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13. Justice is an attribute of benevolence.
This term also expresses a state or phenomenon of the sensibility. As an attribute of benevolence, it is the opposite of mercy, when viewed in its relations to crime. It consists in a disposition to treat every moral agent according to his intrinsic desert or merit. In its relations to crime, the criminal, and the public, it consists in a tendency to punish according to law. Mercy would pardon justice would punish for the public good.
Justice, as a feeling or phenomenon of the sensibility, is a feeling that the guilty deserves punishment, and a desire that he may be punished. This is an involuntary feeling, and has no moral character. It is often strongly excited, and is frequently the cause of mobs and popular commotions. When it takes the control of the will, as it often does with sinners, it leads to what is popularly called lynching, and a resort to those summary methods of executing vengeance which are so appalling.
I have said that the mere desire has no moral character. But when the will is governed by this desire, and yields itself up to seek its gratification, this state of will is selfishness under one of its most odious and frightful forms. Under the providence of God, however, this form of selfishness, like every other in its turn, is overruled for good, like earthquakes, tornadoes, pestilence, and war, to purify the moral elements of society, and scourge away those moral nuisances with which communities are sometimes infested. Even war itself is often but an instance and an illustration of this.
Justice, as an attribute of benevolence, is virtue, and exhibits itself in the execution of the penalties of the law, and in support of public order, and in various other ways for the well-being of mankind. There are several modifications of this attribute. That is, it may and must be viewed under various aspects, and in various relations. One of these is public justice. This is a regard to the public interests, and secures a due administration of law for the public good. It will in no case suffer the execution of the penalty to be set aside, unless something be done to support the authority of the law and of the lawgiver. It also secures the due administration of rewards, and looks narrowly after the public interests, always insisting that the greater interest shall prevail over the lesser; that private interest shall never set aside or prejudice a public one of greater value. Public justice is modified in its exercise by the attribute of mercy. It conditionates the exercise of mercy, and mercy conditionates its exercise. Mercy cannot, consistently with this attribute, extend a pardon but upon conditions of repentance, and an equivalent being rendered to the government. So, on the other hand, justice is conditionated by mercy, and cannot, consistently with that attribute, proceed to take vengeance when the highest good does not require it, when punishment can be dispensed with without public loss. Thus these attributes mutually limit each other's exercise, and render the whole character of benevolence perfect, symmetrical, and heavenly.
Justice is reckoned among the sterner attributes of benevolence; but it is indispensable to the filling up of the entire circle of moral perfections. Although solemn and awful, and sometimes inexpressibly terrific in its exercise, it is nevertheless one of the glorious modifications and manifestations of benevolence. Benevolence without justice would be anything but morally lovely and perfect. Nay, it could not be benevolence. This attribute of benevolence appears conspicuous in the character of God as revealed in His law, in His gospel, and sometimes as indicated most impressively by His providence.
It is also conspicuous in the history of inspired men. The Psalms abound with expressions of this attribute. We find many prayers for the punishment of the wicked. Samuel hewed Agag in pieces; and David's writings abound in expressions that show, that this attribute was strongly developed in his mind; and the circumstances under which he was placed, often rendered it proper to express and manifest in various ways the spirit of this attribute. Many have stumbled at such prayers, expressions, and manifestations as are here alluded to. But this is for want of due consideration. They have supposed that such exhibitions were inconsistent with a right spirit. Oh, they say, how unevangelical! How un-Christ-like! How inconsistent with the sweet and heavenly spirit of Christ and of the gospel! But this is all a mistake. These prayers were dictated by the Spirit of Christ. Such exhibitions are only the manifestations of one of the essential attributes of benevolence. Those sinners deserved to die. It was for the greatest good that they should be made a public example. This the Spirit of inspiration knew, and such prayers, under such circumstances, are only an expression of the mind and will of God. They are truly the spirit of justice pronouncing sentence upon them. These prayers and such-like things found in the Bible, are no vindication of the spirit of fanaticism and denunciation that so often have taken shelter under them. As well might fanatics burn cities and lay waste countries, and seek to justify themselves by an appeal to the destruction of the old world by flood, and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire and brimstone.
Retributive justice is another modification of this attribute. This consists in a disposition to visit the offender with that punishment which he deserves, because it is fit and proper that a moral agent should be dealt with according to his deeds. In a future lecture I shall enlarge upon this modification of justice.