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Ideal Of Justice

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Nature of Justice. — Civil justice, through authority expressed in public opinion of law, defines and secures the rights of the individual and imposes upon him obligations to society. It gives a fair opportunity to every man in the group ; it deter-mines what belongs to him and what he owes to other individuals and to the community. And when a government has established justice, there is nothing important left for it to do which the individual cannot better do for himself. " Justice " says Madison, " is the end of government ; it is the end of civil society."' Not equality, not fraternity, for perhaps these cannot be secured by government, but justice is the end for which organized government is established. Nor is this idea of justice based upon any natural right or law, but upon the judgment of society. Its psychological beginning may be found, doubtless, in that sense of fairness which arises in the mind of an individual when he is brought in contact with others ; but its final declaration is a social judgment. Since, then, it is an artificial, socially determined right, it may vary with the conditions of social order or individual environment.

So-called natural justice is the attempt on the part of an individual to secure his self-determined rights without the interposition of a third party. Existing only in an anarchistic condition where might makes right ; it is the animal struggle for survival, the application of a biological law to human endeavor. A survival of natural justice may be observed in the family feud, and in a larger way, in the selfish and arbitrary struggles for power which nations enter into at the expense of others. And expressions of natural justice are the arbitrary measures of trusts and monopolies when they are uncurbed by social regulation.

The Arbiter of Justice. — Civil justice implies at least two contending parties, or opposing principles, and a third party that decides between them. And since, in all social order, there must be this authority to decide right and privilege, the government takes it upon itself to represent the third party and establish justice between contending individuals or factions. And just as in the ancient rιgime the king could say, L'etat; c'est moi, so in democracy, that summation of the ideals and will of the people, the government, can say Le roi; c'est moi.

In the evolution of the state, the governing power may take many forms; but civil justice develops along with the state rather than in accordance with the form of government. The horde shows few signs of civil justice ; but wherever there is self-constituted leadership, there is need for some sort of social justice. For that matter, the self-constituted leader maintains his position in part by means of his service as arbiter in disputes. And, in fact, whether the leadership be self-imposed, established by custom, or based on heredity or the choice of the people, the leader has always, directly or indirectly, been a judge between differing individuals or clashing factions of the group. Wherever government exists, however, the leader is but its executor ; back of the government is the supreme will of the sovereign community. If that sovereign happens to be a small group, as is sometimes the case just after a conquest, then the king represents the oligarchy. If, however, the sovereignty rests with all the people, then he represents democracy. Kings, rulers, and officers may be its agents, and constitutions, laws, and government its mode of expression ; but the organized social will of the group is the court of last resort, the final arbiter of justice. Justice cannot, after all, rise higher than its source. Thus, although the character of the organs of justice will deter-mine its effectiveness, the knowledge of relationships; the conception of right and wrong, and the standards of right conduct held by a community will determine the quality of justice.

The Relation of the Individual to the Mass. — In all forms of government the individual bears a certain relation to the social group at large. This relationship varies in proportion, on the one hand, to the degree to which government has developed, and to the passion for individual liberty, on the other. The extreme example of the subjection of the individual to the mass is found in socialism, which requires a complete sub-ordination of each to the many. Plato's Republic gives us a vivid picture of this sort of government. And, indeed, the practical government of ancient Greece shows the absorption, to a considerable extent, of the individual by the government, the subjection of the individual to society. But the modern ideal democracy insists on political and social cooperation in such a way as to give the individual a large freedom of choice; that is, individual liberty really prevails, although it is secured by the cooperation of many individuals who are seeking the same end.

The extreme of individualism is exhibited in the political theory of the survival of the fittest. When carried too far by unscrupulous people, this political individualism leads to a constantly recurring despotism. When, however, it seeks the highest good of the majority, when it bends its energies to the improvement of society, it will be regulated by a political co-operation which involves the development of individual powers and capacities. And as the group becomes increasingly homogeneous in feelings and thoughts, the restraints on the liberty of the individual are lessened; for with uniformity of mental and social characteristics, sympathy increases between individuals and hostility decreases. Thus is the individual really governed by himself.

