The Virtuous Life: Justice

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 20, 2008 · 19 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life


This is the eighth post in a series on living the virtuous life like Benjamin Franklin.

“JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

Man is a social animal. Everyday we interact with people in different capacities and relationships. In order to ensure that these interactions go smoothly, human beings have developed rights and obligations that each individual and community must recognize. The virtue of justice guides men in their quest to respect these boundaries and responsibilities.

What is justice?

For millennia philosophers have debated this question. Justice, like beauty or goodness, is an ethereal and hard to define concept. Catholic theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas put it quite succinctly when he defined justice as the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his due. I think it’s the same idea of justice that Franklin had. Those who uphold the laws, rules, and standards are rewarded. Those who do not are punished. Injustice occurs when a man denies an individual or group either the punishment or reward due them.

How to develop the virtue of justice

Develop knowledge. To be a just man you must develop knowledge of the rights and responsibilities that govern your family, community, and nation. Much of this knowledge is developed simply by interacting with others and begins at a very early age. We learn that if you break something or injury someone, you should seek to restore that which you damaged by paying for what you broke or apologizing to who you hurt. We learn that when you make a promise, you keep it, and if you can’t keep it, you must make restitution for the negative results of your failure to keep your word.

Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King

While such knowledge comes to us intuitively, there are often issues of justice that may be out of our realm of experience or happen on a larger scale. Such issues often fail to garner the attention they deserve because they take effort to delve into. Apathy is perhaps the greatest impediment to justice. There are many unjust things happening in your community, state, nation, and world that fail to produce righteous indignation because men do not care to educate themselves about what is happening.

True men seek not only for justice in the events that intimately affect them, but for the fair treatment of all, even strangers. They confront injustice whenever and wherever it appears. To do this, men must have a firm grasp of culture and ideas, keep abreast of current events, and take time to travel outside of their usual sphere of life. You can develop the knowledge necessary to exercise justice with wisdom by doing the following things:

Reading good and noble books. Make it a goal to read as many of the classic works of literature that you can during your lifetime. All great books struggle with complex issues that require characters to exercise justice. By reading great literature, you develop and aggregate the knowledge that you need to exercise justice. For a list of The Great Books of Western Civilization, click here. You can find most of these books at the library or you can even find them online at Project Guttenberg.

Nothing is to be preferred before justice. ~ Socrates

Reading/watching reputable news sources. Whether online or in print form, every man should read at least one newspaper a day. Read sources with both a liberal and conservative slant in order to get a balanced viewpoint. Watching “The Daily Show” is not without merit, but supplement it by reading a news source that delves deeply into the issues. Having too little time is no excuse. Simply turn on NPR during your daily commute to get tuned in to what is happening around the country and the world. By keeping abreast of current events, you will begin to see the amount of injustice in the world, develop the ability to make judgments on how to solve these injustices, and be inspired to take action.

Travel and leave you comfort zone. While I don’t believe the need to travel is a legitimate excuse for putting off commitment, it is undoubtedly a singular way to educate yourself. When the opportunity arises, visit a foreign country and seek out places and people not found in the travel guides. Leaving your comfort zone does not have to mean leaving the country; for many men, a different part of town can be just as foreign. Make an attempt to see places even in your own city that you usually never venture. You’d be surprised at the amount of injustice that happens in your own town.

Areas in our personal life where we can exercise justice

For too many men, justice never goes beyond words and into deeds. Men in my generation tend to bitch and moan about the problems in society, politics, and the world, but fail to take any action to rectify those injustices beyond slapping a witty bumper sticker on the back of their Honda. To be fair, these men are understandably disillusioned with the power systems of the day, and the growing sense that there is nothing we can do to change them. But the deeper into apathy they sink, the truer that will become. Apathy is like a contagious disease that spreads from person to person as each individual gives up the passion to fight the good fight. The truth is that each man has the responsibility to fight for justice in any capacity he can. Here are some ways to do that:

Justice in our communications. Last week, we talked about the virtue of sincerity. When we are insincere with others, we deny that person the right to truth. This is an injustice. When we gossip about another person, we blacken the name of that person without allowing them a chance to defend themselves. This is also injustice.

