Western Theories of Justice Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts. The word comes from the Latin Jus, meaning right or law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “Just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due,” offering the word “fair” as a synonym. But philosophers want to get beyond etymology and dictionary definitions to consider, for example, the nature of Justice as both a moral virtue of character and a desirable quality of political society, as well as how it applies to ethical and social decision- aging.
This article will focus on Western philosophical conceptions of Justice. These will be the greatest theories of ancient Greece (those of Plato and Aristotle) and of medieval Christianity (Augustine and Aquinas), two early modern ones (Hobbes and Home), two from more recent modern times (Kant and Mill), and some contemporary ones (Rails and several successors). Typically the article considers not only their theories of Justice but also how philosophers apply their own theories to controversial social issues?for example, to civil disobedience, punishment, equal opportunity for women, slavery, war, property rights, and international relations.
For Plato, Justice is a virtue establishing rational order, with each part performing its appropriate role and not interfering with the proper functioning of other parts. Aristotle says Justice consists in what is lawful and fair, with fairness involving equitable distributions and the correction of what is inequitable. For Augustine, the cardinal virtue of Justice requires that we try to give all people their due; for Aquinas, justice is that rational mean between opposite sorts of injustice, involving reapportion distributions and reciprocal transactions.
Hobbes believed Justice is an artificial virtue, necessary for civil society, a function of the voluntary agreements of the social contract; for Home, Justice essentially serves public utility by protecting property (broadly understood). For Kant, it is a virtue whereby we respect others’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity by not interfering with their voluntary actions, so long as those do not violate others’ rights; Mill said Justice is a collective name for the most important social utilities, which are conducive to fostering and protecting unman liberty.
Rails analyzed Justice in terms of maximum equal liberty regarding basic rights and duties for all members of society, with socio-economic inequalities requiring moral Justification in terms of equal opportunity and beneficial results for all; and various post-Rawlins philosophers develop alternative conceptions. Western philosophers generally regard Justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.
By tracking the historical interplay of these theories, what will be advocated s a developing understanding of Justice in terms of respecting persons as free, rational agents. One may disagree about the nature, basis, and legitimate application of Justice, but this is its core. Table of Contents 1 . Ancient Greece 1. Plato 2. Aristotle Justice By Shari 3. Augustine 4. Aquinas 3. Early Modernity 5. Hobbes 6. Home 4. Recent Modernity 7. Kant 8. Mill 5. Contemporary Philosophers 9. Rails 10. Post-Rails 6. References and Further Readings 11.
Primary Sources 12. Secondary Sources 1. Ancient Greece For all their originality, even Plat’s and Aristotle philosophies did not emerge in a chum. As far back in ancient Greek literature as Homer, the concept of addition, used to describe a Just person, was important. From this emerged the general concept of dissuasion, or Justice, as a virtue that might be applied to a political society. The issue of what does and does not qualify as Just could logically lead to controversy regarding the origin of Justice, as well as that concerning its essence.
Perhaps an effective aid to appreciating the power of their thought is to view it in the context of the teachings of the Sophists, those itinerant teachers of fifth-century ancient Greece who tried to pass themselves off as “wise” men. In his trial, Socrates was at pains to dissociate himself from them, after his conviction refusing to save himself, as a typical Sophist would, by employing an act of civil disobedience to escape (Dialogues, up. 4-26, 52-56; bib-add, AAA-bib); Plato is more responsible than anyone else for giving them the bad name that sticks with them to this present time; and Aristotle follows him in having little use for them as instructors of rhetoric, philosophy, values, and the keys to success. So what did these three great helicopters (literally “lovers of wisdom”) find so ideologically objectionable about the Sophists? The brief answer is, their relativism and their skepticism.
The first important one, Propagators, captures the former with his famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things?of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”; and he speaks to the latter with a declaration of agnosticism regarding the existence of divinities. Georgia (Plato named dialogues after both of them) is remembered for a striking three-part statement of skepticism, holding that thing really exists, that, even if something did exist, we could not grasp it, and that, even if we could grasp something real, we could never express it to anyone else.