Ideal Democracy. — When reduced to its ultimate analysis, the declaration that men are created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights, indicates nothing more than the right of men to make the laws that are to govern them and the right to choose the officers that are to rule over them ; and do the rulers assume, for a time, the rτle of sovereignty, they are, after all, but acting as servants of the people. In our search for the ultimate authority, therefore, we must not carry too far that idea of natural right which received its initial impulse from the French philosophers. For it is only by means of cooperation of his fellows, who are impressed with the same idea, that the individual determines his right to govern ; hence, both the right to govern and the right to freedom of individual action come from the judgment of society. In other words, the individual of to-day may do just what society grants him the privilege of doing and no more — that is, whatever he, with the cooperation of his fellows shall determine to be right and just and for the general welfare. The right to govern, therefore, is determined by the capacity for self-government ; and the real freedom comes from the right established by cooperative association. The only natural right of the individual is the biological right to existence manifested in the law of survival ; it is not biological fact, however, but social fitness that determines his right to share in the government. If, then, there is any natural right of government, it is a natural social right rather than a natural individual right. Man is born under existing laws and social institutions which, as an individual, he cannot overthrow ; he is heir to conditions which are the fruit of a thousand generations of men. These conditions may be wrong, but they have been established by combined social action, active or passive ; and the only manner in which he can influence or change these ideals, rules, and customs of society, is through combined social action, and whatever society determines to be right or just will be the source of individual liberty.

The Rational Choice of the People. — The social will of the people seeks, then, to establish justice among the individuals who compose the body politic. And when the social mind, after determining what is just and right among the people, carries out this social judgment, government has done its ultimate service to society. Although not the popular idea of equality, this plan for social cooperation nevertheless insists that each individual shall have the opportunity, so far as is compatible with social justice, to develop his individual capacity and exercise his individual powers. But if laws are needed to secure political freedom and civil justice, they are also needed to secure industrial freedom and economic justice. For just as free competition in political affairs, unlimited by social regulation, leads to anarchy, the outcome of which is a species of despotism, so, too, freedom of competition in the industrial life, when unlimited by social justice, leads to industrial anarchy, whose final outcome is industrial despotism.

Of course, the ideals of justice held by a community will vary from time to time, in accordance with changing circumstances. For example, social justice looked with favor on the ideal of laissez faire before great corporations had so far developed as to imperil the liberty of non-incorporated individuals.

Now, however, governmental interference in the interests of justice between corporations and individuals has become necessary. Again, there was a time when society believed that justice in education was done when " the little red schoolhouse," built at public expense, gave the merest elements of an education to those who chose to come. But now social justice is satisfied with nothing less than compulsory attendance, up to a certain age, at a school where not only the three R's are taught, but where the pupil is trained in the sciences and in certain practical subjects as well. It is beginning to be perceived that, in the interests of social justice, a vocational training must be provided for each; that the youth must be taught which vocations hold out the best prospects of success; and that the adult should be provided a chance to redeem his lost educational opportunities.


BLUNTSCHLI, J. K. The Theory of the State, Bk. VII.

KELLEY, EDMOND. Government or Human Evolution, pp. 211—354.

MACKENZIE, JOHN S. Social Philosophy, p. 290.

SPENCER, HERBERT. Ethics, Justice; Principles of Sociology, Vol. III, " Political Institutions."

WALLIS, GRAHAM. The Great Society, Part I, Chap. VII.

WARD, LESTER F. Dynamic Sociology, Vol. I, p. 503.

WILLOUGHBY, W. W. The Nature of the State, pp. 181—231.

WILSON, WOODROW. The State, p. 623.


1. In what sense is a vigilance committee in a frontier settlement an instrument of justice? The social will of what part of the community does it represent?

2. Show how modem social legislation — juvenile court laws, probation laws, pure food laws, and legislation for the regulation of the sale of intoxicating liquors, "dope," patent medicines, etc. — are attempts to secure social justice.

3. In what sense is the "personal liberty" argument, as applied to liquor legislation, inconsistent with justice?

4. When the manager of a great corporation says that he will "run his own business," why is his attitude antisocial?

5. What light is thrown upon the relation between justice and forceful methods of social control by the fact that isolated and homogeneous settlements of people often have no officers of civil justice, such as constables, justices of the peace, etc.? What light is thrown upon the more unseen restraints?

6. Make a list of the various methods by which justice between man and man is secured in a certain hamlet, village, or neighborhood which you know.

7. Show how the school playground prepares children and youth for social justice.

8. What effect upon the development of social justice would a social center have — a common meeting place for the discussion of questions ?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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