All virtue is summed up in dealing justly. ~Aristotle

Justice in the workplace. A just employer will pay their employees what they deserve. A just CEO won’t take a pay raise when his company loses money and when the company does make money, he will spread some of that wealth down to the workers who helped make that profit possible. Just employers also don’t cut corners, and don’t try to get their employees to work overtime without pay. They don’t try to cheat their employees out of benefits they have earned. In turn, just employees don’t cheat their employer by goofing off when they are being paid to work. They don’t call in sick when they are really nursing a hangover or simply playing hooky.

Justice in the public arena. Nowhere is the aforementioned disillusionment more pronounced than in the area of politics. Men today have grown completely cynical as scandal after scandal erupts and another political leader who made hopeful promises during their campaign, abandons those ideals once in office. The problem is not just corrupt politicians; however, it is the apathy of voters who voice no outcry as the ship of our democracy slowly sinks.

But it is not sunk yet. There are still a few good politicians out there and if men get more involved in the political process, more of the good apples will get in and more of the corrupt bastards will be kicked out. This can only happen if people start taking an active role in politics. Read up on the issues. Ignore the fluff that big media creates in their cotton candy machine of news. Get involved in campaigns. Donate to your candidate of choice, go door to door spreading their message, put a sign in your yard, form activist groups, distribute leaflets at school, ect. Nothing will ever change unless men start caring. Need some motivation? Watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered. ~Aristotle

Justice in your community. Even if many men have trouble believing they can change politics, no one can deny that change is possible when undertaken on a one to one basis. Many people in your community didn’t receive a fair start in life. We can serve the cause of justice by helping them rise to a level playing field. Find a way to volunteer and perform service for others. Become a Big Brother and mentor a young man who has gotten a short shrift in life and help him see how he can make a man of himself.

Another way you can exercise justice in your community is to stand up for individuals who you think are being abused physically, mentally, or emotionally by others. ABC News set up a situation in which a man verbally assaulted a woman in a park in order to see how many people would step in to stop it. Surprisingly, not many people did. The ones who did intervene were mostly women. What’s wrong with men? I know in America we take pride in our rugged individualism and we try to avoid getting involved in other people’s lives, but if you see an act of abuse going on, don’t stand idly by. Do something damn it!

Justice in the world. Once you start paying attention to current events, you will be struck by the amount of injustice in the world. Lots of attention is given to causes such as AIDS or world poverty. These are noble and worthy causes, but I feel that we often go about solving them in the wrong way. Throwing huge concerts to “raise awareness” about global poverty or just throwing money at poor countries is a good start but won’t solve the problem. There’s an awful lot of smug back patting that goes on at such events. The awareness wears off after a few weeks and corrupt governments in poor countries waste the money that we give them. If you’d like to fight injustice in the world, join the Peace Corps or work for UNICEF. If all you can do is donate money, make sure to donate it to a reputable non-governmental agency that will use most of your dough to help people, not pay for administrative costs. Another great way to help alleviate poverty is by funding micro-loans to enable people in developing countries to start small businesses.

If you are feeling really ambitious, start tithing. Tithing is often associated with giving to a religious organization, but it doesn’t have to be. If you don’t belong to a church, if you’re not religious, or don’t even believe in God, you can still tithe. Find a cause you’re passionate about and donate a percentage of your income to it. It can be anything! The environment, a political organization, or a charity. Donating your money to a cause or an organization is a reflection of your values. It’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim O'Donnell April 21, 2008 at 7:25 am

It’s difficult for me to express in words just how impressed I am with The Art of Manliness. This series on the virtuous life has been outstanding and a great encouragement to me. I was first introduced to Franklin’s virtues in a Franklin Day Planner class and I’ve been studying his virtues and trying to apply them to my life ever since. In a world filled with so much negativity and selfishness, it’s nice to find an oasis of sincerity and good sense like your blog. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to when I get online.

