Henry David Thoreau

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What is the meaning of justice according to the moral view of Henry David Thoreau?

The meaning of justice according to the moral view of Henry David Thoreau is that moral outcomes prevail over other motives. This means that, in many cases, the government's actions run counter to the aims of justice. 

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Henry David Thoreau’s moral view embraces justice as he defines it. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of justice is:

“the maintenance or administration of what is just [or morally upright] especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards...

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Henry David Thoreau’s moral view embraces justice as he defines it. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of justice is:

“the maintenance or administration of what is just [or morally upright] especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.”

Thoreau’s views are consistent with this definition but not always consistent with the justice system, which is comprised of government rules and agencies.

In Thoreau’s view, governments often take actions that are unjust. They are also slow to overturn injustices, in part because government officials consider how their actions might impact their political careers. Government officials generally want to garner the support of a majority before they make changes. Thoreau is a believer in minimal government—"That government is best which governs least," as he puts it in his essay "Civil Disobedience."

Thoreau is not averse to breaking the law to advance social reforms or justice, as he defines it. In fact, because he believes that there are laws that are unjust, he advocates civil disobedience whereby citizens openly disobey the laws in an effort to overturn inequitable policies.

For instance, Thoreau stopped paying his poll taxes as a protest against slavery. Then, when the government declared war on Mexico in 1846, he openly criticized the decision. He also defended the uprising at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and protested Massachusetts involvement in constraining the attack. In his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” he writes:

“It was Massachusetts, as well as Virginia, that put down this insurrection at Harper's Ferry. She sent the marines there, and she will have to pay the penalty of her sin.”

For Thoreau, justice and governance are far from synonymous.

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