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De jure belli ac pacis, 1625

Justice is the concept of fairness based on ethics, rationality, law, and equity. A conception of justice is one of the key features of society. Theories of justice vary greatly, but there is evidence that everyday views of justice can be reconciled with patterned moral preferences.

Concept of justice

Justice concerns the proper ordering of things and persons within a society. As a concept it has been subject to philosophical, legal, and theological reflection and debate throughout history. According to most theories of justice, it is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls, for instance, 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, or compassion.

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" [1]. Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, involving Capuchin Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that "inequality aversion may not be uniquely human" indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.

For lessons on the topic of Justice, follow this link.

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. Retribution also means prosperity, prosperity results in crime prevention.

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."Exodus 21.xxiii-xxv.

Distributive justice is directed at the proper allocation of things - wealth, power, reward, respect - between different people. A number of important questions surrounding justice have been fiercely debated over the course of western history: What is justice? What does it demand of individuals and societies? What is the proper distribution of wealth and resources in society: equal, meritocratic, according to status, or some other arrangement? There is a myriad of possible answers to these questions from divergent perspectives on the political and philosophical spectrum.

Oppressive Law exercises an authoritarian approach to legislation which 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, 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.

Kinds of justice

Justice as harmony

In his dialogue Republic, Plato uses Socrates to argue for justice which 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 – spirit, resourcefulness and mindfulness. Similarly, a city has three parts – 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 – philosophers, in one sense of the term – should rule because only they understand what is good. If one is ill, one goes to a doctor rather than a quack, 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 – the good – 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? There is a famous paradox called the Euthyphro dilemma which 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

John Locke of the natural law believes that justice would become a natural law, it involves the system of punishments which are prone from choices. 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

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. Nietzsche, in contrast, argues that justice is part of the slave-morality of the weak many, rooted in their resentment of the strong few, and intended to keep the noble man down. In Human, All Too Human he states that, "there is no eternal justice."

Justice as mutual agreement

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 which 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

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?

Distributive justice theorists generally do not answer questions of who has the right to enforce a particular favored distribution.

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


According to the egalitarian, goods should be distributed equally. 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.

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 desserts. The main distinction is between theories that argue the basis of just desserts is held equally by everyone, and therefore derive egalitarian accounts of distributive justice - ;and theories that argue the basis of just desserts 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.


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 which 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 – (1) liberties and (2) social and economic goods, i.e. wealth, income and power – and applies different distributions to them – equality between citizens for (1), equality unless inequality improves the position of the worst off for (2).

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.

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.


According to the utilitarian, justice requires the maximization of the total or average welfare across all relevant individuals. This may require sacrifice of some for the good of others, so long as everyone’s good is taken impartially into account. Utilitarianism, in general, argues that the standard of justification for actions, institutions, or the whole world, is impartial welfare consequentialism, and only indirectly, if at all, to do with rights, property, need, or any other non-utilitarian criterion. These other criteria might be indirectly important, to the extent that human welfare involves them. But even then, such demands as human rights would only be elements in the calculation of overall welfare, not uncrossable barriers to action.

Theories of retributive justice

Theories of retributive justice are concerned with punishment for wrongdoing, and need to answer three questions:

  1. why punish?
  2. who should be punished?
  3. what punishment should they receive?

This section considers the two major accounts of retributive justice, and their answers to these questions. Utilitarian theories look forward to the future consequences of punishment, while retributive theories look back to particular acts of wrongdoing, and attempt to balance them with deserved punishment.


According to the utilitarian, as already noted, justice requires the maximization of the total or average welfare across all relevant individuals. Punishment is bad treatment of someone, and therefore can’t be good in itself, for the utilitarian. But punishment might be a necessary sacrifice which maximizes the overall good in the long term, in one or more of three ways:

  1. Deterrence. The credible threat of punishment might lead people to make different choices; well-designed threats might lead people to make choices which maximize welfare.
  2. Rehabilitation. Punishment might make bad people into better ones. For the utilitarian, all that ‘bad person’ can mean is ‘person who’s likely to cause bad things (like suffering) ’. So, utilitarianism could recommend punishment that changes someone such that they are less likely to cause bad things.
  3. Incapacitation. Perhaps there are people who are irredeemable agents of bad things. If so, imprisoning them might maximize welfare by limiting their opportunities to cause harm.

