Evidence about the Nazi Ernst Kaltenbrunner's war crimes is presented at the Nuremberg trials.

Justice, in its broadest sense, is the concept that individuals are to be treated in a manner that is equitable and fair.

A society in which justice has been achieved would be one in which individuals receive what they "deserve". The interpretation of what "deserve" means draws on a variety of fields and philosophies, like ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity and fairness. The state may be said to pursue justice by operating courts and enforcing their rulings.


A variety of philosophical and moral theories have been advanced to inform understanding of justice.

Early theories of justice were set out by the Ancient Greek philosophers Plato, in his work The Republic, and Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.

Religious explanations of the justice can be grouped under divine command theory, which holds that justice issues from God.

Western thinkers later advanced different theories of where foundations of justice lie. In the 17th century, philosophers such as John Locke said justice derives from natural law. Social contract theory, advocated by thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that justice derives from the mutual agreement of members of society to be governed in a political order. In the 19th century, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill said that justice is served by what creates the best outcomes for the greatest number of people.

Modern frameworks include concepts such as distributive justice, egalitarianism, retributive justice, and restorative justice. Distributive justice considers what is fair based on what goods are to be distributed, between whom they are to be distributed, and what is the proper distribution. Egalitarians suggest justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality. Theories of retributive justice say justice is served by punishing wrongdoers, whereas restorative justice (also sometimes called "reparative justice") is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of victims and offenders.

Harmony and the early Greeks

Justice, according to Plato, is about balance and harmony. It represents the right relationship between conflicting aspects within an individual or a community. He defines justice as everyone having and doing what they are responsible for or what belongs to them. In other words, a just person is someone who contributes to society according to their unique abilities and receives what is proportionate to their contribution. They are in the right place, always striving to do their best, and reciprocating what they receive in a fair and equitable manner. This applies both at the individual level and at the organizational and societal levels.

An example of a Justice according to Plato's character "Socrates" would be a person is born to be a cobbler (their nature), who has the virtue (temperance) of the economic class (social position), employed as a cobbler (occupation), and doing their work well (expertise) - thus benefitting the state's economy for all others' happiness which is has the Form of "Good". Contrariwise, an example of Injustice would be a person whose nature is that of a cobbler (their nature), who lacks the virtue (wisdom) needed from the ruling class (social position), and is employed as head of state (occupation), doing that work poorly (expertise) - thus ruining the government, military, and economy which provide for the happiness of all citizens which fits within the Form of "Bad"

To illustrate these ideas, Plato describes a person's as having three parts: reason, spirit, and desire. These parallel the three parts of a city in his philosophy, which he describes through the metaphor of a chariot: it functions effectively when the charioteer, representative of reason, successfully controls the two horses, symbolizing spirit and desire. Continuing on these themes, Plato theorizes that those who love wisdom, or philosophers, are the most ideal to govern because only they truly comprehend the nature of the good. Just like one would seek a doctor's expertise in matters of health rather than a farmer's, so should the city entrust its governance to someone knowledgeable about the good, rather than to politicians who might prioritize power over people's genuine needs. Socrates later used 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), the latter of whom being the only one who knows how to get the ship to port.

Divine command and Religious Theories of Justice

Advocates of divine command theory say 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 God's relationship with humanity, others assert that God must be obeyed because God is goodness itself, and thus doing God's command would be best for everyone.

An early 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 the gods because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by the gods?" 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 the gods, 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.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims traditionally believe that justice is a present, real, right, and, specifically, governing concept along with mercy, and that justice is ultimately derived from and held by God. According to the Bible, such institutions as the Mosaic Law were created by God to require the Israelites to live by and apply God's standards of justice.

The Hebrew Bible describes God as saying about the Judeo-Christian patriarch Abraham: "No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice;...." (Genesis 18:19, NRSV). The Psalmist describes God as having "Righteousness and justice [as] the foundation of [His] throne;...." (Psalms 89:14, NRSV).

The New Testament also describes God and Jesus Christ as having and displaying justice, often in comparison with God displaying and supporting mercy (Matthew 5:7).

Natural law

Justitia by Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556. Justitia carries symbolic items such as: a sword, scales and a blindfold

For advocates of the theory that justice is part of natural law (e.g., John Locke), justice inheres in the nature of man.

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.

Instrumental theories of justice

Walter Seymour Allward's Justitia (Justice), outside Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario Canada

Instrumental theories of justice look at the consequences of punishment for wrongdoing, looking at questions such as:

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

In broad terms, utilitarian theories look forward to the future consequences of punishment, retributive theories look back to particular acts of wrongdoing and attempt to match them with appropriate punishment, and restorative theories look at the needs of victims and society and seek to repair the harms from wrongdoing.


