in which all other law is fulfilled [that] is the law of love.”[xi] Justice, then, although commonly thought of in secular terms, is inextricably linked to a relationship with God. That is, the love one has for the Father manifests as a way of relating to one’s neighbor, who is also created in His divine image. In effect, how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat God. From this powerful realization, Niebuhr develops his theory that only by walking in the Christian faith are we able to absolve our minds of our own concerns, to accept the transgressions of others, and to embrace them with mercy out of the love motivation. To secular society, this is a nebulous concept that transcends codified laws, rules, regulations, and mandates. In the end, if mercy is to triumph over judgment, perfect justice in Niebuhr’s mind requires selflessness and forgives those who act unjustly. A libertarian ethic simply mandates retributive justice. It is only by the grace of God would one ever be able to transcend this secular formulation, voluntarily relinquish what is owed to them, and in fact accept acts of injustice (within reasonable limits).
Recognizing that all people cannot and will not adhere to the Christian ethic, Niebuhr, like Rothbard, does purport the concept of natural law. To establish a basic “[h]uman nature is, in short, a realm of infinite possibilities of good and evil because of the character of human freedom. The love that is the law of its nature is a boundless self-giving. The sin that corrupts its life is a boundless assertion of the self. Between these two forces all kinds of ad hoc restraints may be elaborated and defined. We may call this natural law. But we had better realize how very tentative it is. Otherwise we shall merely sanction some traditional relation between myself and my fellow man as a ‘just’ relation, and quiet the voice of conscience which speaks to me of higher possibilities.”[xii] Hence, justice based on natural law is limiting and quite situational. In order for a society to break the chains of these ad hoc shackles of justice, one needs only to look inward at his own conscience that will open the door to many new and expanding possibilities.
It becomes perfectly clear that to achieve perfect justice requires relinquishing oneself of his or her own sense of self and turning the focus outward. In essence, as self-importance decreases, love and justice increase. The following quotes illustrate this point.
“The effort to substitute the law of love for the spirit of justice instead of recognizing love as the fulfillment and highest form of the spirit of justice, is derived from the failure to measure the power and persistence of self-interest.”[xiii]
“An act of justice on the other hand requires the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.”[xiv]
“No Christian, even the most perfect, is able to “always” consider the common interest before his own … [t]o set self-interest and the general welfare in simple opposition is to ignore the nine tenths of the ethical issues that confront the consciousness of men. For these are concerned not so much with the problem of the self against the whole as with problems of the self in relation to various types of “general welfare.”[xv]
“A Christian justice will be particularly critical of the claims of the self as against the claims of the other, but it will not dismiss them out of hand. Without this criticism all justice becomes corrupted into a refined form of self-seeking … [f]or without the “grace” of love, justice, always degenerates into something less than justice.”[xvi]
“A profounder Christian faith must encourage men to create systems of justice which will save society and themselves from their own selfishness.”[xvii]
The libertarian ethic focused totally and exclusively on the preservation of the self. Christian justice, according to Niebuhr, is actually critical of the claims for the self, in an effort to tame the pervasive sense of selfishness and self-interest that plagues all of humankind. Love, then, is a necessary and fundamental component of Christian justice without which the entire fabric of a system of justice will unravel.
Accordingly, the pursuit of perfect justice will actually create dynamics of unjust relationships that exist in unison with one another. These injustices are, however, voluntarily forgiven. To advocate for any other means is wrong because “[a]ny illusion of a world of perfect love without these imperfect harmonies of justice must ultimately turn the dream of love into a nightmare of tyranny and injustice.”[xviii] It naturally follows the basic ethical paradox that “the highest result of an action can never be its desired result. It must be a by-product.”[xix]
Niebuhr would agree, to an extent, with Rothbard on the principle of nonaggression. The love ethic involves a conscious, voluntary attitude seeking what is best for one’s neighbor without coercion. To use force would indeed violate the love ethic, and what was meant to achieve justice as an end fashions “tyranny and injustice” as its means. This principle would apply to all facets of a just Christian society but is particularly relevant to economic interests and those social phenomena concerned with morality.
“The struggle for social justice in the present economic order involves the assertion of rights, the rights of the disinherited, and the use of coercion. Both are incompatible with the pure love ethic found in the gospels. How, then, do we justify the strategy of the ‘class struggle’”?[xx]
“We must justify ourselves by consideration of the social situation that we face and the human resources that are available for its solution. What we discover in the social situation is that human life in its group interests moves pretty much upon the basis of the economic interests of various groups.”[xxi]
Accordingly, in a perfect society, coercion would need not be necessary because “such perfect love as [Jesus] demands would obviate the necessity for coercion on the one hand because men would refrain from transgressing upon their neighbor’s rights, and on the other hand because such transgression would be accepted and forgiven if it did occur. It would mean … the privileges of each would be potentially the privileges of all. Where love is perfect the distinctions between mine and thine disappear.”[xxii]
On the other hand, Niebuhr recognizes that no such perfect ideal can ever be achieved and to assume otherwise is foolish. Hence, he asserts, “No society can exist without the use of coercion, though every intelligent society will try to reduce coercion to a minimum and rely upon the factor of mutual consent to give stability to its institutions.”[xxiii] Coercion itself is a mechanism that may achieve short-term ends, but it plants seeds of resentment and discontent that whatever the desired ends will yield results antithetical to love and mercy and may actually persuade those on the receiving end of brute force to reject the Christian ethic in its totality by those “righteous” individuals who seek to mold heaven on earth.
