The Greatest of All Virtues

George Woodcock - Epsom, England
Broadcast during the 1950s

I believe that justice is the foundation of all other virtues. Without justice, there can be no liberty, no true equality, and no real progress. Of course by justice I don’t mean merely the impartial administration of the law. I mean, rather, that sense of fairness which makes one anxious to hear and to understand other points of view before he makes up his own mind.

In my case, two somewhat contradictory influences have contributed to this belief in justice as the predominant virtue: one largely emotional and negative, which made me intensely dislike injustice and oppression; and the other more intellectual and positive, which ultimately compelled me to seek out causes rather than to remain obsessed by facts.

When I was younger, I saw what I thought, and I still think, to be great hardships and injustices suffered by good and kind people. It seemed to me that ordinary people, including my own parents, worked hard and conscientiously, remained honest and decent; and yet, for reward, found that week after week and year after year, well-nigh impossible to pay for their modest and most essential needs; and that, I thought, most unfair.

Inevitably, I became a member of the Labour Party and of the Trade Union movement, the two movements, as it seemed to me, equally founded in the determination to justice done to ordinary working people. But an intense dislike of injustice and oppression is not of itself a good foundation for a sense of fairness and justice. A man can be so obsessed by the unfairness of others as to become equally unfair in his own attitudes. I can well imagine that in my young and eager days, I was something of a prig, and certainly an aggravating nuisance to those who did not share my enthusiasms.

Had I met with intolerance equal to my own, or even with indifference, I think I too might have remained intolerant or become indifferent, which I most fervently hope I am not. For the most part, however, I found people very fair to me, and none more so than the people I met at Oxford. The Oxford University tutor, in particular, seems to me to possess in the highest degree that sense of fairness, which I believe is the greatest of all virtues.

This intellectual fairness is not mere toleration. Indeed, mere toleration can lead to indifference. The desire to be fair, to do real justice, need not—and should not—kill enthusiasm. It allows and, in fact, it demands argument, though it discounts cleverness. It assumes that, fairly and very convincing proof to the contrary, the other fellow is as anxious to do right as you are, and that what needs to be done is to discover what “right” is. Immanuel Kant said that, “We should always try to act as though we were laying down a universal law.” Some of us may not be able to reach that level of perfection. But I believe that we can all make the effort and be better for it.

English labor leader George Woodcock left school to work in the weaving mills when he was 12 years old. Several years later, he won a scholarship to Ruskin College and did well enough there to go on to Oxford University. Woodcock served as a leader of the Trades Union Congress for many years.