The question “what is justice?” sounds simple. Yet an attempt to apply to it that bluntest of philosophical instruments, the dictionary, rapidly ends up going in circles. Justice, we find, is just conduct or fairness. Fairness is being fair, or otherwise said, just or equitable. Equitable means – yes, you’ve guessed it, fair or just.
Perhaps one useful thing we can learn from this exercise is the etymology of the word justice. It comes from the Latin ius, normally translated as “law” or “right.” But it’s important to note that ius is law in the sense of agreements and commitments between people; as opposed to lex, which is law in the sense of legislation imposed from above.
Looking at what pundits of the past have had to say on the subject seems more promising. I’ll start with Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who flourished in the early 3rd century BC. He said: “Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming another.” This is, to me, a very deep insight. For, first, it tells us that justice is something natural. Second, that it is a two way process. And third, that it is about not harming others.
But Epicurus aside, few thinkers seem to have dared to try to define what justice is. Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the 3rd century AD, opined: “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to allot to everyone his due.” The difficulty with this, of course, is in determining exactly what is due, and who has the right to allot it. And few, if any, other definitions of justice seem to have survived the test of time to take their places in the quotation book.
Kinds of justice
What kinds of justice are put forward as desirable? First, there is Epicurus’ justice; a two way pledge intended to prevent individuals harming each other. This is sometimes called commutative justice (the word “commutative” means “working either way round.”)
Second, there is the kind of justice delivered by honest, non-politicized courts of law. This divides, broadly, into two. One, restorative justice; that is, enforcing compensation by the perpetrator to the victim or victims of an actual harm. And two, if appropriate, retributive justice; that is, criminal punishment according to the perpetrator’s intent to cause harm to others. These kinds of justice, at least when dispensed honestly, are rooted in Epicurus’ ideal.
Third is distributive justice. This term is used to cover, for example, the promotion of a fair or just distribution of some good, such as income, wealth or political power. But there doesn’t seem to be any necessary relation between this kind of justice and the Epicurean kind. And its promoters fail to tell us exactly and without doubt what they mean by “just,” or where they get the right to decide what is fair for others.
Fourth is “social justice.” It’s hard to work out exactly what this means. Wikipedia calls it “a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society.” But here again, “fair” and “just” are not elucidated. And what or which, precisely, is “society?”
My own view of justice
I am strongly in favour of commutative justice. The way I see it, there should be a close relation between the way an individual treats others and the way the individual is treated by others. I call this idea “common sense justice.”
So, those who do not treat others badly deserve not to be treated badly. For example, those who do not violently attack others deserve not to be violently attacked. Those who do not rob others deserve not to be robbed. Those who do not defraud others deserve not to be defrauded. And those, who do not place obstacles in the way of others’ progress or the satisfaction of their desires, deserve not to have their own progress or desires obstructed.
On the other hand, those that behave badly towards others in any of these ways can have no cause for complaint if others, in their turn, do correspondingly nasty things to them. And those that maliciously or irresponsibly do wrongs to innocent people can expect not only to be made to compensate their victims in full, but to be punished in addition.
But common sense justice has a positive side, too. Each individual, who treats others well, deserves to be treated equally well in return. Those who honestly earn prosperity, pleasures, thanks or appreciation should receive all the prosperity, pleasures, thanks and appreciation they have earned. And so, putting the positive side together with the negative, we arrive at what seems to me a decent definition of justice. That is: Justice is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others.
So my ideal of justice, like that of Epicurus, aims to minimize injustice. It strives to avoid gross or persistent treatment of individuals worse than they treat others.
I’ll add one supporting argument. If a society existed based on common sense justice, everyone in it would have a positive incentive to behave well towards others. For in such a society, the way to get more of what you want, the way to get treated better by others, is to treat others better! Imagine how peaceful, happy and prosperous such a society could be.
As to the kind of justice which is (or should be) delivered by courts of law, there is a common personification of justice as “Lady Justice.” She carries three objects: a blindfold, a pair of scales and a sword. The blindfold represents impartiality and objectivity. The scales represent the weighing of the evidence in every case. And the sword is the instrument of punishment.
William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had this to say about justice. “Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.” I would add that the scales of justice, beyond weighing the evidence, have another function too. That is, accurately to balance the rights and interests of each individual against the rights and interests of others.
As Penn suggests, in a proper system of justice, what matters in any case is not who an individual is, but only what they do. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what colour someone’s skin is. It doesn’t matter where they were born. It doesn’t matter what religion they were brought up in. It doesn’t matter what their gender or their sexual preferences may be. All that matters is their actions and their intent towards others.
