I do not think you should choose between them. Plato placed justice at the top of the moral virtue hierarchy in this book, The Republic. I think agape love (in service to others even when it is painful to do so) is the highest because it includes being just to others and forgiving others. We need both justice and forgiveness under the umbrella of agape to have the best world and in the case of justice and forgiveness, the best of both worlds of these virtues.
It seems to me that when we forgive a lot, then we are actually growing in our humanity. Is there such a thing as growing in our humanity and is forgiveness a pathway to this?
According to Plato and Aristotle, as we grow in the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom, then we are growing in our essence of what it means to be human. So, yes, I do think that we can grow in our humanity. Further, I do think that forgiveness helps us grow in our humanity because it melts our resentment, making justice even more fair, allowing for more courage rather than fear, balancing our emotions so we can be more temperate, and when we are free of resentment, then we have the opportunity to have more wisdom or to know the proper way of responding to different situations, even challenging situations.
A community is a single, whole entity, with a common purpose, made up of persons, each of whom is a single, whole entity (Maritain, 1994). A community is not simply the sum total of the individuals in the community (a nominalist view). Think of a symphonic community of musicians. There is a harmony of persons performing different activities and with different talents in the orchestra. The group transcends any given part of the group (Wild, 1948). A symphony orchestra is more than the violin section only. Communities differ in their norms, beliefs, and actions (what Aristotle calls accidents).
Aristotelian realist philosophy states that communities have a common good (Aristotle, 1999/340 B.C.). A common good is defined by Plato (2015/330 B.C.) in The Republic as persons growing in the Cardinal Virtues of justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance with these emphasized within the group. These four virtues, in Plato’s view, are not generated by opinion or feelings, but they naturally apply to all persons and all communities. These are understood by reason and chosen by the free will of each person. In other words, the Cardinal Virtues are not forced upon us.
Let us, then, define these Cardinal Virtues: 1) Justice is offering one’s best to others and the community. Kreeft (1992, p. 60) describes Platonic justice through the poetic image of music: one strives to be in harmony with others as all cooperate and play a beautiful societal tune. This is the central virtue according to Plato in The Republic.
is going ahead despite fear so that one can do one’s best even when it is difficult to do so. 3) Wisdom is knowing the right response at the right time without having a rule-book nearby. 4) Temperance is balance, avoiding too much or too little in all we do, including practicing the virtues, in pleasure seeking, and work. In Book IV of his Republic, Plato (2015/330 B.C.) defends the view that all four of these Cardinal Virtues, together, help to mature individuals and to have a well-functioning community in which the greater good then benefits all.
As Wild (1948, p. 185) clarifies, the goal of the common good is human perfection for all in the community. The common good of the community, which includes the good of each person, is considered higher than the individual good. In other words, individuals can be in service to one another for the good of the other person and the good of the group.
Now, and importantly for how forgiveness fits into the common good of the community, when people are treated unjustly by others, anger can ensue, which can develop into irritability (Stringaris, Vidal-Ribas, Brotman, & Leibenluft, 2017) and even to hatred. Forgiving those who are unjust, then, can first reduce the anger, which in turn can reduce the desire for excessive recompense (in the case of justice), and the desire for reckless bravado (in the case of courage). Without hatred, temperance can be restored, and the clear, rational thinking of wisdom can once again be present. If the common good is to be just, to work in harmony with others, then forgiveness can keep justice in balance, by first reducing toxic anger, and thus preserving the central Cardinal Virtue (justice) in communities. If this is true, then forgiveness needs to play a central part in the common good of communities.
If this is true, then forgiveness needs to be fostered in individuals, families, schools, workplaces, and places of worship……now.
- Aristotle. (1999/340 B.C.). Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Kreeft, P. (1992). Back to virtue. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
- Maritan, J. (1994). The person and the common good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Plato, translated by B. Jowett (2015/approximately 330 BC). The complete works of Plato/ the republic. Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Classics.
- Stringaris, A., Vidal-Ribas, P., Brotman, M.A., & Leibenluft, E. (2017). Practitioner review: Definition, recognition, and treatment challenges of irritability in young people. Journal of Child Psychology, 59, 721-739.
- Wild, J. (1948). Introduction to realistic philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.
Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved. This can include both rewards and punishments. If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just. If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.
Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome. For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.
Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards. Why? It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods. That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here. For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe. For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now. The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas. There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.
Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them. In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested. Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars. The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.
For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices. This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future. We do not suggest that justice now be altered. We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison. Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.
There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice. If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is. Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together. When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.