The same conclusion relative to the nature of justice follows from an examination of particular laws which are designed to regulate both the holding and the use of property. The right of an individual to own property and to do with it whatever he pleases is considered to be just but only so long as this policy is in harmony with the best interests of society as a whole. When, as a result of this policy, the distribution of wealth enables some people to live in idleness and luxury while others must suffer from privation and a denial of opportunities to enjoy the good things of life, the situation is changed and the principles of justice that were formerly recognized can be followed no longer.
It was for the purpose of correcting a situation of this kind that the so-called Levellers advocated an equal distribution of wealth to all the members of society. This was done in the name of justice and for the purpose of serving in a more satisfactory manner the interests of all the people. This system was obviously an impracticable one, as we are informed not only by historians but even by ordinary common sense. This ideal of perfect equality in spite of the noble purpose which inspired it turned out to be extremely pernicious to human society. Men are not equal in their abilities to perform the various tasks which are necessary in any well-ordered society. Neither do they possess the same degree of industry or care concerning the quality of work which they perform. To treat them all alike without regard to their abilities or their habits of industry will tend to discourage thrift and initiative on the part of the more capable members of society and encourage laziness and lack of responsibility on the part of others.
Because a perfect equality of possessions does not serve the best interests of society, the principles of justice must be reformulated in a way that will avoid these unfortunate consequences. Concerning the laws that are designed to regulate the holding of property, Hume tells us that "we must be acquainted with the nature and situation of man, must reject appearances which may be false though specious; and must search for those rules which are, on the whole, useful and beneficial."
There are instances in which the interests of society appear to be served by regulations which apply to a single person rather than to people in general. For example, it has been maintained that the first possession of a piece of property entitles one to ownership of that property. Under certain conditions, the enforcement of this rule does not work a hardship on any of the members of the community. However, when these conditions have changed, it is considered just and proper to violate any or all of the regulations concerning private property, provided that the welfare of society can be secured in no other way.
A person's property is anything which it is lawful for him and for him alone to use. The rule by which this lawfulness is determined is that the welfare and happiness of society take precedence over everything else. Without this consideration, most, if not all, of the laws pertaining to justice and the holding of property would be meaningless or else grounded on some vague superstition of the people. "The necessity of justice to the support of society is the sole foundation of that virtue; and since no moral excellence is more highly esteemed, we may conclude that this circumstance of usefulness has, in general, the strongest energy and most entire command over our sentiments."
Justice is the most widely acclaimed of the social virtues just as benevolence is so recognized among the individual virtues. The two are closely related since both of them have to do with promoting the welfare of other persons rather than serving exclusively one's own individual interests. They differ chiefly in the object to which generosity is extended. Benevolence is usually expressed in the attitude one takes toward the happiness and well-being of individuals, while justice is concerned with the welfare of society as a whole. The importance of justice in human affairs can be seen from the fact that government by law is based on this concept. Lawyers who are candidates for membership in a bar association are usually required to state under oath that they will use their offices in support of the principles of justice and will never act contrary to these principles in order to obtain personal benefits for themselves.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, justice was regarded as the all-inclusive virtue which was practically synonymous with righteous living. It had essentially the same meaning for individuals that it did for the state. Plato's Republic, for example, was an attempt on the part of the author to set forth the meaning of justice or what would be involved in living at one's best. The good life, as he described it, consisted in the harmonious functioning of the elements included in human nature. This applied to the activities carried on by the state in the same way that it did to the different capacities that were present in the case of each citizen.
Hume's discussion concerning justice is for the purpose of indicating both the origin and the nature of this all-important virtue. As he understands it, the real nature of justice cannot be understood apart from its origin in the experience of human beings. The usefulness of justice like that of benevolence is something that no one ever questions. It is obvious that both of these virtues contribute in many ways toward the happiness and the security of people in general.
But whether usefulness in promoting the welfare of society is in itself sufficient to account for the universal approval that is accorded to justice is something that has been open to question, and it is on this point that the inquiry is pursued. Hume is convinced that utility alone is a sufficient basis for recognizing the obligations of justice, and the arguments which he presents are for the purpose of supporting this conviction.