Once courts of law become politicized, though – as too many are today – then justice loses both its impartiality and its balance. Such courts cease to make decisions and to mete out punishments on the basis of natural justice or ius. Instead, they become merely a means of implementing lex; that is, of enforcing bad laws made by dishonest politicians.
Such a politicized system of “justice” inevitably leads to quite the opposite of natural justice. And Epicurus himself knew this. For he said: “If a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just.”
When we look at distributive justice, it’s all but impossible to separate the concept of justice from the closely related idea of equality. John Stuart Mill had this to say on the subject: “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice.”
What Mill is saying here is that it’s what an individual deserves which matters for the purpose of justice. And not – for example – what that individual needs. I agree heartily. Indeed, I like to go further, and make my own version of Karl Marx’s famous dictum: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his deserts.”
More recently, John Rawls in his “original position” argument has put forward an egalitarian flavour of distributive justice. In this thought experiment, a group of people aim to agree on a political and economic structure for themselves. Each is behind a veil of ignorance. Meaning, they don’t know what their own abilities or characteristics will be, or how well a particular social structure will favour them. Rawls argues that they will use a strategy called maximin, aiming to maximize the payoff in the event of the worst possible outcome. From this he deduces that (beyond a basic minimum set of rights and liberties) any inequalities that do exist must benefit the least advantaged. This is usually interpreted as supporting economic egalitarianism.
Even if I buy Rawls’ argument up to the maximin bit (and I’m not sure I do), I disagree fundamentally with the conclusion. Recall, if you will, that when I looked at equality, I came out strongly in favour of political equality and moral equality, but very much against the idea of equality of outcome. If I were in Rawls’ original position behind my veil of ignorance, I would choose a social structure based on political equality, not economic. That is, I would pick the kind of equality in which no individual is subject to another, and no-one has power over another.
Moreover, I expect that any society built on enforced economic equality would very soon cease to be egalitarian. For, if some are allowed to re-distribute others’ earnings or wealth as they see fit, who will stop them re-distributing those earnings or that wealth into their own pockets?
Most promoters of “social justice” use it as an excuse for ever increasing government powers over everyone, particularly through taxation. For example, to quote a 2006 United Nations report: “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.” Such conceits are both unjust and hateful. And most of all, when they are uttered by highly paid bureaucrats, that have never contributed anything to the economy, to human knowledge or to technology.
Further, when implemented, this “social justice” leads inevitably to a three-class society, as we see today. On the one hand, there is the productive class of honest, economically active people, who are drained of our earnings and denied the wealth we deserve. On the other, there is a recipient class, spoon-fed drips of wealth that they do not earn. And between and above the two is a rich, politicized class of the powerful and their cronies. That class creams off for itself much of the wealth generated by the productive, and feeds the remainder to the recipient class in exchange for their votes and political support. Only one of these three classes gets a net benefit from such a system. Guess which?
An even more damning view of social justice comes from Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke. “Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ ... If ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.’”
Bombastic though Korwin-Mikke’s statement may seem, I think it has a substantial kernel of truth. For me, “social justice” is a perversion of the idea of justice, in which something called “society” (with or without a capital S) takes pride of place over the individual, and over natural justice. This perversion, I think, would be better called social injustice.
Then there is the authoritarianism of so called “social justice warriors.” Such individuals identify themselves with groups who have, or have had in the past, some real or perceived grievance; women, gay people or black people, for example. And they seek to empower these groups at the expense of everyone else. At the same time, many of them want to enforce political correctness, and to stifle the freedom of speech of those who disagree with them. The result, again, is not social justice, but social injustice.
So for me, the phrase “social justice” is no more than a fig leaf, under which political activists seek to hide the fact that what they want is to do injustices to innocent people. For me, such individuals are worse than criminal. Far from being either social or just, they are not fit to be admitted into any society of just, honest people. Not even a tiddlywinks club.
To sum up
Justice, for me, is the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. Or, otherwise put, in which people receive what they deserve. My sense of justice is consistent with Epicurus’ idea, of a pledge that seeks to stop individuals harming each other. It is also consistent with conventional forms of civil and criminal justice, provided that the justice they deliver is honest and non-politicized.
In contrast, distributive “justice” bears no relation to justice. And so called “social justice” is merely a euphemism, used as a decoy by those with an agenda to harm innocent people.