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.
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