2 Granata April 21, 2008 at 7:26 am

Regarding politics. I’ve made an effort in recent months to vote as often as possible when my state has something on the table (which is often in Oklahoma). It feels good to do my civic duty by researching the pros and cons of a proposal and making a decision on my own instead of voting by party or just doing what Talk Radio tells me to do. It felt really good when I switched party affiliations last year, but that’s another topic altogether.

3 Brett McKay April 21, 2008 at 7:43 am

@Jim-Wow, thank you very much for your kind words. Sometimes we get so many negative comments, we wonder if anyone appreciates the site. People like you keeps us going.

@Granata-Informed voting really does make you feel good. My wife is a history professor at TCC and on the day of the presidential primary she asked her classes how many people were planning on voting. Out of 60 students, only 4 raised their hand. Somehow we need to make civic duty cool and interesting again for young people.

4 Granata April 21, 2008 at 8:20 am

@Brett McKay – You mean Rock the Vote and Vote or Die aren’t effective? What we need to do is find a way to make participating in government more like a first person shooter. On second thought, that might conflict with the military’s efforts.

5 Brett McKay April 21, 2008 at 9:30 am

@Granata-Nice. Yeah, maybe the government should off deals like “Vote Here and Get a Free Copy of Halo!”

Vote or Die……nope not very effective. Apparently there are a lot of people in the 18-29 demographic lying cold in their graves since 2004.

6 Rocketboy April 21, 2008 at 12:15 pm

I loved this article but I must disagree on one point. If you love justice, stay the heck away from politics. The state has been the instrument of most of the injustice ever perpetrated against humanity. Do not lend it support by campaigning for new powers for the state, or for new office holders to further the state’s oppression. Rather, work toward the dismantling of the state. Liberty and justice go hand in hand.

7 Gary Slaughter April 21, 2008 at 3:00 pm

I wouldn’t go so far as dismantling of the State, just its intrusion into every facet of our lives upon which it seems so intent. Government’s thirst for power (or perhaps that of its greatest beneficiaries, the politicians) seems to be unquenchable.

8 Corey - Simple Marriage Project April 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

I like the idea of reading noble things, but must take issue with the news sources. To me, it is great to try and hear both sides before deciding one way or another, but most news sources are all destruction and horror. It is easy to become slanting thinking everything is going wrong in the country or world.

Instead, go on a news fast. I am on month 3 and loving it. I keep up with major happenings through friends and family and the occasional headline on Yahoo. This has freed up more time with my wife and with friends. I have begun to focus more on what’s going on immediately around me. It’s great.

Keep up the good work Brett.

9 Brett McKay April 21, 2008 at 7:48 pm

@Rocketboy- I think I’m with Gary on this one. I’m all for limiting the power of government, but dismantling it completely not so much. If limiting the role of government is a goal, then you should support statesmen who will help achieve that goal. Ron Paul sounds like your kind of guy.

@Corey I like the idea of a news fast. In fact, I’ll often go days without checking in on the news. I think most news is crap. Especially 24 hour news channels. That’s why I prefer NPR or magazines like the Economist or Atlantic Monthly.

10 knytfyre April 27, 2008 at 7:42 am

Like Jim, I have begun to really enjoy the time I get to read the articles here on AoM, and look forward to seeing an email announcing a new posting. My parents divorced when I was 7, and from that time on I lived with my mother and my sister. Being the only boy in a house with no constant male role-model, I never quite developed many of the manly virtues. Reading AoM has really began to turn my life around. I was very much a 36 year old teenager. Where once I spent my free time gaming, I have now developed a love for the outdoors and the little labors that often come with owning a house. The Franklin’s virtuous life postings have been of particular use for me, helping me to shrug off the clinging teenager and fully embrace what it is to become a grown man, something I was fought with all my strength.

