In writing these blogs, I have tried to alternate those blogs which I regard as abstract and difficult to understand with blogs that are easier for folks to grasp. The difficult blogs are normally blogs on scholars or issues that are complicated and abstract, but which are important for people to try to grasp in order to understand the way forward out of the incipient nihilism of our political culture. This week, I am going to visit and, in some sense, revisit the issue of the reality of universals, specifically Justice.
To some degree, we all believe in the reality of justice. As parents, Kathy and I have raised four children. In each case, there has come a day when each child has said to us, “That is not fair.” It could be about one child getting an extra helping of food at dinner or about a gift given to one child that was larger or more expensive than what was given to another. It could be about a family decision made by the parents. In each case, the child did not think “I don’t like what my parents have done.” They were saying, “What my parents said or did is not just.” That is to say it was not equitable and fair to the child or children impacted. We are all just like this.
When we say something like a governmental decision is not fair or just, we are not just stating our opinion, we are making a claim about the nature of reality (or at least we think we are). How are we to understand what it means to claim that something is unjust? That is the subject of this blog.
Realism and Nominalism
Let us begin with the notion of universals. There are some words that we apply not to individual material things but to categories of things or to things which are not material. For example, there is no material reality called, “Goodness” or “Truth” or “Beauty.” There are a lot of such universal ideas, one of which is the notion of Justice. In the history of philosophy there are two basic ways of treating universals: as mere names we give to experiences (nominalism) or as realities that exist independently of our perception of them (realism). There are various schools of thought as to each of these notions, but in the end either universals are real or they are just names.
If we take universals to be mere names, then their reference has to be dealt with reductively in some way. For example, “beautiful” does not mean “You are beautiful and no one can argue with that fact.” It means something like, “I consider you beautiful.” In the case of morals, “Chastity is a moral good” becomes something like, “I prefer chastity” but it does not refer to a real moral good applicable to all people. In the case of justice, it becomes something like “I approve of this decision because it benefits me or my group.” There is not, however, any ground “in the being of the universe” for opinions about Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Justice.
Justice and Political Life
These blogs are about political life. If you recall, the ancients believed that the purpose of government was the creation of a just social order. You might remember Augustine’s statement that without justice a government was simply a band of robbers. Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and most of the tradition of which Christianity is a part thought that justice was something real, that is something that exists independently of what I or anyone else thinks is just. They also felt that government was not simply a matter of getting and using power according to the personal preferences of the ruler or a particular political party. They felt that justice was real and that rulers could be fairly examined from the universal perspective of justice.
Plato, whose thought forms the basis for this blog, thought of Justice as a real thing. He was not, however, unaware that it was not “real” in the sense of being something material or a material force acting upon material things. Instead, for Plato Justice was a form of an invisible reality that existed independently of whatever you or I or anyone else thought was just. Justice was a “form” or a noetic (ideational) reality. This is exactly what Augustine or Aquinas would have thought, with the difference that they would have seen justice as one of those invisible realities that God has created.
What does it mean to be Real?
Plato, in one of his most famous and important passages says the following:
I suggest that everything which possesses any power of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause, though it be only on one occasion, has real existence. For I set up as a definition which defines being, that it is nothing else but power. 
In order to understand exactly what Plato is saying, one needs to understand the Greek word translated “power” in English. The word Dunamis” in Greek does mean “power,” but it also means “force,” “strength,” “ability,” or capacity. “Power” can refer to material power, moral power, intellectual, or spiritual power, as it does when referring to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
We think of power as a material force. This is not at all what Plato or those who followed him would have thought. When Plato says that anything that has power has real being, he is including moral, spiritual, intellectual as well as material, physical power. He is also including ability and capacity as powers which confer reality. Thus, a concept, such as “justice,” that has the ability to shape human activity has a real noetic, intellectual reality. Its content includes but is not limited to the idea of material force as power.
The second thing to notice about this definition is that it does not restrict itself to active power to produce change in another. Things which have the capacity to be changed are also real. Thus, justice is real both because it can change behavior but also because it has the ability to be changed by the thoughts and behavior of human beings. This is another way of saying that justice is a matter of relations.  It is a relational concept. Its meaning can and does emerge in the context of human life and human decision-making.