One of the reasons which he advances for believing that justice is dependent on the existence of certain conditions in human society is the fact that when all the needs of society are supplied, no one is aware of any individual rights and hence there is no need for justice as a means for protecting them. This view has something in common with the one advocated by Thomas Hobbes in the early part of the seventeenth century. Hobbes had maintained that in the original state of humanity, which is that of a "war of all against all," there are no principles of justice since everyone is free to do whatever he pleases.
Since this is an intolerable state of affairs which offers no adequate protection to anyone, individuals agree among themselves to surrender whatever rights they possess to a sovereign state. The state will then enact laws, and it is with the establishment of these rules of conduct that justice comes into existence. Because justice is the creation of the government that is in power, it will continue only so long as that state endures.
Hume agrees that justice has a beginning, and it is quite possible that it may have an end, but he does not identify justice with the decrees of any government that may be in power. Instead, he maintains that justice comes into existence to meet the needs of people which are not supplied in any other way. One may imagine a society in which all the needs of all the people are supplied. In a society of that kind, there is no need for justice, and consequently it would not exist.
Something like this is what we observe with respect to the air we breathe and the water we drink. No one would think of enacting laws to regulate the use of either air or water so long as there is an abundant supply of both and no one is ever injured by the amount that is consumed by others. Now, if all the commodities of human life were as free as air and water, no one would need to be concerned in the least about justice.
Justice, according to Hume, arises only when the goods that are needed by human beings are not available to the extent that everyone can use all that they want without depriving others of the things that are necessary to satisfy their needs. Justice is for the purpose of regulating the distribution of the goods in society in the most equitable manner that is possible. There is no exact formula for doing this that will meet the needs of every situation that may arise.
While it is true that the demands of justice will necessarily be stated in terms of general rules of conduct, it must be recognized that there is no rule that will be exactly what is needed for every particular occasion. Situations may develop in which it will be necessary to suspend the rules that under ordinary conditions would be observed. For example, in case of fire, flood, shipwreck, or famine, the rules pertaining to private property will be set aside in order to preserve human life. In times of war and other emergencies, the usual demands of justice are disregarded for the sake of some larger and more-inclusive good. Again, in the punishment of criminals we do not hesitate to deprive them of their property or their liberty, although in the case of law-abiding citizens, it would be considered a transgression of their rights to do anything of that kind.
In the second part of his discussion of justice, Hume illustrates the transitory nature of this virtue by calling attention to the fact that no hard and fast rules can be set up for the distribution of property. Justice exists for the purpose of meeting the needs of society, and what will accomplish this end in one set of circumstances will not do at all when other conditions are present. To permit any individual to accumulate all that he can without violating the laws of the land will lead to unfortunate consequences. It gives to some persons far more than they need or will use in a manner that is good either for themselves or for the rest of society. At the same time, this method of distributing wealth makes it quite impossible for some persons to have as much as they really need.
Neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty are in the best interests of society as a whole. When these conditions have existed, there have been times when an attempt was made to correct the situation by giving to each person an equal share of the available wealth. Since the concept of justice is usually interpreted to mean some kind of equality, it might seem that this was a just way of distributing property. But this method fails to meet the needs of society since it ignores the matter of merit and gives to the undeserving on the same basis that it gives to the deserving. Obviously, then, the purposes of justice can be realized only by adapting the methods that are used to the particular situation that is involved.
Do these arguments support the thesis that justice is a relative virtue, the nature of which is constantly changing with the different circumstances that arise? This appears to be Hume's position, and it is presented in contrast to the rationalistic interpretation of justice, which is that of an eternal or unchanging ideal that is not influenced by the conditions which exist in space and time. What Hume has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt is that our human understanding of justice does vary from one time to another. He has also made it clear that the application of the principles of justice will vary with the circumstances under which they are applied.
But neither of these two points is sufficient to prove that there is nothing which remains constant about the nature of justice. Indeed, Hume's own discussion of the subject seems to imply that there is an unchanging element in justice, for he insists that its purpose is always that of meeting the needs of society. While it is true, as Hume has pointed out, that virtues do not exist apart from feelings of approval and disapproval, it is also true that feelings alone are not sufficient to account for a sense of duty or obligation. There is a rationalistic element and a feeling element involved in the nature of justice or any other virtue. It is always a mistake to interpret virtues as belonging wholly to the one or the other.