As for this posting about justice, I feel this my be Franklin’s most difficult virtue to implement yet. Justice being ethereal requires us to first understand in ourselves what Justice even is. The other virtues were much more concrete in their definitions and easily nailed down to particular actions, where Justice requires us to learn what it is in the first place, then to work to make it happen. It is not simply a change one makes in ourselves, but a change we make in our world. I saw the program mentioned about people verbally abusing someone and no one stopping to help. It is a terrible thing and that, along with this posting, have made me realize one simple truth. Justice is found in looking outward rather than inward. We as men must defend those that are unable to defend themselves, we must do what we would want others to do if it were us, our spouse, our children, or any other loved one in that situation. Too many times in the ultra-connected world we choose to look only to ourselves and leave the rest to do the same. It is this apathy that has us where we are today. It’s time to take our eyes off of watching only what is ours, and see the world. But that is not enough, when we see the world, we must take action, and that my friends, is the truly scary part.

11 Brett McKay April 27, 2008 at 10:57 am

@Kyntfyre-I am glad you are enjoying AoM. Good to have you here. I think of lot of guys, like you, grew up without the influence of a father or positive male role model. Part of the reason I started AoM was to create a resource for those guys to encourage them in their path of becoming better men.

12 Ken May 15, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Digg led me to this site yesterday, and I must say it’s terrific! Bring back real men!

On the subject of Justice, however, I think there is much confusion today with respect to its definition. Too many today define justice as equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, then use this to justify taking things away from those who work hard to give to those who are able but lazy. Just because your friend has earned a nice house and car because he’s taken risks and worked 80-hour weeks doesn’t mean you deserve the same while you’re sitting on your butt and playing it safe.

I fear that the lazy are on their way to becoming a majority in this country, and once they do, what’s prevent them from voting all kinds of juicy entitlements for themselves at the expense of the hard-working risk takers?

13 Kieron May 20, 2008 at 4:30 am


How should a man apply justice when they see a person who’s getting a beating on the street? Get involved? Call the police?

14 Brett May 20, 2008 at 9:14 am

@Kieron-I think it’s a gut call. It depends on the amount of violence and the intensity of what is going on. If the dude who’s doing the harassing has escalated into a the violence into a full on beating or if he looks like you might be able to take him if it should come to that, or if it seems that if you don’t intervene immediately the victim is going to die or be caused serious harm, than its best to step in. If these things are not the case, it is probably best to call the police. At any rate, the thing to do would be to try to defuse the situation, not get involved in a fistfight.

15 Nova September 12, 2008 at 8:26 pm

I would just add the warning/reminder that stepping in is NOT always the best thing to do when you see a woman being publically mistreated. It is hard to judge what action to take, because you don’t know that your interference won’t cause the woman even worse repercussions when they’re next in private.

Instead if you are interested in mitigating violence against women I would recommend focussing on its root causes and doing things like: talking about physical/sexual violence amongst your other male friends; calling your friends out on it when you think or know they’re perpetrating some kind of violence; not letting it slide when other men use denigrating language against women; raise your sons to be respectful and appreciative of women; etc.

16 Jonathan August 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

This has been an interesting series. I applaud your efforts to resurrect the real manliness in modern men.
About stepping in: Most of this worlds evil is done by those with good intentions. (Or, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.) We can practice justice by not initiating force against anyone. We can not protect people, especially from their own stupidity by using force. We CAN however persuade them to choose of their own free will to make smart choices and thereby avoid most of life’s evils. On the other hand, in some cases, we can use force to help those who specifically choose to ask for our protection.
If you want to participate in a charitable effort, try the FIRST Foundation ( That is where I help my community. It is probably the most important and effective non-profit I have ever seen. They have partners all over the world doing the same projects (

17 Manuel November 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm


Wow Brett, I am amazed when you say you get so many negative comments. I also think this site is really wonderful! I can’t even remember how I ended up here, but after my first visit I was hooked!

Just ignore all the negative people…they have no idea what they are talking about. It’s only natural to have people criticize you, no matter WHAT you do. You can never please everyone, nor should you even WANT to! In fact, I think the more profound someone’s thoughts the more some people will object to it, because the truth often hurts!

I think your site brings a lot of value to men who are willing to THINK about their lives and not just live on autopilot, so I hope you continue with it.

Greetings from the Netherlands!


18 Anne January 1, 2014 at 3:40 am

Can you give me names of people who possesses the virtue justice?

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