According to Aristotle, Justice is the proper moderation between self-interest, the rights and needs of others, and rendering to each person what is deserved.
We most often think of “Justice” in the legal sense: the system of enforcement of laws, including punishment for committing crimes. But the virtue of Justice is much more than merely administering laws and regulations. At a basic level, the essence of justice is that people are given their due. There is a measure of precision in Justice, because to do so requires a person to weigh and measure what another deserves. Unlike the other three virtues which deal primarily with self-governing, Justice is a virtue that applies to how we treat others.
How does the ordinary person employ the virtue of Justice? Is Justice only for courts and police? Of course not.
Like all the virtues, the ordinary person can develop the virtue of Justice by treating others fairly in their common dealings. Paying a fair price for what you buy is Justice, as is repaying a loan promptly and in full. Taking responsibility for a failure in the workplace and not allowing another to take the blame is also a form of Justice. In fact, we have the opportunity to apply Justice in all of our personal, professional and familial relationships. Justice need not have a negative connotation, such as “bringing a criminal to Justice.” It can, and should be, a positive virtue where we understand and willingly accept our responsibilities to others.
Like all virtues, we can abuse Justice as well. If we weigh competing needs unequally, or a person’s application or desire for Justice overwhelms Universal Human Goods (such as Truth), then Justice can easily transform into the vices vengeance or lawlessness. Justice as a virtue is not an end in and of itself – it is a means where we, as individuals and as a society, protect human dignity.
Justice’s other traveling companion is Mercy. Mercy allows us to temper raw justice so we respect Universal Human Goods and inflict no unnecessary harm in the name of Justice. For example, in many countries, automobile operators are considered “professional drivers” and are criminally liable for vehicular accidents. Justice demands criminal sanction in some cases, but Mercy applied by those in authority, when appropriate, prevents people from going to jail for routine “fender benders”.
Raw Justice would fill jails, Mercy ensures only actual criminals go there.