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Lady Justice depicts justice as equipped with three symbols: a sword symbolizing the court’s coercive power; a human scale weighing competing claims in each hand; and a blindfold indicating impartiality.

Justice is the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics

Concept of justice

According to most theories of justice, it is overwhelmingly important: claims that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." Justice can be thought of as distinct from and more fundamental than benevolence, charity, mercy, generosity or compassion. Justice has traditionally been associated with concepts of fate, reincarnation or Divine Providence, i.e. with a life in accordance with the cosmic plan. The association of justice with fairness has thus been historically and culturally rare and is perhaps chiefly a modern innovation .

Studies at UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are "wired" into the brain and that, "Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats... This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need". Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, Georgia, involving Capuchin Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that "inequity aversion may not be uniquely human." indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.

Variations of justice

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, where punishment is forward-looking. Justified by the ability to achieve future social benefits resulting in crime reduction, the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.

Retributive justice regulates proportionate response to crime proven by lawful evidence, so that punishment is justly imposed and considered as morally correct and fully deserved. The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is a military theory of retributive justice, which says that reciprocity should be equal to the wrong suffered; "life for life, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

Restorative justice is concerned not so much with retribution and punishment as with (a) making the victim whole and (b) reintegrating the offender into society. This approach frequently brings an offender and a victim together, so that the offender can better understand the effect his/her offense had on the victim.

Distributive justice is directed at the proper allocation of things Ã¢â‚¬â€ wealth, power, reward, respect Ã¢â‚¬â€ between different people.

Oppressive Law exercises an authoritarian approach to legislation that is "totally unrelated to justice", a tyrannical interpretation of law is one in which the population lives under restriction from unlawful legislation.

Some theorists, such as the classical Greeks and Romans, conceive of justice as a virtue—a property of people, and only derivatively of their actions and the institutions they create. Others emphasize actions or institutions, and only derivatively the people who bring them about. The source of justice has variously been attributed to harmony, divine command, natural law, or human creation.

 Understandings of justice

Justice by Luca Giordano

Understandings of justice differ in each culture, as cultures are dependent on a religion and its ethics that create values which influence the notion of justice. Although there can be found some justice principles that are one and the same in all or most of the cultures, there are insufficient to create a unitary justice apprehension.

Justice as harmony

In his dialogue Republic, Plato uses Socrates to argue for justice that covers both the just person and the just City State. Justice is a proper, harmonious relationship between the warring parts of the person or city. Hence Plato’s definition of justice is that justice is the having and doing of what is one’s own. A just man is a man in just the right place, doing his best and giving the precise equivalent of what he has received. This applies both at the individual level and at the universal level. A person’s soul has three parts Ã¢â‚¬â€œ reason, spirit and desire. Similarly, a city has three parts Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Socrates uses the parable of the chariot to illustrate his point: a chariot works as a whole because the two horses’ power is directed by the charioteer. Lovers of wisdom Ã¢â‚¬â€œ philosophers, in one sense of the term Ã¢â‚¬â€œ should rule because only they understand what is good. If one is ill, one goes to a doctor rather than a psychologist, because the doctor is expert in the subject of health. Similarly, one should trust one’s city to an expert in the subject of the good, not to a mere politician who tries to gain power by giving people what they want, rather than what’s good for them. Socrates uses the parable of the ship to illustrate this point: the unjust city is like a ship in open ocean, crewed by a powerful but drunken captain (the common people), a group of untrustworthy advisors who try to manipulate the captain into giving them power over the ship’s course (the politicians), and a navigator (the philosopher) who is the only one who knows how to get the ship to port. For Socrates, the only way the ship will reach its destination Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the good Ã¢â‚¬â€œ is if the navigator takes charge.

 Justice as divine command

Justice as a divine law is commanding, and indeed the whole of morality, is the authoritative command. Killing is wrong and therefore must be punished and if not punished what should be done? A famous paradox called the Euthyphro dilemma essentially asks: is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s right? If the former, then justice is arbitrary; if the latter, then morality exists on a higher order than God, who becomes little more than a passer-on of moral knowledge. Some Divine command advocates respond by pointing out that the dilemma is false: goodness is the very nature of God and is necessarily expressed in His commands.

