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Impartiality is Not Neutrality

September 10th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

Friend of Mere O Paul D. Miller has responded to Jonathan Leeman’s recent Providence essay with a post of his own. This paragraph in particular is what I want to focus on because it highlights one of the most important points of contention, I think, and perhaps shows where some of the confusion in the debate is coming from.

Justice requires neutrality, of a sort. Leeman quotes 2 Samuel 8:15 about King David, who “administered justice and equity to all his people.” God himself is said to judge with equity (Psalm 96:10). The Proverbs exhort us to seek “righteousness, justice, and equity” (1:3). Equity is fair dealing; it is synonymous with impartiality.

The just judge—and as citizens in a democracy, we are all called to render judgment justly—does not discriminate against other citizens based on who they are or what they believe; he renders judgment based on the law and the deeds at hand. Law itself aspires to be neutral; it is part of the very essence of what it is.

Dr. Miller is concerned with preserving the impartiality of the law. And if that is indeed his concern then it is one that I share and that, I strongly suspect, Sohrab Ahmari does as well. We say that “justice is blind” by which we mean that justice is not a respecter of persons. We recognize that a grave evil is done when a law is applied to one person but not to another. As far as I know, no one in the conversation is advocating for the rejection of impartiality in the application of justice. The Scriptures as well as reason itself are both clear as to the evil of unjust weights and measures.

That said, impartiality alone is not sufficient to secure justice. We can (in fact, we do) equally deny essential goods to a variety of people but though that is equal it is not just.

This is where I suspect, again, that the French side of the debate is spending far too much time thinking about pragmatics and not nearly enough time about more basic principles of rightly ordered political society.

Miller has a great deal to say about ‘justice’ in his post, but he never actually defines what that term means. So what is justice?

Traditionally, the Christian view is that “justice is giving what is due to God or to one’s neighbor.” Thomas Aquinas speaks of both “commutative” and “distributive” justice, but both are matters of rendering to one what is their due.

Thus justice can be violated in multiple ways. If society denies something to a person that they have a right to—say, housing or food—that is a violation of justice. (And yes, I use that example precisely to make the point about how subversive a truly Christian understanding of justice would be in our society.)

But justice can also be violated by disconnecting it from any sort of moral content, such that it becomes reducible to mere “equality” or “neutrality” or (let’s just go all the way) to the causing of harm. We determine if something is just by determining if a person’s right to a thing has been violated—and we determine that through moral reasoning which is indexed to something. For Christians, it is indexed to the moral law as God reveals it to us through Scripture and nature. So you cannot separate “justice” from “morality,” in the way that Miller implicitly does above in his insistence on “neutrality.” To make that move is to abandon Christian political reasoning for what Groen calls ‘the revolution,’ which is really just the collapsing of all moral debates and distinctions into competing power claims.

Strikingly, this error is not actually new. You can find it in some of the ancient Greeks. In fact, Thomas seems to anticipate this exact sequence as the second question he addresses about divine justice in the Summa concerns justice and truth.

He rejects the separation of justice from truth in no uncertain terms, writing that “Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is the law of His justice, is suitably called truth. Thus we also in human affairs speak of the truth of justice.”

Put another way: You cannot have justice without truth or truth without justice. Justice is the means by which we make tangible the wisdom of God in the world.

The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it this way:

Justice, in fact, is not merely a simple human convention, because what is “just” is not first determined by the law but by the profound identity of the human being.

And that identity, of course, is made known to us through revelation. Thus we cannot pursue justice apart from revelation because we will not understand justice’s true referent apart from revelation.

In the Politica Althusius argues that the right practice of piety and justice are the foundation of healthy societies and we understand both via the Ten Commandments. We learn of piety from the first table (the first four commandments, using the Reformed numbering) and of justice via the second table of the Ten Commandments (the fifth through 10th commandments if you follow the Reformed numbering). In making the case in this way, Althusius is merely echoing the widely held reformed consensus that sees the Ten Commandments as being a summation of the moral law as Eric Hutchinson has explained over on the main page.

Thus Miller’s piece is incoherent or—I’m not sure if this is better or worse—sub-Christian. For reducing ‘justice’ to mere ‘equality’ is to follow the lead of Epicurus and John Stuart Mill rather than that of virtually any major Christian theologian in church history. For Miller’s line of thought to work, you’d need to first create a bubble called “politics” or “the law” or “the public square.” Then you would need to shove a bunch of parts of our social life into that bubble. And when you’re done, you’d need to slap a label that says “Neutral: No Theology Allowed” on the outside of it. (And then you would need something—Rawlsian public reason or something similar—to provide moral content to regulate all the things you just stuffed into the bubble.)

Such distinctions are common amongst a certain line of political theorists in western history.

They are called utilitarians.

They are, however, strikingly uncommon amongst Christian theologians.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. 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, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).