For the Love of Justice – Richard J. Van Iten

“For the Love of Justice”

A Reflection Sojourn

By Richard J. Van Iten for the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship

Of Dubuque, Iowa, 6 March, 2022


Love is what justice looks like in Public.” These are the words of Professor Cornel West. They were part of a public lecture he presented to the community of Howard University several years past. “Alone, all alone…Nobody, but nobody Can make it out here alone…” These are lines excerpted from Maya Angelou’s prophetic poem, alone. Professor West’s way of relating Justice to Love caused me to go back to the works of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle*, who believed that human beings are, by their very shared nature, social beings. Thus, he reasoned, for humans to realize their potential as rational beings, they must join together to form communities that provide the institutional framework needed to make that development possible. I come to the reflections that follow this background with the intent of encouraging my listeners, my readers to engage in a thought experiment whereby we might share some insights regarding what life in a just society might look like-how it would function, what ends would it serve. Before commencing with the experiment I have in mind (by the way the original version of this experiment was conducted by John Rawls who many years ago, while a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, It is the centerpiece of his book.)

Before moving on to the experiment, I shall briefly review how the notions of Love and Justice come to life in our society. The former of these notions are really specific understandings are understandings having to do with different forms of human-to-human relationships. Agape centers on a spiritual relatedness, Philos on friendship, Eros on romance and Sorge on family. My reading Maya Angelou’s poetry, especially her understanding of love, turns on a merger of Philos and Sorge, a combination of openness to others and familial concern for the well-being of others. Cornel West seems to be committed to this same line of thought.

Another way of expressing this view, in light of Maya’s Alone. Is to understand being human as needing one another in order to realize our full development as human beings. This line of thought is very much in keeping with Aristotle’s thinking. Humans come into this world as living, breathing centers of potentiality.

It is mission of the State (society writ large) to facilitate and encourage the development of their development in the direction of becoming virtuous citizens. On this view, a fully developed individual is one who thrives on being actively sociable-a citizen. We might say, a person who does not think of herself/himself as complete in the absence of others.

Now for a few words regarding the notion of Justice. In the context of Law, in order for an act to be considered just it must be in accord with one or more specific laws. (In the United States, laws and rights are intimately connected. Hence, violations of rights are unconstitutional and therefore, also unjust. For many people justice is really best understood as that which is deserved. This understanding is broader than that which turns on in accord with the Law, tending in the direction of thinking of justice as requiring that an action accord with moral principle(s). [Many of us regard moral principles as more foundational than constitutionally grounded laws. Think of the Roe vs Wade issues here.]

In the thought experiment I’m about to set up, I understand justice in terms of the notion of fairness. A just society in one in which all of its members are treated fairly. Furthermore, the principle of fairness carries with it three critically important proscriptions. First, all community members are obliged to forego committing actions which they do not wish others to commit. In short, Unless I can universalize my contemplated actions, I shall not commit any of them. Second, No law or moral principle shall be compulsory for any citizen unless it is reasonable to expect them to be able to act according to that law or principle. Third, because our community shall be based on a commitment to a just distribution of burdens and benefits as they pertain to the purpose and function of that community, we agree variations in the distribution of benefits shall be considered just if and only if the effect of this difference in the distribution of benefits would materially benefit the least advantaged in our community.**

The thought experiment. Assume the persons with who you are about to form a community are reasonable and socially responsible individuals. They listen carefully, they carefully weigh the likely consequences of their own proposals, they do the same regarding the proposals of other members. Imagine living in a community as structured/organized above. What questions come to mind? What would constitute satisfactory answers to those questions?

 For those who have an interest in background reading:

John Rawls. A Theory of Justice

Aristotle. The Politics

Ayn Rand. The Virtue of Selfishness

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty

City of Dubuque. See the Shared Prosperity City of Dubuque Internet Site

*Aristotle thought of Justice as a virtue and as morally compelling to reasonable human beings. Thus, there is a very important sense in which there is no need to argue that persons should be just-to understand justice is to be transformed. We might even say that being virtuous as Aristotle understood Virtue is to become an aesthetically compelling person-a work of art!


**I have neglected mentioning Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness in the body of this essay because of a wish to avoid going on even longer. Here I must add that she is very much in the tradition of Aristotelian thinking regarding the place of Reason in our lives. She thought of herself as a rationalist and a realist-one who was careful not to avoid what she thought of as the basic facts of life-she would agree with Angelou’s Alone and Aristotle in that she believed humans are social animals-creatures who need other humans in their lives. But she also believed that it is rational to be responsible but on her own terms. In this she is very much in line with some versions of Libertarianism. After publishing the Virtue of Selfishness, she realized it was a mistake not to have used “Self-ishness’ in this book’s title.