Justice as natural law

For advocates of the theory that justice is part of natural law (e.g., John Locke), it involves the system of consequences that naturally derives from any action or choice. In this, it is similar to the laws of physics: in the same way as the Third of Newton’s laws of Motion requires that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction, justice requires according individuals or groups what they actually deserve, merit, or are entitled to. Justice, on this account, is a universal and absolute concept: laws, principles, religions, etc., are merely attempts to codify that concept, sometimes with results that entirely contradict the true nature of justice.

 Justice as human creation

In contrast to the understandings canvassed so far, justice may be understood as a human creation, rather than a discovery of harmony, divine command, or natural law. This claim can be understood in a number of ways, with the fundamental division being between those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, and those who argue that it is the creation of all humans.

Justice as authoritative command

Injustice by Giotto di Bondone

According to thinkers including Thomas Hobbes, justice is created by public, enforceable, authoritative rules, and injustice is whatever those rules forbid, regardless of their relation to morality. Justice is created, not merely described or approximated, by the command of an absolute sovereign power. This position has some similarities with divine command theory (see above), with the difference that the state (or other authority) replaces God.

Justice as trickery

In Republic, the character Thrasymachus argues that justice is the interest of the strong—merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people.

According to thinkers in the social contract tradition, justice is derived from the mutual agreement of everyone concerned; or, in many versions, from what they would agree to under hypothetical conditions including equality and absence of bias. This account is considered further below, under ‘Justice as fairness’.

Justice as a subordinate value

According to utilitarian thinkers including John Stuart Mill, justice is not as fundamental as we often think. Rather, it is derived from the more basic standard of rightness, consequentialism: what is right is what has the best consequences (usually measured by the total or average welfare caused). So, the proper principles of justice are those that tend to have the best consequences. These rules may turn out to be familiar ones such as keeping contracts; but equally, they may not, depending on the facts about real consequences. Either way, what is important is those consequences, and justice is important, if at all, only as derived from that fundamental standard. Mill tries to explain our mistaken belief that justice is overwhelmingly important by arguing that it derives from two natural human tendencies: our desire to retaliate against those who hurt us, and our ability to put ourselves imaginatively in another’s place. So, when we see someone harmed, we project ourselves into her situation and feel a desire to retaliate on her behalf. If this process is the source of our feelings about justice, that ought to undermine our confidence in them.

Theories of distributive justice

Allegory or The Triumph of Justice by Hans von Aachen

Theories of distributive justice need to answer three questions:

  1. What goods are to be distributed? Is it to be wealth, power, respect, some combination of these things?
  2. Between what entities are they to be distributed? Humans (dead, living, future), sentient beings, the members of a single society, nations?
  3. What is the proper distribution? Equal, meritocratic, according to social status, according to need, based on property rights and non-aggression?

Distributive justice theorists generally do not answer questions of who has the right to enforce a particular favored distribution. On the other hand, property rights theorists argue that there is no "favored distribution." Rather, distribution should be based simply on whatever distribution results from non-coerced interactions or transactions (that is, transactions not based upon force or fraud).

This section describes some widely held theories of distributive justice, and their attempts to answer these questions.


According to the egalitarian, justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality. This basic view can be elaborated in many different ways, according to what goods are to be distributed—wealth, respect, opportunity—and what they are to be distributed equally between—individuals, families, nations, races, species. Commonly held egalitarian positions include demands for equality of opportunity and for equality of outcome. It affirms that freedom and justice without equality are hollow and that equality itself is the highest justice.

