Hugo Grotius' Classical Conception of Justice
Hugo Grotius is increasingly portrayed as an early modern natural rights theorist. Such readings often reduce his concept of justice to the negation of offences against private property rights, and frame his politics in legal terms. Grotius indeed has a category of "expletive" (or "strict") justice, understood in terms of universal laws, which provides an individual with the necessary possession or liberty. However, the exercise of this status must then be governed by his under-explored category of "attributive" (or "wider") justice, which alone, through the exercise of political virtue, can promote positive (and public) goods. This dual framework is evident in three important aspects of Grotius' thought: political authority, criminal punishment, and Atonement theology. In the first, there is no strict obligation to enter civil society, as the natural laws and rights of expletive justice can already be enforced in extra-political society. However, attributive justice encourages entry into political society, because it allows for public governance in the particular situations where expletive justice, owing to its impersonal universality, must be silent. Likewise, the right to punish crime is not a claim on a tangible good, but a difficult responsibility. Its exercise thus requires attributive justice, whose personal, forward-looking, action-oriented character will reveal the particular punishment that best promotes the public purposes of punishment: the common good. Grotius' use of a criminal law paradigm (rather than a private law framework) is also evident in his creative understanding of how Christ's death atones for human wrongdoing. Grotius portrays God as moral governor of the universe, rather than judge or economic creditor. God then exercises (political) prudence and love in relaxing his 'expletive' right to condemn humanity, out of considerations of a higher good. This dual framework of expletive and attributive justice allows Grotius to build on the traditional understanding of commutative and distributive justice, by allowing a place for a law-based (expletive) ethics within a wider (attributive) virtue-based ethics. Thus, he shows how a robust conception of individual rights need not sever the link relating those rights to higher goods both in the political realm and beyond it.
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