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Adam Smith on the legitimacy of using force to ensure justice (1759)

Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that justice is the only virtue which may be imposed by force:

There is, however, another virtue, of which the observance is not left to the freedom of our own wills, which may be extorted by force, and of which the violation exposes to resentment, and consequently to punishment. This virtue is justice: the violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of. It is, therefore, the proper object of resentment, and of punishment, which is the natural consequence of resentment.

There is, however, another virtue, of which the observance is not left to the freedom of our own wills, which may be extorted by force, and of which the violation exposes to resentment, and consequently to punishment. This virtue is justice: the violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of. It is, therefore, the proper object of resentment, and of punishment, which is the natural consequence of resentment. As mankind go along with, and approve of, the violence employed to avenge the hurt which is done by injustice, so they much more go along with, and approve of, that which is employed to prevent and beat off the injury, and to restrain the offender from hurting his neighbours. The person himself who meditates an injustice is sensible of this, and feels that force may, with the utmost propriety, be made use of, both by the person whom he is about to injure, and by others, either to obstruct the execution of his crime, or to punish him when he has executed it. And upon this is founded that remarkable distinction between justice and all the other social virtues, which has of late been particularly insisted upon by an author of very great and original genius, that we feel ourselves to be under a stricter obligation to act according to justice, than agreeably to friendship, charity, or generosity; that the practice of these last-mentioned virtues seems to be left in some measure to our own choice, but that, somehow or other, we feel ourselves to be in a peculiar manner tied, bound, and obliged, to the observation of justice. We feel, that is to say, that force may, with the utmost propriety, and with the approbation of all mankind, be made use of to constrain us to observe the rules of the one, but not to follow the precepts of the other.

About this Quotation:

This passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is the companion piece to the quote on not using force to promote beneficence. Because justice is “the pillar” which holds up the edifice of society, and because its violation causes “real and positive hurt” to individuals, Smith believes it is the only “social virtue” which can be imposed by the use of force. Furthermore, the violence can be used by the individual whose “justice” is being violated, as well as by others (who are not specified but might include that individual’s friends and neighbors), since Smith argues in the following passage that “among equals each individual is naturally, and antecedent to the institution of civil government, regarded as having a right both to defend himself from injuries, and to exact a certain degree of punishment for those which have been done to him.” Smith’s dislike of the use of force to enforce any other social virtue other than justice is intense and concludes that “upon all such occasions, for equals to use force against one another, would be thought the highest degree of insolence and presumption.”

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