At a cultural level, egalitarian theories have developed in sophistication and acceptance during the past two hundred years. Among the notable broadly egalitarian philosophies are socialism, communism, anarchism, left-libertarianism, and progressivism, all of which propound economic, political, and legal egalitarianism, respectively. Several egalitarian ideas enjoy wide support among intellectuals and in the general populations of many countries. Whether any of these ideas have been significantly implemented in practice, however, remains a controversial question. One argument is that liberalism provides democracy with the experience of civic reformism. Without it, democracy loses any tie─argumentative or practical─to a coherent design of public policy endeavoring to provide the resources for the realization of democratic citizenship.

 Giving people what they deserve

In one sense, all theories of distributive justice claim that everyone should get what they deserve. Theories disagree on the basis for deserving. The main distinction is between theories that argue the basis of just deserts is held equally by everyone, and therefore derive egalitarian accounts of distributive justice—and theories that argue the basis of just deserts is unequally distributed on the basis of, for instance, hard work, and therefore derive accounts of distributive justice by which some should have more than others. This section deals with some popular theories of the second type.

According to meritocratic theories, goods, especially wealth and social status, should be distributed to match individual merit, which is usually understood as some combination of talent and hard work. According to needs-based theories, goods, especially such basic goods as food, shelter and medical care, should be distributed to meet individuals’ basic needs for them. Marxism can be regarded as a needs-based theory on some readings of Marx’s slogan "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". According to contribution-based theories, goods should be distributed to match an individual’s contribution to the overall social good.


J. L. Urban, statue of Lady Justice at court building in Olomouc, Czech Republic

In his A Theory of Justice, John Rawls used a social contract argument to show that justice, and especially distributive justice, is a form of fairness: an impartial distribution of goods. Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance that denies us all knowledge of our personalities, social statuses, moral characters, wealth, talents and life plans, and then asks what theory of justice we would choose to govern our society when the veil is lifted, if we wanted to do the best that we could for ourselves. We don’t know who in particular we are, and therefore can’t bias the decision in our own favour. So, the decision-in-ignorance models fairness, because it excludes selfish bias. Rawls argues that each of us would reject the utilitarian theory of justice that we should maximize welfare (see below) because of the risk that we might turn out to be someone whose own good is sacrificed for greater benefits for others. Instead, we would endorse Rawls’s two principles of justice:

  • Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
  • Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both
    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and
    • attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

This imagined choice justifies these principles as the principles of justice for us, because we would agree to them in a fair decision procedure. Rawls’s theory distinguishes two kinds of goods Ã¢â‚¬â€œ (1) liberties and (2) social and economic goods, i.e. wealth, income and power Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and applies different distributions to them Ã¢â‚¬â€œ equality between citizens for (1), equality unless inequality improves the position of the worst off for (2).

 Property rights (non-coercion)/Having the right history

Robert Nozick’s influential critique of Rawls argues that distributive justice is not a matter of the whole distribution matching an ideal pattern, but of each individual entitlement having the right kind of history. It is just that a person has some good (especially, some property right) if and only if they came to have it by a history made up entirely of events of two kinds:

1. Just acquisition, especially by working on unowned things; and
2. Just transfer, that is free gift, sale or other agreement, but not theft (i.e. by force or fraud).

If the chain of events leading up to the person having something meets this criterion, they are entitled to it: that they possess it is just, and what anyone else does or doesn’t have or need is irrelevant.

On the basis of this theory of distributive justice, Nozick argues that all attempts to redistribute goods according to an ideal pattern, without the consent of their owners, are theft. In particular, redistributive taxation is theft.

Some property rights theorists also take a consequentialist view of distributive justice and argue that property rights based justice also has the effect of maximizing the overall wealth of an economic system. They explain that voluntary (non-coerced) transactions always have a property called pareto efficiency. A pareto efficient transaction is one where at least one party ends up better off and neither party ends up worse off. The result is that the world is better off in an absolute sense and no one is worse off. Such consequentialist property rights theorists argue that respecting property rights maximizes the number of pareto efficient transactions in the world and minimized the number of non-pareto efficient transactions in the world (i.e. transactions where someone is made worse off). The result is that the world will have generated the greatest total benefit from the limited, scarce resources available in the world. Further, this will have been accomplished without taking anything away from anyone by coercion.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia : Justice
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