Matt gave three lectures recently at Biola University on the topic of justice. The recordings are now online and are definitely worth your time:

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • I only had a chance to listen to the first lecture today while I was working, but I think you made some excellent points. The connection of faith, hope, charity with justice, mercy, humility was interesting. A few questions that occurred to me while listening:

    1. The idea of justice is said to include natural obligations we have towards the well-being of others. We have mutual obligations. You give an illustration of one person having great wealth and another person having great need. You say that our neighbor is owed what he needs to flourish even if he is going to use what we give him for vice (those may or may not be your exact words, I jotted down a quick note when I heard it).

    My question is how you would respond to Plato’s critique of giving a man what is owed to him when we know he’s going to use it for bad?

    If my neighbor asks me to hold onto his sword for him and later, in a fit of rage, demands it back so that he can kill his adulterous wife with it, does justice demand that I give him his sword? It’s been a couple years since I looked at the Republic, but I think the reply from his interlocutor is to modify the definition of justice to be doing good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies(?). This gets closer to your definition of justice (or at least to this one part of your definition or description) in that I owe to my neighbor that which he needs to flourish (that which is good). But then this definition was adopted, if I’m not mistaken, precisely to avoid the sort of situation in which I would give my neighbor something that which he might otherwise be owed but which would not be for his good (e.g. which would be used for vice).

    And I don’t think it would make much sense to abstract the resource (money, property, etc.) from its use and say that what you owe to him is only what he needs in theory in order to flourish and what he actually will do with these goods is not part of the equation, since these are just secondary goods anyway (or most obviously money is). In other words, money isn’t a good per se. It can be put to good or bad uses.

    2. The idea of collective guilt and punishment which you talk about in regards to social justice is very interesting. On the one hand, it’s prima facie obvious that the Bible has some concept of it and so I’m not opposed to it per se. But I also have no idea how the idea can be cashed out outside of ideas of federal headship. I would be interested to know of any resources you might recommend that deal with this.

    Two questions here. First, your illustrations of the idea in relation to social justice involve the responsibility of an agent directly acting in a way that harms others. For example, a parent who gets a divorce is directly acting in way that makes him/her responsible for the harm to the child. But the idea in social justice involves agents who haven’t acted in any way to contribute to the harms (and it also involves no system of federal headship). So there is an explanatory gap between your illustrations and what you’re trying to illustrate.

    Second, at one point in your talk you mention that justice “issues its judgment only upon the wrongdoer.” But how does this square with the idea of collective guilt or punishment? Maybe you could change the wording from “upon the wrongdoer” to “upon the guilty” and square it that way. But this goes to the point that we have a strong intuition in our culture that people are responsible for their own actions.

    It’s easy to think of an illustration where I can share in collective guilt and punishment in way that most probably wouldn’t find too objectionable. If last month I joined a small club that, just prior to my joining, had thrown a raucous party in a hotel and the club was being forced to pay a large fine for which the club had to be charged an extra 2% in membership dues in order to pay.

    But this becomes less obvious when we have less of an association with each other and when the wrong is deeper into the past–these two things, association and time, are often, though not always, linked. For instance, suppose that a city councilmen knocks on my door and tells me that I owe the city $200 as a fine for some damage that was done to a government building by my neighbor. When I ask for specifics he says it was a man who committed the crime 70 years ago and who has been dead for the last 25 years. When he was living, he was four blocks away from my house. I’m not living in a deeded community or any sort of neighborhood that collects association fees. It’s the sort of improvised neighborhood that appears along the highway and I just moved here last month from out of state.

    I think even progressives who strongly support reparations would be outraged at such broad understanding of collective guilt and punishment. My point is that there is an argument to be made that, whether rightly or wrongly, American society is so fractured and individualist that ideas of social justice in terms of things like reparations just make no sense. If we were talking about a people with strong associations then it would make more sense, and I agree with calls for rebuilding civil society and strengthening those bonds at local levels (I don’t think it’s possible with over 350 million spread across a country this size). But that’s not the reality. The reality is I that it’s just as likely that I have no association whatsoever to the person who incidentally lives four blocks away from me.

    He may be an immigrant from South America with a different history, literature, religion, memory, and traditions. And both of us may not have any ties to the place in which we currently find ourselves in relative close proximity. Nor any intentions of setting down roots in this place: he plans to save up and move south, while I’m stationed here only temporarily for work.

    In the growing placelessness and cosmopolitan society, claims of collective guilt from “our” past seem less and less plausible.