Christianity, Justice and the Culture of Life

“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. But what is the meaning of justice?

Justice has been defined as the quality of being impartial, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. It implies integrity in dealing with others and conforming our lives to facts and to truth.

In Plato’s Republic, a debate between Thrasymachus and Socrates focuses on the meaning of justice. To the cynical Thrasymachus, “a just man always has the worst of it” — for the simple reason that “justice” is not something intrinsically good but only a pretty word for what is in the interest of the stronger party. Socrates utterly rejects this argument, insisting that justice is not only an intrinsic good but is central to human happiness and a well-ordered soul.

The views of Socrates find support in the Scriptures. “Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you,” the Hebrew Bible teaches us. Indeed, what Judaism and Christianity have added to our understanding of justice is the importance of caring for the weak, disadvantaged, and oppressed.

This is a central teaching of Christianity. At its core is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. These are not only a private concern but also a public one. Throughout Scripture, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited. The attitude of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche — that might makes right and the strong should rule the weak — is foreign to Judaism and biblical Christianity.

So how does this view of justice relate to particular areas like abortion?

We freely admit that some individual cases are very complicated, that the answers are not neat, easy, or obvious. Still, a few principles are clear.

First, unborn children are in fact human. The fetus is genetically complete and distinct. Unless it perishes due to natural causes or violent outside intervention, it will become a child, not a giraffe. It is a human being at a very early stage of development, just as a 99-year-old is a human being at a very late and frail state of development.

Second, eliminating a defenseless human being is a deeply problematic act. When it happens on a routine basis, it becomes a direct challenge to a society’s commitment to justice.

We accept the fact that the earliest abortions will probably not be legally restricted any time soon. Any effort to preventing early-term abortions is therefore likely to lie in the realm of persuasion rather than law. That said, incremental progress and further revelations about the humanity of unborn children can alter social attitudes over time. In fact, inroads have been made already. After reaching a national high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a low not seen since 1973. America is becoming more, not less, pro-life.

Two decades ago, many pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. Throughout much of the ’90s, the debate became colored by the clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion which helped to create greater social sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. Also contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. Not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the furthest on this issue and this trend seems likely to continue.

More broadly, in medical ethics there is a philosophical divide between utilitarianism, the belief in the greatest good for the greatest number, and the belief in the inherent dignity of every individual. At bottom, the utilitarian approach is an assertion of the power of the strong over the weak; it treats human beings as means rather than as ends. By contrast, the belief in human dignity is rooted in the Jewish-Christian tradition of regarding the protection of innocent lives as one of the primary purposes of a just society.

“It was once said that the moral test of government,” remarked Hubert Humphrey, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” These are beautiful and evocative words, and they set a worthy standard for the state.

Unborn children are at the dawn of life. A moral test of our government is how they are treated.