This is where I would like to go back to a point made in prior blogs when discussing the work of the philosophers C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce. Beginning with Peirce, philosophers began to understand how signs and therefore human thought works in a deeper and more important way. Every claim about reality involves a sign, a signified thing, and an interpreter. If I say, “There is my daughter’s dog” I am using the word “dog” to signify a reality different than the word itself, which is my daughter’s dog. In addition, I am interpreting my complex perception that the object before me is a golden doodle owned by my daughter. Therefore, every communication has a sign, a thing signified and an interpreter.
When I say, “Murder is unjust” I am interpreting with the word “unjust” a complex set of circumstances before me an am claiming that the situation I am describing is not compatible with justice. In the same way, any claim that something is just involves a set of circumstances outside the interpreter, the words that embody the interpretation, and the interpretation of the interpreter. In addition, there is always and must always be a chance that others will look at the same situation and say, “No, this was not murder; it was justifiable homicide.”
More importantly, claims like “This was murder” occur in a particular society with a particular legal system which evolves over time. Over may years of decisions, interpreters have sensed that there are different kinds and degrees of murder. There are some murders that are justified and others that are not. There are defenses to claims of murder. In other words, our justice system is a long, multi-generational conversation about what constitutes justice. Every time a new circumstance arises, every new pattern of facts enriches and grows our notion of justice. This is not true only for our example of murder but for all the myriad kinds of situations in which the phrases “This is just” or “This is unjust” might apply.
The Eternal Conversation
Where a society has ceased to believe in the reality of Justice and in the eternal search to uncover its content and meaning, there are bound to be attempts to impose by power and deceit the conclusions of a particular group or elite. It is only when we recognize that the search for “a just society” involves a conversation concerning emerging situations to which no final answer can be found, but only gradually unfolded during the course of human history, that the wisdom and patience that sustains freedom can be maintained. We see every evidence in our society that the loss of faith in the reality of universals is impacting the honesty and stability of our political and social institutions.
Conclusion for the Week
The status of universals is important. C. S. Peirce thought that the lack of belief in the reality of universals was one of the defining weaknesses of modern thought that undermined, among other things, the search for scientific truth. Science depends upon the critical analysis of a reality that it seeks to understand that exists outside of the mind and emotions of the scientist. In the same way, the search for God, for Truth, for Beauty, for Goodness, and for justice requires that we believe that in some way we are looking for a reality that exists beyond ourselves and the manipulative potential of the human mind. 
I am going to be returning to the issue of the reality of universal values before this series is over because I, with Peirce and others, believe that it is of fundamental importance for the modern world and modern societies to recover a belief in their reality. To quote Michael Polanyi:
Those who declare that these ideals have no real substance and that only the interests and power of particular groups are real, inevitably attach their aspirations for equity and brotherhood to the struggle of a particular party for power. Their ultimate reliance and all their love and devotion are attached to this residue of reality, the power of the chosen party. … But if the citizens are dedicated to certain transcendent obligations and particularly to such general ideals as truth, justice, charity, and those are embodied in the tradition of the community to which allegiance is maintained, a great many issues between citizens, and all to some extent, can be left—and are necessarily left—for the individual conscience to decide. The moment, however, a community seeks to be dedicated through its members to transcendent ideals, it can continue to exist undisrupted only be submission to a single centre of unlimited secular power. 
As mentioned above, I will return to this theme in the course of these blogs, for it is an important theme for the development and restoration of our democracy. For the time being it is enough to understand that there are real world consequences to our societal loss of faith in the reality of unseen values. As I said in another context: “If there is no such thing as truth and justice, if we are not constrained in our political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in our political lives with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters. A society which has lost its belief in transcendent ideals has turned onto a road leading to tyranny. If, however, a society believes in the reality of transcendent moral and ethical ideals such as truth, justice, tolerance, and charity, and serves these ideals, the foundation of a free society can be maintained even in the face of conflict and uncertainty.” 
Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 Plato, The Sophist 247e.
 This particular notion was suggested to me by, among other persons, Daniel A. Dombrowske, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005).
 Charles S. Peirce, The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972). For Peirce, the real is that which exists independently of our ideas of it, that is independently of our perceptions, theories, or capacities. Id, at 57. These are noetic realities that exist not in material form but in the human mind. Such general ideas are not infinitely manipulatable but subject to the rules of logic and thought appropriate to the subject matter. Id, at 60.
 Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 78-79.
 G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 160.The term “reality” is used here as referring to intellectual and moral ideals which act as a goal and as an active component of decision-making. These intellectual and moral ideals, such as “Truth” and Justice,” exist independently of our subjective choice and are progressively revealed as we participate in the disciplined attempt to uncover them as part of a community of inquiry and practice.