Theory of the morally appropriate way of resolving social differences.

There is no one theory of justice. One view is that justice involves avoiding or preventing harm to people; another that it involves treating people according to their deserts; another that people should be treated according to their needs; another that they should be treated according to fair and impartial procedures.

Also see: Rawls theory of justice

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)


Justice by Luca Giordano

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 – reason, spirit and desire. 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 medic rather than a farmer, because the medic 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.[2]

Divine command

Allegorical fresco cycle (cardinal virtues) by Renaissance painter Domenico di Pace Beccafumi from the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, scene: ’’Justitia’’

Advocates of divine command theory say that justice, and indeed the whole of morality, is the authoritative command of God. Murder is wrong and must be punished, for instance, because God says it so. Some versions of the theory assert that God must be obeyed because of the nature of his relationship with humanity, others assert that God must be obeyed because he is goodness itself, and thus doing what he says would be best for everyone.

A meditation on the Divine command theory by Plato can be found in his dialogue, Euthyphro. Called the Euthyphro dilemma, it goes as follows: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” The implication is that if the latter is true, then justice is beyond mortal understanding; if the former is true, then morality exists independently from God, and is therefore subject to the judgment of mortals. A response, popularized in two contexts by Immanuel Kant and C. S. Lewis, is that it is deductively valid to say that the existence of an objective morality implies the existence of God and vice versa.

Natural law

Lex, justitia, pax (Latin for “Law, justice, peace”) on the pediment of the Supreme Court of Switzerland

For advocates of the theory that justice is part of natural law (e.g., John Locke), justice involves the nature of man.[3]

Despotism and skepticism

In Republic by Plato, 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.

Mutual agreement

Advocates of the social contract say that justice is derived from the mutual agreement of everyone; 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’. The absence of bias refers to an equal ground for all people involved in a disagreement (or trial in some cases).[citation needed]

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, or the feeling of self-defense and our ability to put ourselves imaginatively in another’s place, sympathy. So, when we see someone harmed, we project ourselves into their situation and feel a desire to retaliate on their behalf. If this process is the source of our feelings about justice, that ought to undermine our confidence in them.[4]

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, opportunities or 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, while property rights theorists say that there is no “favored distribution.” Rather, distribution should be based simply on whatever distribution results from lawful interactions or transactions (that is, transactions which are not illicit).

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

Social justice

Social justice encompasses the just relationship between individuals and their society, often considering how privileges, opportunities, and wealth ought to be distributed among individuals.[5] Social justice is also associated with social mobility, especially the ease with which individuals and families may move between social strata.[6] Social justice is distinct from cosmopolitanism, which is the idea that all people belong to a single global community with a shared morality.[7] Social justice is also distinct from egalitarianism, which is the idea that all people are equal in terms of status, value, or rights, as social justice theories do not all require equality.[8] For example, sociologist George C. Homans suggested that the root of the concept of justice is that each person should receive rewards that are proportional to their contributions.[9][10] Economist Friedrich Hayek said that the concept of social justice was meaningless, saying that justice is a result of individual behavior and unpredictable market forces.[11] Social justice is closely related to the concept of relational justice, which is about the just relationship with individuals who possess features in common such as nationality, or who are engaged in cooperation or negotiation

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