Madison Vision Series

The virtue of individual justice


Logo for Madison Vision Series Contemporary issues in an engaged society

Justice William C. Mims’s message to James Madison University was simple, but striking: justice is something we can do, something we can strive for each day at the individual level. And in turn, we can improve the quality of our society piece by piece.

On Sept. 17, 2014, JMU welcomed Justice Mims back to his hometown of Harrisonburg, Va. In a celebration of Constitution Day, he presented the first lecture in this academic year’s Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society.

Since Justice Mims graduated from Harrisonburg High School, he has served in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, was the Attorney General of Virginia as well as Chief Deputy Attorney General and is now a Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. He joined JMU in commemorating James Madison and Constitution Day with his presentation, “Be It Ever So Humble: Justice as a Virtue.”

In our society, the word “justice” often refers to criminal, civil, procedural and social justice as types of societal or systematic justice, describing desired goals or systems within the state. But, Justice Mims challenged the audience to dig deeper: what about the virtue of individual justice?

Explaining the Hebrew words mishpat and tzedakah, Justice Mims described that mishpat refers to “evenhanded justice, fairness and treating everyone the same.” Tzedakah, on the other hand, is created by nurturing “a system for the fair distribution of goods, services and opportunities.”

What follows is that mishpat represents individual justice while tzedakah is the result of it—societal justice. Drawing them together, Justice Mims said, “Surely the cultivation of just citizens help[s] us to achieve a just society.” Being the change, as our mantra says, begins within ourselves, and we do not have to wait for politicians or other leaders to enact it for us.

“Justice is indeed the humble virtue,” said Mims, which means that “just” individuals often do justice silently and without recognition. “Those who practice it would rather help others than promote themselves. But, they are our neighbors, our coworkers and our friends.”

His speech guided listeners through centuries of debate over the concept of justice, stretching from Plato and Socrates, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King Junior. Looking out at members of the JMU community, Mims was reminded that these discussions have resounded through the ages. And, he wondered, are the faculty and students of JMU also committed to imparting rectitude of mind?

“The evidence is the Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, JMU’s innovative program to prepare students to be educated and enlightened citizens who live productive and meaningful lives,” he said. “And the answer is yes.”

Justice Mims was proud to share his hope that, through programs like JMU’s Madison Collaborative, the virtue of individual justice will flourish in the 21st century.

If we remind ourselves that justice is a virtue—one that, in fact, appears in Plato’s writings as among the highest aspirations of the individual—we can contribute to the change we wish to see at JMU and in the world. Indeed, it is a noble virtue that is more concerned with others than with the self.

“Women and men of James Madison University,” he concluded, “make ripples, do justice.”

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By Rosemary Girard (’15)

Published: Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Last Updated: Friday, September 1, 2017

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