Jean PORTER.  Justice as a Virtue: A Thomistic Perspective.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. pp. 286.  $40.00 pb.  ISBN: 978-0-8028-7325-5.  Reviewed by James T. BRETZKE, S.J., Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


Works on Thomas Aquinas’ ethics tend to fall into one of two broad models.  The Explanatory Model usually is an extended commentary that accompanies a close reading of the text(s) but which generally does not move too far afield from what the Angelic Doctor himself expounded in the 13th Century.  The Exploratory Model locates the discussion clearly in reference to Thomas, but branches out to consider how Aquinas’ basic thought might illuminate or break open the relevant ethical themes in a new and creative way.  Much of Notre Dame moral theologian Jean Porter’s past work tends to fall into this latter category, but her current offering seems to aim to unite these two models into what might be a metaphorical version of Thomistic string theory—articulating what Thomas says not only about “justice” or “virtue,” but how these terms fit together and can be expounded with everything else in his theological ethics.

The central thesis of this considerable undertaking appears to be deceptively simple: the Summa theologiae portrays justice as a central virtue aimed at the perfection of the human will.  A virtuous person therefore aims at cultivating those moral habits which ultimately aid in perfecting one’s will such that truly just actions and choices are more easily desired and put into action.  The bulk of the book is a revised version of lectures given elsewhere, primarily the Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2011.

Chapter 1 outlines in detail the Summa theologiae’s understandings of both “virtue” and “justice.”  Chapter 2 builds on this by investigating virtue and vice in relation to the human will.  Chapter 3 then presents justice under the rubric of a moral ideal and Chapter 4 continues the trajectory by moving from ideal to law, and finally the concluding Chapter 5 brings together reason, justice, virtue, morality in an integrating perfection of the will.

The book as a whole could serve as a reasonable exposition of the whole of Thomas’ theological ethics.  Porter goes into considerable detail on most every topic, and so one gets a bit of the impression of being down in the weeds a lot of time and risks losing sight of the overall landscape.  While Porter herself does not endeavor to make too many connections to contested areas in contemporary ethics or Catholic moral theology, one certainly can build on any number of her seminal insights to bring resources to current debates on intrinsic evil, the potential moral status of those in irregular marriages, as well as to both critique and augment much of Western virtue ethics—especially in countering the problematic of the vanishing moral norms exacerbated by an excessive individualism. While these insights cannot easily be boiled down to a 140 character tweet, reflection on Porter’s work would be very helpful in probing some of the political debates raging in various parts of the world today in trying to make justice great(er) again, recovering a realistic notion of the common good, as well as expanding our understanding of a variety of approaches to human rights discourse.

While Porter does acknowledge some important work on the moral emotions I believe she (and most moral theologians of whatever stripe) still pay insufficient heed to the roles of moral psychology, cultural anthropology, and the like which come together in many ways that do impact on the “will” in the construction of the “reading” of the morally relevant features of an act, as well as the various “intentions” behind the act.

Finis coronat opus often serves as a subtitle to the concluding chapter, but truly in this instance Porter does bring all the strands of the threads that she has woven together to give us a good appreciation of the goal of the perfection of the will, which is not simply “justice,” but genuine happiness.  Of course our true beatitude will only be realized in the fullness of life with God, but Porter has given us a very good, detailed roadmap of how Thomas Aquinas outlines the journey: “an account of justice as a personal virtue, a praiseworthy disposition of the will that places the individual in right relations to all those around her”(pp. 269-70).  Along the way, Porter affirms, Aquinas’ thought can certainly complement contemporary theories of justice such that the individual is drawn “to create and support certain kinds of social conventions, an inclination that is mediated through a basic disposition to love the neighbor and an informed grasp what that that means” (p. 273).  Her account is not “easy reading,” but certainly worthwhile to those who engage her text.