If all values are subjective and/or unknowable, then what counts as Just gets reduced to a matter of shifting opinion. We can easily anticipate how readily Sophists would apply such relativism and skepticism to Justice. For example, Treacherous (who figures into the first book of Plat’s Republic) is supposed to have said that there must not be any gods who care about us humans because, while Justice is our greatest good, men grading Justice arguably comes from Antiphon, who employs the characteristic distinction between custom (memos) and nature (physics) with devastating effect.
He claims that the laws of Justice, matters of convention, should be obeyed when other people are observing us and may hold us accountable; but, otherwise, we should follow the demands of nature. The laws of Justice, extrinsically derived, presumably involve serving the good of others, the demands of nature, which are internal, serving self-interest. He even suggests that obeying the laws of Justice often renders us elapses victims of those who do not (First, up. 211, 232, 274, 264-266). If there is any such objective value as natural Justice, then it is reasonable for us to attempt a rational understanding of it.
On the other hand, if Justice is merely a construction of customary agreement, then such a quest is doomed to frustration and failure. With this as a backdrop, we should be able to see what motivated Plato and Aristotle to seek a strong alternative. A. Plato Plat’s masterful Republic (to which we have already referred) is most obviously a careful analysis of Justice, although the book is far more wide-ranging than that old suggest. Socrates, Plat’s teacher and primary spokesman in the dialogue, gets critically involved in a discussion of that very issue with three interlocutors early on.
Socrates provokes Cephalic to say something which he spins into the view that justice simply boils down to always telling the truth and repaying one’s debts. Socrates easily demolishes this simplistic view with the effective logical technique of a counter-example: if a friend lends you weapons, when he is sane, but then wants them back to do great harm with them, because he has become insane, surely you would not return them at that time and should even lie to him, if necessary to prevent great harm.
Secondly, Polymerases, the son of Cephalic, Jumps into the discussion, espousing the familiar, traditional view that Justice is all about giving people what is their due. But the problem with this bromide is that of determining who deserves what. Polymerases may reflect the cultural influence of the Sophists, in specifying that it depends on whether people are our friends, deserving good from us, or foes, deserving harm.
It takes more effort for Socrates to destroy this invitational theory, but he proceeds in stages: (1) we are all fallible regarding who are true friends, as opposed to true enemies, so that appearance versus reality makes it difficult to say how we should treat people; (2) it seems at least as significant whether people are good or bad as whether they are our friends or our foes; and (3) it is not at all clear that Justice should excuse, let alone require, our deliberately harming anyone (Republic, up. -11; 331 b-IEEE). If the first inadequate theory of justice was too simplistic, this second one was downright dangerous. The third, and IANAL, inadequate account presented here is that of the Sophist Treacherous. He roars into the discussion, expressing his contempt for all the poppycock produced thus far and boldly asserting that Justice is relative to whatever is advantageous to the stronger people (what we sometimes call the “might makes right” theory). But who are the “stronger” people?
Treacherous cannot mean physically stronger, for then inferior humans would be superior to finer folks like them. He clarifies his idea that he is referring to politically powerful people in leadership positions. But, next, even the strongest leaders are sometimes mistaken about what is to their own is to their own advantage or only what actually is so. (Had Treacherous phrased this in terms of what serves the interest of society itself, the same appearance versus reality distinction would apply. But, beyond this, Socrates rejects the exploitation model of leadership, which sees political superiors as properly exploiting inferiors (Treacherous uses the example of a shepherd fattening up and protecting his flock of sheep for his own selfish gain), substituting a service model in its place (his example is of the good medical doctor, who practices his craft primarily for the welfare of patients). So, now, if anything like this is to be accepted as our model for interpersonal relations, then Treacherous embraces the “injustice” of self-interest as better than serving the interests of others in the name of “Justice. Well, then, how are we to interpret whether the life of Justice or that of injustice is better? Socrates suggests three criteria for Judgment: which is the smarter, which is the more secure, and which is the happier way of life; he argues that the Just life is better on all three mounts. Thus, by the end of the first book, it looks as if Socrates has trounced all three of these inadequate views of Justice, although he himself claims to be dissatisfied because we have only shown what Justice is not, with no persuasive account of its actual nature (ibid. , up. 14-21, 25-31; ICC-Bibb, ICC-ICC).