Suitably, Niebuhr says, “The church would do more for the cause of reconciliation if, instead of producing moral idealists who think that they can establish justice, it would create religious and Christian realists who know that justice will require that some men shall content against them.”[xxiv]
In fact, “pure morality divides people and does not unite them. Moral idealists can live with other people only if their ideals are identical with their own.”[xxv] Morality without the temperance of love can actually be one of the most destructive forces in a Christian society seeking Christian justice.
Niebuhr makes a succinct conclusion about his just society when he claims that “the loss of man’s original perfection therefore never leaves him with an untarnished though incomplete natural justice. All statements and definitions of justice are corrupted by even the most rational men through the fact that the definition is colored by interest … reason is not capable of defining any standard of justice that is universally valid or acceptable … [i]t is a tragic world, troubled not by finiteness so much as by ‘false eternals’ and false absolutes, and expressing the pride of these false absolutes even in the highest reaches of spirituality … natural justice is good as far as it goes, but it must be completed by the supernatural virtue of love. The true situation is that anything short of love cannot be perfect justice.”[xxvi]
In the analysis of women’s rights, racial equality, property rights, criminal justice, and the struggle of the poor, Niebuhr’s prescription for a just society is very simply derived. To maintain order, established rules of the land would be recognized, but in the end, loving God and doing onto thy neighbor as thyself is the supreme law for all those who walk in the Christian faith. This means recognizing the equal rights of women and minorities as fellow creations of God, forgiving aggressions against your physical property, having the option of enforcing restitutive justice (as dictated by the Deuteronomic law) but favoring mercy, and recognizing society’s divine mandate not to mistreat, neglect, look down upon, and further to make provisions for, the poor (also in the Deuteronomic law).
In essence, the difference between justice viewed from the perspective of the West and Christianity all boils down to where the true focus is directed—toward the self or toward God. Rothbard would claim that the essential trait of a just society is the maintenance of nonaggression against any person by anyone or anything else. In a secular sense, justice involves ensuring that I have not been wronged, and if I have, that I am entitled to retribution or compensation. The preservation of the self upholds the supreme importance of me, even at the expense of those citizens that collectively participate in the same society that I do. In a libertarian sense, I am more important than society, although the cumulative power and ability of the group overwhelmingly transcends the summation of individuals. Justice in a libertarian society makes no room for love but desires that the offended be restored to their preoffense condition. Mercy, grace, and love are regarded as unnecessary impediments to the proper implementation of the law.
In contrast, Christians (ideally) have their focus toward God and as a result live their life not in the pursuit of self-interest but in the interest of others. As a result, Christian justice has its most perfect, essential, and ideal expression in love (both an attitude and a pattern of behavior), where even transgressions against the self are forgiven and legal rights are surrendered, cognizant that the sacrificial, divine model of Christ provides the blueprint for ideal human behavior.
In Confessions, Augustine defines original sin as an act of free will—a misdirection toward serving the self and not God—and subsequently, that act is what degraded and corrupted the will for all of humankind. Adam and Eve had fallen away from God, and sin was birthed into humanity, inescapably tainting each and every one of us with a corrupted will, a sinful nature, and an evil disposition. Without God, we are free only to sin, and only with God are we free not to sin. Augustine emphasized that the original sin was grounded in conceit and that human pride is the root of all sin.
In many ways, Augustine’s conception of the root of all sin still resonates clearly in the posits of Rothbard and Niebuhr. For Augustine, evil was not a choice, but instead a passive process whereas a person loves himself or herself and thus evil inevitably results. In a secular sense, the preservation of the self is a manifestation of self-love, and in the Christian sense, selflessness is a manifestation of love toward God, and subsequently loving all those who are created in His divine image—other human beings, and therefore, by extension, society. To “love God and do as you please” then entails fostering an individual ethic that reorders all relationships and interactions that one has with society as a function of that love of God.
To Augustine, justice included giving to every person what was due to them, but his formulations, like Niebuhr and unlike Rothbard, is grounded firmly in Christian ethics. For Augustine, to love God means to serve Him, and in serving Him, one would seek justice in society globally and unselfishly. Justice was the critical dividing line that separated an ideal political state (nonexistent) and a nonideal political state (reality). Comparatively, Augustine also believed that no commonwealth could ever claim to be perfectly just, but only to achieve, relatively, more justice than another commonwealth. Although flawed, political states serve a divine purpose and as vehicles for maintaining order. To Augustine, the state is sanctioned in the scriptures as an institution meant to execute divine will, in stark contrast to a Rothbardian understanding of limited government. The state maintains order by keeping wicked men in check through the fear of punishment.
To truly love God means to love one’s neighbor, and only in relinquishing one’s own claims can justice ever be obtained in the earthly realm. Love is the essential characteristic of a just Christian society, whereas the preservation of individual rights is the essential trait in a just secular society.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
[i]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 258.
[ii]. Rothbard, Murray N. “Why Be Libertarian?” in idem, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays. Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974. Pp.147-48.
[iii]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. ix.
[iv]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 15.
[v]. Hesselberg, A. Kenneth, “Hume, Natural Law and Justice.” Duquesne Review (Spring 1961): 46-47.
[vi]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 52.
[vii]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 56.
[viii]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 75.
[ix]. Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. P. 151.
[x]. Lewis, C.S. “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Twentieth Century (Autumn 1948-49), reprinted in Grupp, ed., Theories of Punishment, pp. 304-7.
[xi]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 25.
[xii]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 54.
[xiii].Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 25.
[xiv]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 26.
[xv]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 27.
[xvi]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 28.
[xvii]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 28.
[xviii]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 29.
[xix]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 31.
[xx]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 34
[xxi]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 34.
[xxii]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 32.
[xxiii]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 35.
[xxiv]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 43.
[xxv]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. P. 46.
[xxvi]. Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957. Pp. 48-9.