Currently, the way justice is routinely spoken of is about social fairness or government intervention or institutional transformation. I have no doubt that justice is often related to these concepts. But classically, justice was a personal virtue a habit of action and thought with reference to giving what is due to others. It is a personal virtue that is outwardly focused. Currently, I think justice is used to refer to a self-focused virtue to be demanded of external circumstances. When Fredrich Hayek talked about it in this video:
“Justice is an attribute of individual action. I can be just or unjust towards my fellow men. But the conception of a social justice; to expect from an impersonal process – which nobody can control – to bring about a just result is not only a meaningless conception, it’s completely impossible.”
I disagree with him about the idea that social justice is purely impossible. Societies can have institutional injustices (people organized around principles that lead to individual acts of injustice). His point is still powerful.
When Menander wrote about justice around the end of the third century, he described it like this:
“The parts of justice are piety, fair dealing and reverence: piety toward the gods, fair dealing towards men, reverence toward the departed. Piety to the gods consists of two elements: being god-loved and god-loving. The former means being loved by the gods and receiving many blessings from them, the latter consists of loving the gods and having a relationship of friendship with them.”
I’m most interested in the bold aspect.
I think that justice is rarely conceived of with reference to one’s ancestors or even with reference to one’s still living relatives. But I think that living in a way that is designed to learn from one’s predecessors in a positive way (and rejecting the bad) is a form of justice because one owes them the work of spreading their genes and building upon the progress they made.
A great example of this can be found in Aurelius’ meditations. In the first section he names the debts and lessons he’s learned from various great people in his life. The first four are family:
- MY GRANDFATHER VERUS
Character and self-control.
- MY FATHER (FROM MY OWN MEMORIES AND HIS REPUTATION)
Integrity and manliness.
- MY MOTHER
Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived— not in the least like the rich.
- MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER
To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.
In my own life, to follow the exact examples above (except that I was blessed with many long lived grandfathers and great-grandfathers so I’ll collapse the lessons I’ve learned for the sake of not revealing information about my family tree, I’ve learned:
- MY GRANDFATHER
From my grandfather I learned several things. The first is don’t stop. If you have work to do, do it until you’re finished no matter how boring, trivial, or demeaning. Second, read widely and often. His bookshelf is filled with philosophy, law, archaeology, fiction, history, and how-to books. Third, to change the world, change where you’re from. Fourth, if you can fix it yourself, fix it. Fifth, control your mornings. Sixth, choose the higher standard (this is from a man who told me that Army boot camp was too easy and that it made him fat and lazy).
- MY FATHER
The first is be prepared. Know what you’re getting into before you go. Second, never blame others for your lot. Just own that you have to take responsibility and do it because nobody else will. Third, my dad taught me to respect the elderly. I still hold doors for them when I see them walking into restaurants. Fourth, to respect people who work for a living, I won’t even vote for politicians who haven’t worked in the free-market.
- MY MOTHER|
My mother taught me to approach problems with reason instead of emotions and to be generous.
- MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER
First, to make everyplace I go better than it was when I arrived. Second, to read between the lines. The rest of my family I think made fun of this idea, but the media is usually trying to get viewers not tell the truth and things are rarely as they seem. Every phenomena requires investigation.
What have you learned from your betters who’ve come before you? How can you do them justice?
 Aurelius, Marcus (2002-05-14). Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 811-816). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.