Likewise, in Georgia, Plato has Calicles espouse the view that, whatever conventions might seem to dictate, natural Justice dictates that superior people should rule over and derive greater benefits than inferior people, that society artificially levels people cause off bias in favor of equality. Socrates is then made to criticize this theory by analyzing what sort of superiority would be relevant and then arguing that Calicles is erroneously advocating injustice, a false value, rather than the genuine one of true Justice (Georgia, up. 52-66; 48th-ICC; see, also, Laws, up. 00-101, 172; 663, 714 for another articulation of something like Treacherous’ position). In the second book of Plat’s Republic, his brothers, Glaucoma and Attendants, take over the role of primary interlocutors. They quickly make it clear that they are not satisfied tit Socrates’ defense of Justice. Glaucoma reminds us that there are three different sorts of goods?intrinsic ones, such as Joy, merely instrumental ones, such as money- making, and ones that are both instrumentally and intrinsically valuable, such as health?in order to ask which type of good is Justice.
Socrates responds that Justice belongs in the third category, rendering it the richest sort of good. In that case, Glaucoma protests, Socrates has failed to prove his point. If his debate with Treacherous accomplished anything at all, it nevertheless did not establish any intrinsic value in Justice. So Glaucoma will play devil’s advocate and resurrect the Sophist position, in order to challenge Socrates to refute it in its strongest form.
He proposes to do this in three steps: first, he will argue that Justice is merely a conventional compromise (between harming others with impunity and being their helpless victims), agreed to by people for their own selfish good and socially enforced (this is a crude version of what will later become the social contract theory of Justice in Hobbes); second, he illustrates our allegedly natural selfish preference for being unjust if we can get away with it by the haunting story of the ring of Gages, which provides its wearer with the power to become invisible at will and, thus, to get away with the most wicked of injustices?to which temptation everyone would, sooner or than Justly if one can by contrasting the unjust person whom everyone thinks Just with the Just person who is thought to be unjust, claiming that, of course, it would be better to be the former than the latter.
Almost as soon as Glaucoma finishes, his brother Attendants Jumps in to add two more points to the case against Justice: iris, parents instruct their children to behave Justly not because it is good in itself but merely because it tends to pay off for them; and, secondly, religious teachings are ineffective in encouraging us to avoid injustice because the gods will punish it and to pursue Justice because the gods will reward it, since the gods may not even exist or, if they do, they may well not care about us or, if they are concerned about human behavior, they can be flattered with prayers and bribed with sacrifices to let us get away with wrongdoing (Republic, up. 33-42; Bibb-IEEE). So the challenge for Socrates posed by Plat’s brothers is to show the true nature of Justice and that it is intrinsically valuable rather than only desirable for its contingent consequences. In defending Justice against this Sophist critique, Plato has Socrates construct his own positive theory. This is set up by means of an analogy comparing Justice, on the large scale, as it applies to society, and on a smaller scale, as it applies to an individual soul. Thus Justice is seen as an essential virtue of both a good political state and a good personal character.
The strategy hinges on the idea that the state is like the individual writ large?each comprising three main parts such that it is crucial how they are interrelated?and that analyzing Justice on the large scale will facilitate our doing so on the smaller one. In Book ‘V, after cobbling together his blueprint of the ideal republic, Socrates asks Glaucoma where Justice is to be found, but they agree they will have to search for it together. They agree that, if they have succeeded in establishing the foundations of a “completely good” society, it would have to comprise four pivotal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and Justice. If they can properly identify the other three of those four, whatever remains that is essential to a completely good society must be Justice.
