In his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume offers up a number of virtues and qualities which are valued for any of four reasons: they are useful to the individual, useful to society, agreeable to the individual, or agreeable to society. One of the qualities which Hume elucidates is justice. This quality, however, according to Hume, is valued solely for its usefulness and not upon any agree ability to anyone. Hume explains his position thusly. Hume imagines a scenario in which all things are both readily available and easy to obtain. In this situation, he says, justice is worthless, as there would be no squabbling or conflict over property rights, as replacing that which someone takes from you is easily done.
In addition, Hume postulates that if all humans were perfectly benevolent, then there would be no necessity for justice. There would be no injustice, and therefore no justice either. This claim seems illogical, since by eliminating justice's opposite, then justice itself would cease to be a discernible quality and would simply be a status quo. Since this is the case, I will not address this consideration. Hume's last formal scenario is a situation of dire need, in which thousands are starving or in some other equally dire straits.
In this situation, justice (in terms of property justice) would no longer be beneficial; the landowner should neglect his just duties and provide his own commodities to those less fortunate. A final case which Hume proposes is an imagined world in which another caste of rational beings exist. These beings, however, are inferior to humanity in mind and body; they pose no threat whatsoever to man. In this case, Hume argues, there is no necessity of keeping to the laws of justice in dealing with these beings, for it is not useful. Since these entities cannot possibly harm us, nothing is gained from acting justly toward them. Therefore we might exploit them in any way.
In each of these cases, whether they entail a utopia or a dystopia, Hume argues that justice is valuable only when useful. This merits some consideration as well: it would appear that Hume believes justice to be that which enhances social utility, that is, what makes life better for the most people. I do not disagree with this statement, but I disagree with Hume's consideration of "useful." It is an elitist stance to take, and serves to only justify the dominance of the few powerful men in society to maintain the status quo. To proceed in Hume's own order, we must first examine the example of the Golden Age, the situation when all things are easily obtained. In this situation, Hume argues, the need for justice would be gone, as anything taken from you can be easily replaced. There are, however, numerous examples of this being entirely incorrect.
Take, for example, Hume's statement that this even applies to land, when it is in extreme abundance. However, you recall the Kansas Land Rush of 1889. In this situation, land was in the millions of acres, all waiting to be had, and yet dozens were killed over one small parcel of it. Jealousy and envy are not dispelled by mere abundance.
A troubling factor in Hume's explanations of justice is that they all entail property justice. And what a small part of justice that is! In Hume's utopia, then, a man whose wife leaves him for another would merely shrug his shoulders and go order a new one? And what consideration would be given, in absence of "useful" justice, to a man who was stabbed in an argument? Mere abundance of resources is hardly a thing to alleviate all problems. The second example I discarded immediately, and I will explain more fully for my reasons in doing so. By creating a world in which there is absolute benevolence, Hume has provided an easy get-out-of-jail-free argument. Obviously there is no need for justice in an absolutely benevolent world, moreover, there would not even be a word for it. If there was never any wind on earth, we would have no need for a word describing the motion of air, nor even a need for one describing its stillness.
It would merely be, and there would be no usefulness (ha ha) in even giving it a name. Any absolute (such as absolute benevolence) is somewhat foolish to introduce into a practical debate, as there is no such thing as an absolute in the physical world. Hume's last formal scenario is the most problematic to refute, but it is possible. Hume, in saying that justice no longer is useful in a situation of dire need and therefore vanishes, yet again confuses property justice with justice in its entirety. In this case, it would be useful to dissolve property justice, but keep all other forms, in order to enhance social utility.
Thus, the rich landowner would have to give the poor masses his hoarded food so that they would not die. And the systems of justice (except for property justice) would remain intact to ensure that social utility was being aided. If, as Hume says, all justice was dissolved in this case, then the social utility would not be enhanced whatsoever. The powerful individual in this case, the one with food, would act unjustly and by any means necessary to keep his property, whether by violence or mere threat thereof. And as for his argument upon a race of lesser rational beings, Hume borders upon the offensive. By Hume's own logic, if there were a small percentage of human beings who born each year without arms or legs, it would be permissible to burn them to fuel power plants.
They have no way of ever threatening us, and therefore justice does not apply! Obvious, no? The same goes for a quadriplegic man: for all justice cares, we can use him as a doorstop. Justice is valued for its usefulness. I am far from denying such a claim. However, it is obviously untrue that justice is valued solely for its utility, for if such were the case, then institutions such as slavery would never have disappeared. Numerous slave uprisings occurred, but they posed no serious threat to most of humanity, so justice's usefulness says, "Keep the cotton-picking cheap." Justice is also valued because of the inherent moral qualities within human beings. As Hume himself says, we feel certain ways about certain things, and one of these things is about suffering.
This is why it is not justifiable to exploit a lesser individual, despite their utility. Justice serves as a bulwark of virtues, is in itself a virtue, and is easily respected for its own intrinsic value. In Hume's "absolute benevolence" example, there would be no word for "justice." As it is, however, there are two words that relate, justice and injustice. The significance here is that each of these are useful in certain situations. Hume is absolutely right in ascertaining that justice is of absolutely no use whatsoever in the case of being kidnapped. In this case, injustice has much usefulness indeed.
However, no one on earth would ever claim to value injustice. We value justice, partially because it is useful and partially because it is, for lack of a better word, right.