Justice should have been the easiest of Franklin’s virtues for me. In my day job I’m in the justice business. My principal obligation as a prosecutor is to uphold the integrity of the administration of justice. With the other virtues I had to seek the interpretative assistance of an ethicist; on this virtue I should have been the tour guide.


Or so I thought. It turns out that Ben’s virtue of justice is a broader concept than I had first envisioned.


To understand Ben’s idea of justice, one must consider the man himself. Biographer Edmund Morgan described Franklin as a pragmatist; a man willing to compromise in pursuit of some goal. Despite this, Morgan acknowledged that there were instances when Franklin refused to give in: times when his pragmatism ended and his goals became nonnegotiable. Franklin had been a strong supporter of the British Empire and the place of the American colonies in that Empire. He had an affinity for England and reveled in his place as an “Englishman”. During the time leading to the eventual Revolution Franklin strove mightily to seek some compromise between England and her colonies. When it became evident, however, that there was no compromise that would involve justice for the colonies Franklin turned permanently from Loyalist to Patriot.


Franklin repeatedly showed an ability to modify his thoughts and actions when an injustice became apparent. Like many of his contemporaries Franklin owned slaves early in his life and ran articles in his newspaper for the sale or purchase of slaves. His views evolved, however, as he recognized the repugnant nature of slavery. In 1787 he became the President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. His last act of public service was a petition to Congress to abolish slavery and end the slave trade.


This, I believe, is the type of justice that Franklin sought. It was a far more foundational variety of justice than what I had first envisioned. It is also much more difficult to attain.


We live in a civil society. We do so to escape the Hobbesian notion of the nasty, brutish, and short life in our state of nature. We subordinate some of our individual rights to the good of the collective to obtain the benefits of the collective. The collective, in turn, respects and protects our most fundamental rights. For the most part, I believe that society works pretty well. It requires that we do some things that I believe inform Franklin’s notion of justice:


  • Treat people fairly and generously in all aspects of life. Franklin was a man of business first, but he developed a reputation for fairness and trustworthiness. Having been treated poorly as an apprentice he did the opposite. When a reliable apprentice reached the age of majority he would provide the seed capital to set up a print shop in another city. As an inventor he refused to patent his ideas so that everyone could benefit from scientific progress. Franklin was a man who did justice to others, even at his own expense;
  • Be a good citizen. Benjamin Franklin spent much of his time and energy engaged in civic improvement projects. From hospitals to schools to a volunteer fire department, he dedicated his life to the betterment of his fellow citizens. He also helped protect his community from outside dangers and represented them with foreign powers. His idea of not “omitting benefits” stretched to sacrificing his time and energy to conferring benefits; and
  • Engage in the political discourse. This does not mean to run for political office (though it could). It means to participate actively in the very process that Franklin worked so diligently to create. Remember that his sense of justice manifested itself in advocating for political reform, participating in political affairs at the local, colonial, state, national and international levels and serving his community. He was a justice of the peace, member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, the first United States Postmaster General and an Ambassador. He assumed these offices, at least in part, out of a sense that it is necessary to serve to confer benefits to others. We have become disengaged from our political processes. We vote in lesser numbers, we are disillusioned with our political leaders and our faith in our political processes has waned. We can blame our leaders, but a far more Franklinian response would be to get involved.

Cameron Gunn is an author and prosecutor living in Canada. His attempt to live Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, was chronicled in BEN & ME: From Temperance to Humility – Stumbling Through Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, One Unvirtuous Day at a Time, released by Perigee Press in September 2010. He is a frequent public speaker having been a longtime faculty member of Canada’s largest continuing legal education seminar on criminal law topics, The National Criminal Law Program and a frequent lecturer for the National Judicial Institute of Canada.