So, the reason for punishment is the maximization of welfare, and punishment should be of whomever, and of whatever form and severity, are needed to meet that goal. Worryingly, this may sometimes justify punishing the innocent, or inflicting disproportionately severe punishments, when that will have the best consequences overall (perhaps executing a few suspected shoplifters live on television would be an effective deterrent to shoplifting, for instance). It also suggests that punishment might turn out never to be right, depending on the facts about what actual consequences it has.


The retributivist will think the utilitarian's argument disastrously mistaken. If someone does something wrong, we must respond to it, and to him or her, as an individual, not as a part of a calculation of overall welfare. To do otherwise is to disrespect him or her as an individual human being. If the crime had victims, it is to disrespect them, too. Wrongdoing must be balanced or made good in some way, and so the criminal deserves to be punished. Retributivism emphasizes retribution – payback – rather than maximization of welfare. Like the theory of distributive justice as giving everyone what they deserve (see above), it links justice with desert. It says that all guilty people, and only guilty people, deserve appropriate punishment. This matches some strong intuitions about just punishment: that it should be proportional to the crime, and that it should be of only and all of the guilty. However, it is sometimes argued that retributivism is merely revenge in disguise. Despite this criticism, there are numerous differences between retribution and revenge: the former is impartial, has a scale of appropriateness and corrects a moral wrong, whereas the latter is personal, unlimited in scale, and often corrects a slight.


In an imperfect world, institutions are required to instantiate ideals of justice, however imperfectly. These institutions may be justified by their approximate instantiation of justice, or they may be deeply unjust when compared with ideal standards; consider the institution of slavery. Justice is an ideal which the world fails to live up to, sometimes despite good intentions, sometimes disastrously. The question of institutive justice raises issues of legitimacy, procedure, codification and interpretation, which are considered by legal theorists and by philosophers of law.

Another definition of justice is an independent investigation of truth. In a court room, lawyers, the judge and the jury are supposed to be independently investigating the truth of an alleged crime. In physics, a group of physicists examine data and theoretical concepts to consult on what might be the truth or reality of a phenomenon.


Mankind's struggle to perfect government on Urantia has to do with perfecting channels of administration, with adapting them to ever-changing current needs, with improving power distribution within government, and then with selecting such administrative leaders as are truly wise. While there is a divine and ideal form of government, such cannot be revealed but must be slowly and laboriously discovered by the men and women of each planet throughout the universes of time and space.[2]


  1. James Konow (2003), "Which Is the Fairest One of All? A Positive Analysis of Justice Theories," Journal of Economic Literature, 41(4), p. 1188.
  2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (revised edn, Oxford: OUP, 1999), p. 3
  3. Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate, study shows / UCLA Newsroom
  4. Nature 425, 297-299 (18 September 2003)
  5. Exodus 21.xxiii-xxv.
  6. Plato, Republic trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: OUP, 1984).
  7. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism in On Liberty and Other Essays ed. John Gray (Oxford: OUP, 1991), Chapter 5.
  8. Karl Marx, 'Critique of the Gotha Program' in Karl Marx: Selected writings ed. David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1977): 564-70, p. 569.
  9. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (revised edition, Oxford: OUP, 1999), p. 266.
  10. C. L. Ten, ‘Crime and Punishment’ in Peter Singer ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993): 366-72.
  11. Ted Honderich, Punishment: The supposed justifications (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969), Chapter 1.

Further reading

  • Anthony Duff & David Garland eds, A Reader on Punishment (Oxford: OUP, 1994).
  • Barzilai Gad, Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).
  • Brian Barry, Theories of Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
  • C.L. Ten, Crime, Guilt, and Punishment: A philosophical introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).
  • Colin Farrelly, An Introduction to Contemporary Political Theory (London: Sage, 2004).
  • David Gauthier, Morals By Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
  • James Konow (2003). "Which Is the Fairest One of All? A Positive Analysis of Justice Theories," Journal of Economic Literature, 41(4), pp. 1188-1239.
  • David Schmidtz, Elements of Justice (New York: CUP, 2006).
  • Harry Brighouse, Justice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (revised edition, Oxford: OUP, 1999).
  • John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism in On Liberty and Other Essays ed. John Gray (Oxford: OUP, 1991).
  • Nicola Lacey, State Punishment (London: Routledge, 1988).
  • Peter Singer ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), Part IV.
  • Plato, Republic trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: OUP, 1994).
  • Robert E. Goodin & Philip Pettit eds, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An anthology (2nd edition, Malden Mass.: Blackwell, 2006), Part III.
  • Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974).
  • Ted Honderich, Punishment: The supposed justifications (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969).
  • Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An introduction (2nd edition, Oxford: OUP, 2002).

External links