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What Is Justice? How Are Justice and Rights Related?

If someone asked you, “What is justice?” how would you answer? If he asked, “What are the four Biblical criteria of justice?” would you know them? And if he asked, “How are justice and rights related?” what would you say?

Justice is among the most important concepts in all of human relations. As the great eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith pointed out, justice is

… the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice [of society]. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society . . . must in a moment crumble into atoms. In order to enforce the observation of justice, therefore, nature has implanted in the human breast that consciousness of ill desert, those terrors of merited punishment, which attend upon its violation, as the great safeguards of the association of mankind, to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.ii.iii.4).

Justice requires that we do no one harm. This is not so noble a sentiment as that we should do good to all—the requirement of love—but without it, all striving after love would be folly. A society can exist, though it can’t thrive, without love; it devolves into barbarism and mutual destruction without justice.

One of the most important questions facing Americans today is whether rights are only negative (against undeserved harms) or also positive (to unearned benefits). Does my negative right not to be murdered, for example, mean I have a positive right to life? Does my negative right not to have my property stolen mean I have a positive right to food?

It’s easy to let common usage confuse us. Of course I have a right to life! We even have a whole political movement called the “right to life” movement—and I would be the last person on Earth to oppose its goal of making abortion illegal except to save the life of the mother (and even then every effort should be made to save the life of the child as well).

But does a murderer still have a right to life, or has he forfeited it? Since God’s law says a murderer is to be executed (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12, 14; Romans 13:4), it follows that one’s right to life is limited. It can be forfeited. Or does a person who refuses to work have a right to food? If the food is his property, undoubtedly he does, since the Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not steal.” But what if he owns no food? Does he still have a right to food? What does Scripture say? “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Confusion over the meaning of rights (and corresponding duties) is rampant in America today, thanks in large part to the Progressive movement. In Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, I carefully build a definition of justice that is Biblical, refute arguments that the Bible requires wealth redistribution or some approximation of economic equality, explain the important difference between negative rights and positive rights, and argue that in fact there are no real “positive rights.” At every step, I challenge the Progressive movement so prevalent in America today.

I hope you’ll read this booklet and share it with many others. So, from now through the end of October, as my way of saying “Thank you!” for your 100% tax-deductible donation of any size, I’ll send you a copy—and if you’ll promise to give a second one to a Millennial Christian, I’ll send you two free copies! Just ask for it and mention Promo Code 1810 when you make your gift at any size through our secure online site by clicking here and then clicking on the “Donate” button near the bottom of the page, or by phoning Cornwall Alliance’s office at 703-569-4653, or by mailing your check to Cornwall Alliance, 9302-C Old Keene Mill Rd., Burke, VA 22015.

6 thoughts on “What Is Justice? How Are Justice and Rights Related?

  1. Sadly, as things stand today, innocent people are denied any way to protect themselves from those who are harming them financially! Consequently, a victim gets victimized all over again, by the very system that was designed to protect him! And the wrongdoer gets off scott-free! Our leaders must mandate the “civil right to counsel” as strongly recommended by the American Bar Association. That is, the state must provide legal counsel to a low-income plaintiff when one of his basic human rights is at stake – health, safety, shelter, sustenance and child custody. Just as a criminal defendant is provided an attorney if he cannot afford one, a civil plaintiff as described above should be provided one also!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Judith. What criteria would you recommend for determining who qualifies for, and who doesn’t qualify for, state-provided counsel as a plaintiff? And would you want that state-provided counsel to be paid for by the state regardless whether the plaintiff prevails or loses? How would you guard against abuse of this system by lawyers who recognize the state as very deep pockets for trial lawyers? Are defense against a criminal charge, on the one hand, and prosecution of a civil complaint, on the other, sufficiently analogous to justify arguing that if someone accused of a crime has a right to a defense attorney provided by the state, so also must the one accusing someone else of a civil tort have a right to representation by an attorney provided by the state? In my booklet, I argue that there’s an important difference between negative rights (against unjust harm) and positive “rights” (to benefits): that the former can be enforced without violating others’ rights, while the latter cannot be. I suspect that a “civil right to counsel” like what you and the ABA recommend would fall in the latter category. (And don’t forget that ABA members have a significant interest in the adoption of the policy–more work, and pay, for themselves.)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. But I should clarify that I am not an attorney and cannot effectively answer all your questions from an academic perspective. Rather, this subject is very personal to me and of immediate and pressing concern. I am a disabled senior, losing everything I have through no fault of my own – simply because the state allows me no way to protect myself from those who are harming me. My story is long with many details. But the short version is – my adjoining townhome neighbor ruined my home with repeated flooding and toxic mold. With no way to make my home safe and livable again, I was forced to move out in effort to protect my health. With no common-sense way to resolve the problem, I finally took the legal route. But I was denied any way to get an effective, conflict-free attorney, and there was no way to win my case without one. On the other hand, the wrongdoer was provided an attorney free of charge. The judge dismissed my case, even though he admitted that it had substantial merit and my losses were significant. To this day I have lost my home, its contents, my health, my financial stability and ten years of my life. My financial losses continue to this day, and I am struggling to survive. The wrongdoer has not lost a dime.

    1. I’m so sorry to learn all that, Judy. Obviously not knowing the details of your situation or both sides of the story, I can’t begin to unravel it all for you or to assess right and wrong. I pray that the Lord will bring you justice, but also that, should He not do that, He will provide for your needs in other ways. In this fallen world, bad things happen to which sometimes there are no solutions, and then we must learn the lessons Job learned, which he expressed so well when he said, “Naked came I into this world, and naked shall I return. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” You might find some help from some church deacons near you.

  3. Thanks for your kind reply and for your concern. I have contacted several church leaders and have received help of different kinds – prayers, a gift certificate for groceries, a book on Job and suffering, and a meeting with an attorney who is also a church elder. The attorney was very kind but said I have already tried everything. My situation brings to light several issues that should be corrected – most of them at the state level but – if all else fails – the “civil right to counsel” at the national level. God Himself is interested in the individual, willing to leave the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep. Our country’s concept of “justice for all” should reflect that. But instead, it seems one like me is just considered an anomaly, a throwaway person. That offends me deeply, but more for His sake than for mine. Personally, I believe that mandating the “civil right to counsel” is the key issue here. If left up to states to do it voluntarily, they will choose not to spend the money. On the other hand, if they are REQUIRED to spend the money, that will serve as motivation for them to correct the root problem so that – in the future – their citizens have a way to resolve issues like that in a timely, common-sense way… and lawsuits and attorneys will not be necessary. Checks and balances are good things. I certainly don’t believe in awarding “civil right to counsel” to illegal immigrants, as liberals are now advocating. But protecting a country’s citizens is the most basic reason for a government to exist. Property rights were very important to our Founding Fathers. Compare the two parties. I am a lifelong citizen who has done nothing wrong. My former neighbor is an illegal immigrant who has done nothing right. But I am ruined while he is protected. What about that is right or just?

    1. Well, again, my heart goes out to you. I wish I could be of direct help, but I can’t. But I’m praying for you. One thing you can know: God sets all things right in the end, and the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory awaiting those who trust in Him.

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