According to the utilitarian, justice requires the maximization of the total or average welfare across all relevant individuals. Punishment fights crime in 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 that maximize welfare. This matches some strong intuitions about just punishment: that it should generally be proportional to the crime.
  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 unwanted things (like suffering)". So, utilitarianism could recommend punishment that changes someone such that they are less likely to cause bad things.
  3. Security/Incapacitation. Perhaps there are people who are irredeemable causers of bad things. If so, imprisoning them might maximize welfare by limiting their opportunities to cause harm and therefore the benefit lies within protecting society.

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. 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 argues that consequentialism is wrong, as it argues that all guilty individuals deserve appropriate punishment, based on the conviction that punishment should be proportional to the crime and for all the guilty. However, it is sometimes said that retributivism is merely revenge in disguise. However, there are differences between retribution and revenge: the former is impartial and has a scale of appropriateness, whereas the latter is personal and potentially unlimited in scale.

Restorative justice

Restorative justice is a justice approach that prioritizes the needs of victims and offenders, focusing on their needs rather than abstract legal principles. It encourages active participation from victims and encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions, leading to higher satisfaction rates.

Restorative justice fosters dialogue between victim and offender shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.

Mixed theories

Some modern philosophers have said that Utilitarian and Retributive theories are not mutually exclusive. For example, Andrew von Hirsch, in his 1976 book Doing Justice, suggested that we have a moral obligation to punish greater crimes more than lesser ones. However, so long as we adhere to that constraint then utilitarian ideals would play a significant secondary role.



Bonino da Campione, Justice, c. 1357, National Gallery of Art

It has been said that 'systematic' or 'programmatic' political and moral philosophy in the West begins, in Plato's Republic, with the question, 'What is Justice?' According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." In classical approaches, evident from Plato through to Rawls, the concept of 'justice' is always construed in logical or 'etymological' opposition to the concept of injustice. Such approaches cite various examples of injustice, as problems which a theory of justice must overcome. A number of post-World War II approaches do, however, challenge that seemingly obvious dualism between those two concepts. Justice can be thought of as distinct from benevolence, charity, prudence, mercy, generosity, or compassion, although these dimensions are regularly understood to also be interlinked. Justice is the concept of cardinal virtues, of which it is one. Metaphysical justice has often been associated with concepts of fate, reincarnation or Divine Providence, i.e., with a life in accordance with a cosmic plan.

The equivalence of justice and fairness has been historically and culturally established.

Equality before the law

Law raises important and complex issues about equality, fairness, and justice. There is an old saying that 'All are equal before the law'. The belief in equality before the law is called legal egalitarianism. In criticism of this belief, the author Anatole France said in 1894, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread." With this saying, France illustrated the fundamental shortcoming of a theory of legal equality that remains blind to social inequality; the same law applied to all may have disproportionately harmful effects on the least powerful.

Relational justice

Relational justice examines individual connections and societal relationships, focusing on normative and political aspects. Rawls' theory of justice aims to distribute social goods to benefit the poor, but does not consider power relations, political structures, or social meanings. Even Rawls' self-respect is not compatible with distribution. Iris Marion Young charges that distributive accounts of justice fail to provide an adequate way of conceptualizing political justice in that they fail to take into account many of the demands of ordinary life and that a relational view of justice grounded upon understanding the differences among social groups offers a better approach, one which acknowledges unjust power relations among individuals, groups, and institutional structures. Young Kim also takes a relational approach to the question of justice, but departs from Iris Marion Young's political advocacy of group rights and instead, he emphasizes the individual and moral aspects of justice. As to its moral aspects, he said that justice includes responsible actions based on rational and autonomous moral agency, with the individual as the proper bearer of rights and responsibilities. Politically, he maintains that the proper context for justice is a form of liberalism with the traditional elements of liberty and equality, together with the concepts of diversity and tolerance.

Classical liberalism

Equality before the law is one of the basic principles of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism calls for equality before the law, not for equality of outcome. Classical liberalism opposes pursuing group rights at the expense of individual rights. In addition to equality, individual liberty serves as a core notion of classical liberalism. As to the liberty component, British social and political theorist, philosopher, and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin identifies positive and negative liberty in "Two Concepts of Liberty", subscribing to a view of negative liberty, in the form of freedom from governmental interference. He further extends the concept of negative liberty in endorsing John Stuart Mills' harm principle: "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually and collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection", which represents a classical liberal view of liberty.


In political theory, liberalism includes two traditional elements: liberty and equality. Most contemporary theories of justice emphasize the concept of equality, including Rawls' theory of justice as fairness. For Ronald Dworkin, a complex notion of equality is the sovereign political virtue. Dworkin raises the question of whether society is under a duty of justice to help those responsible for the fact that they need help. Complications arise in distinguishing matters of choice and matters of chance, as well as justice for future generations in the redistribution of resources that he advocates.


