Justice As a Virtue

A Thomistic Perspective

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Jean Porter
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What would be the implication of understanding justice as a virtueas well as a standard or norm? In her recent monograph, Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective, Jean Porter, an established moral theologian who has written for decades on natural law theory and virtue ethics, seeks to address this question. Responding to political philosopher John Rawls’s influential liberal understanding of justice as “the first virtue of social institutions” (1), Porter aims to proffer an account of justice as a personalvirtue. The outcome is a rich, nuanced, and lucid account of a Thomistic theory of justice, which sees justice primarily as a stable disposition formed within a human agent. Yet, as Porter has long emphasized in her writings, natural law and virtue are closely intertwined in a Thomistic theory. While justice as a virtue and justice as a norm are seemingly in tension with each other, they are by no means mutually exclusive: “Aquinas grounds the right in the good without compromising its overriding force” (271). While she recognizes the necessity of impersonal institutional structures in contemporary societies, Porter also sees an immense loss in the modern eclipse of justice as personal virtue, given the role it plays in natural human flourishing. 

Based on her perfectionist framework, in chapter 1 Porter provides an outline of the Thomistic theory of virtue, and the virtue of justice in particular. Justice for Aquinas is a virtue of the willas well as a normative idealintrinsic to a “distinctively human way of life” (16). Unlike other virtues stemming from passion, justice as a virtue of the will perfects a human agent by placing her in a right relationship with others. Chapter 2 is dedicated to the issue of the will in Aquinas. According to Porter, “the will [for Aquinas] is a distinctively human kind of appetite” which depends on the human natural capacity of reason (70). For Thomas, a process of habituating justice, a habit of the will, involves an agent’s choice and her reflection on it. While a human agent has innate knowledge of the good, she also should be directed toward her final end in a self-reflective manner. 

In the third chapter, Porter turns to the topic of justice as a normative ideal. According to her, Aquinas understands the jus, the object of justice, as equality. Drawing upon Brian Tierney’s studies on natural rights, Porter claims that Aquinas’s view on right “comes very close to a contemporary notion of a subjective natural or human right” (133). In this regard, Porter appears to part ways with those who have denounced contemporary rights-talk as a serious aberration from the Christian tradition by pointing to its strong linkage with acquisitive individualism and secular modernity (e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank). While individual rights can be constrained by the common good, nevertheless “the individual has to have the authority to set certain limits on the constraints of others” (146). In Porter’s reading of Aquinas, we humans have access to the demands of justice in the form of others’ claim on us, with the aid of the self-evident first principle of justice withinus. 

In chapter 4, Porter discusses how the precepts of justice are specified and applied in concrete situations, and thereby result in an action. Engaging with contemporary theorists of moral emotion, Porter emphasizes the import of emotions like anger in human action for justice, while carefully differentiating the will from the moral emotion. In the final chapter, Porter, focusing on the topic of the perfection of the will, joins the longstanding debate over the relationship between eudaemoniaand justice. She concludes that if justice as a virtue perfects a human agent, it does so by “bringing her into a right relation of some kind” (248). Therefore, while there canbe a tension between an agent’s love of greater goods and the demands of justice, Porter holds that human perfection is not necessarily self-referential. 

Justice as a Virtuereads like an expanded version of Porter’s discussion of justice in her 2005 Nature as Reason(Eerdmans). Porter’s virtue-centered approach to justice is grounded on an in-depth, thorough, and skillful explication of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, which is reflective of her life-long study of Aquinas and the early Scholastics. Though she consistently seeks to be faithful to the Thomistic perspective, Porter at times willingly acknowledges that she goes beyond Aquinas in an attempt to draw further implications for today’s moral theory. Putting Aquinas in dialogue with various contemporary theorists, including Rawls, Christine Korsgaard, Frans de Waal, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ronald Dworkin, and Bernard Williams, to name a few, Porter succeeds in showing that Aquinas’s theory of justice can make a significant contribution to current discussions of virtue and happiness, justice and rights, action theory, and moral psychology. 

While this book is an excellent work crafted by a first-rate scholar, this reader has a minor quibble about an omissionrather than a commission. In this volume Porter does not address the issue of “burdened virtue” raised by Lisa Tessman in her 2005 Burdened Virtues(Oxford University Press). Since Porter discusses with nuance the complicated relationship between justice and eudaemoniain chapter 5, it is a little bit of a surprise that Tessman’s well-noted challenge to the Aristotelian moral tradition is entirely absent in this chapter. To what extent would Aquinas acknowledge the contingent connection between virtue and flourishing? Is it legitimate to see the virtue of justice as a meanin an Aristotelian sense, given that there seems to be no mean for an intense sensitivity to others’ suffering in this tragic world? Would Aquinas’s emphasis on supernatural grace and his eschatology based upon the Exitus-Reditusframework somehow help resolve this tension? These questions deserve a serious response from Porter, especially when her work implicitly touches upon the issues treated with care by Tessman. This suggestion might go beyond the scope and goal of this book but is nevertheless an important concern going forward and is a possible avenue for future works building off Porter’s study. 

Justice as a Virtue is an important but dense academic work which requires and will reward a close reading. Anyone interested in Thomas Aquinas, justice theories, or virtue ethics will greatly benefit from reading this volume. For students of Thomistic moral theology, Justice as a Virtue is a must read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keunwoo Kwon is a doctoral student in Integrative Studies of Ethics and Theology at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean Porter is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her books include Natural and Divine Law and Nature as Reason.


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