Wisdom is held to be prudent Judgment among leaders; courage is the quality in defenders or protectors whereby they remain steadfast in their convictions and commitments in the face of fear; and temperance (or moderation) is the virtue to be found in all three classes of citizens, but especially in the producers, allowing them all to agree harmoniously that the leaders should lead and everyone else follow. So now, by this process-of-elimination analysis, whatever is left that is essential to a “completely good” society will allegedly be Justice. It then turns out that “Justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own. So the positive side of socio-political Justice is each person doing the tasks assigned to him or her; the negative side is not interfering with others doing their appointed tasks. Now we move from this macro-level of political society to the psychological micro-level of an individual soul, pressing the analogy mentioned above. Plato has Socrates present an argument designed to show hat reason in the soul, corresponding to the leaders or “guardians” of the state, is different from both the appetites, corresponding to the productive class, and the spirited part of the soul, corresponding to the state’s defenders or “auxiliaries” and that the appetites are different from spirit.
Having established the parallel between the three classes of the state and the three parts of the soul, the analogy suggests A good soul is wise, in having good Judgment whereby reason rules; it is courageous in that its spirited part is ready, willing, and able to fight for its convictions in the face f fear; and it is temperate or moderate, harmoniously integrated because all of its parts, especially its dangerous appetitive desires, agree that it should be always under the command of reason. And, again, what is left that is essential is Justice, whereby each part of the soul does the work intended by nature, none of them interfering with the functioning of any other parts.
We are also told in passing that, corresponding to these four pivotal virtues of the moral life, there are four pivotal vices, foolishness, cowardice, self-indulgence, and injustice. One crucial question mains unanswered: can we show that Justice, thus understood, is better than injustice in itself and not merely for its likely consequences? The answer is that, of course, we can because Justice is the health of the soul. Just as health is intrinsically and not Just instrumentally good, so is Justice; injustice is a disease?bad and to be avoided even if it isn’t yet having any undesirable consequences, even if nobody is aware of it (ibid. , up. 3, 102-121; 36th, Dodd-Bibb; it can readily be inferred that this conception of Justice is non-egalitarian; but, to see this point made explicitly, see Laws, up. 229-230; 756-757). Now let us quickly see how Plato applies this theory of justice too particular social issue, before briefly considering the theory critically. In a remarkably progressive passage in Book V of his Republic, Plato argues for equal opportunity for women. He holds that, even though women tend to be physically weaker than men, this should not prove an insuperable barrier to their being educated for the same socio-political functions as men, including those of the top echelons of leadership responsibility. While the body has a gender, it is the soul that is virtuous or vicious.
Despite their different roles in procreation, child-bearing, giving birth, and nursing babies, there is no reason, in principle, why a woman should not be as intelligent and virtuous?including as Just?as men, if properly trained. As much as possible, men and women should share the workload in common (Republic, up. 125-131; 45th-45th). We should note, however, that the rationale is the common good of the community rather than any appeal to what we might consider women’s rights. Nevertheless, many of us today are sympathetic to this application of Justice in support of a view that would not become popular for another two millennia. What of Plat’s theory of Justice itself?
The negative part of it ?his critique of inadequate views of Justice?is a masterful series of arguments against attempts to reduce Justice to a couple of simplistic rules (Cephalic), to treating people merely in accord with how we feel about them (Polymerases), and to the power-politics mentality of exploiting them for our own selfish purposes (Treacherous). All of these views of a Just person or society introduce the sort of relativism and/or subjectivism we have identified with the Sophists. Thus, in refuting hem, Plato, in effect, is refuting the Sophists. However, after the big buildup, the positive part?what he himself maintains Justice is?turns out to be a letdown. His conception of Justice reduces it to order. While some objective sense of order is relevant to Justice, this does not adequately capture the idea of respecting all persons, individually and collectively, as free rational agents.
The analogy between the state and the soul is far too fragile to support the claim that they must agree in nature of Justice only works if those four virtues exhaust the list of what is essential here. But do they? What, for example, of the Christian virtue of love or the secular virtue of benevolence? Finally, the argument from analogy, showing that Justice must be intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally, valuable (because it is like the combination good of health) proves, on critical consideration, to fail. Plat’s theory is far more impressive than the impressionistic view of the Sophists; and it would prove extremely influential in advocating Justice as an objective, disinterested value. Nevertheless, one cannot help hoping that a more cogent theory might yet be developed. B. Aristotle