In legal theory, equity is seen as the concept connecting law to justice, since law cannot be applied without reference to justice. In that context, justice is seen as 'the rationale and the ethical foundation of equity'.

Theories of sentencing

In criminal law, a sentence forms the final explicit act of a judge-ruled process, and also the symbolic principal act connected to his function. The sentence can generally involve a decree of imprisonment, a fine and/or other punishments against a defendant convicted of a crime. Laws may specify the range of penalties that can be imposed for various offenses, and sentencing guidelines sometimes regulate what punishment within those ranges can be imposed given a certain set of offense and offender characteristics. The most common purposes of sentencing in legal theory are:

Theory Aim of theory Suitable punishment
Retribution Punishment imposed for no reason other than an offense being committed, on the basis that if proportionate, punishment is morally acceptable as a response that satisfies the aggrieved party, their intimates and society.
  • Tariff sentences
  • Sentence must be proportionate to the crime
  • To the individual – the individual is deterred through fear of further punishment.
  • To the general public – Potential offenders warned as to likely punishment
  • Prison Sentence
  • Heavy Fine
  • Long sentence as an example to others
Rehabilitation To reform the offender's behavior
  • Individualized sentences
  • Community service orders
  • moral education
  • vocational education
Incapacitation Offender is made incapable of committing further crime to protect society at large from crime
  • Long prison sentence
  • Electronic tagging
  • Banning orders
Reparation Repayment to victim(s) or to community
  • Compensation
  • Unpaid work
  • Reparation Schemes
Denunciation Society expressing its disapproval reinforcing moral boundaries
  • Reflects blameworthiness of offense
  • punishment in public
  • punishment reported to public

In civil cases the decision is usually known as a verdict, or judgment, rather than a sentence. Civil cases are settled primarily by means of monetary compensation for harm done ("damages") and orders intended to prevent future harm (for example injunctions). Under some legal systems an award of damages involves some scope for retribution, denunciation and deterrence, by means of additional categories of damages beyond simple compensation, covering a punitive effect, social disapprobation, and potentially, deterrence, and occasionally disgorgement (forfeit of any gain, even if no loss was caused to the other party).

Evolutionary perspectives

Evolutionary ethics and evolution of morality suggest evolutionary bases for the concept of justice. Biosocial criminology research says that human perceptions of what is appropriate criminal justice are based on how to respond to crimes in the ancestral small-group environment and that these responses may not always be appropriate for today's societies.

Reactions to fairness

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 involving capuchin monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that "inequity aversion may not be uniquely human".

Institutions and justice

In a world where people are interconnected but they disagree, institutions are required to instantiate ideals of justice. 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 the world fails to live up to, sometimes due to deliberate opposition to justice despite understanding, which could be disastrous. The question of institutive justice raises issues of legitimacy, procedure, codification and interpretation, which are considered by legal theorists and by philosophers of law. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 emphasizes the need for strong institutions in order to uphold justice.


There has been research into victim's perspective of justice following crimes. Victims find respectful treatment, information and having a voice important for a sense of justice as well as the perception of a fair procedure.

Pemberton et al propose a "Big 2" model of justice in terms agency and communion, membership in a society. Victims experience a loss of perception of agency due to a loss of control as well as a loss of communion if the offender is a member of their social group, but may also lose trust in others or institutions. It can shatter an individual's trust that they live in a just and moral world. This suggests that a sense of justice can be restored by increasing a sense of communion and agency rather than through retribution or restoration.

Theories of distributive justice

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

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).

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. Social justice is also associated with social mobility, especially the ease with which individuals and families may move between social strata. Social justice is distinct from cosmopolitanism, which is the idea that all people belong to a single global community with a shared morality. 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. 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.

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. 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.


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 do not know who in particular we are, and therefore can not bias the decision in our own favor. So, the decision-in-ignorance models fairness, because it excludes selfish bias. Rawls said 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) the good of liberty rights 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).

In one sense, theories of distributive justice may assert that everyone should get what they deserve. Theories vary on the meaning of what is "deserved". The main distinction is between theories that say the basis of just deserts ought to be held equally by everyone, and therefore derive egalitarian accounts of distributive justice – and theories that say 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.

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 is a needs-based theory, expressed succinctly in 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.

Property rights

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick said 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:

  • Just acquisition, especially by working on unowned things; and
  • 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 does not have or need is irrelevant.

On the basis of this theory of distributive justice, Nozick said 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 (such as Nozick) also take a consequentialist view of distributive justice and say 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. The result is that the world is better off in an absolute sense and no one is worse off. They say 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 unlawfully.


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, says 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.

See also

Other pages

Types of justice

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