concept of justice

In this article, Purva Anand discusses the Jurisprudential understanding of Justice.

A few human ideals have persisted in our society for as long as the ideals surrounding “justice”. The relevance of the ancient Greek philosophers that we so often come across, such as Plato and Aristotle in a modern world so different from theirs lies in the unanswered questions they deliberated on. One of these is the concept of “Dikaiosyne” which loosely translates to the spirit of righteousness or justice. This led to the question of ‘what is Justice’? Several centuries later, justice still remains to be an unanswered question with no definite explanation.

Even children, not completely socialised to the “morals” of the grown up world have strong notions of fairness and an acute aversion to apparent injustice. Amartya Sen, says in the introduction to his book ‘The Idea of Justice’ that… “the strong perception of manifest injustice applies to adult human beings as well (as children). What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just – which few of us expect – but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.”

Indicating that (1) justice is a moral- an inbuilt yardstick by which humans can judge their conduct and that of others and not a learnt behavior, (2) we do realise that justice is an unachievable standard and (3) that humans strive to eliminate what they perceive as a correctable injustice that occurs in their surroundings. When it comes to the third point, it brings about a subjectivity in the idea. Every person may perceive a situation differently and estimate it to be just or unjust by his/her own standards (as is often the case with any moral judgement).

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Hence throughout history, different authors have answered the question ‘What is Justice?’ differently.


For Plato, justice lies in virtuous action. Justice occurred when each individual in a society acted in accordance to the virtue or skill they possessed (divided into three groups-the philosophers, the warriors and the artisans). He also emphasized on the bodiment of the principles of justice on the individual level. “Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” i.e. When the three elements of an individual- reason, spirit and appetite performed their own functions without interference into the other elements.


On the other hand, Aristotle viewed justice as fairness among individuals and developed the ideas of distributive justice, fairness in distribution of goods and opportunities to individuals and in case of a fault in it, corrective justice comes into play. Reflections of Aristotle’s corrective justice can be found in the statement (pt3) above- humans strive to eliminate injustices.

John Rawls

John Rawls in his book “A Theory of Justice” emphasizes justice in “the first virtue of social intuition as truth is of system of thought”. He relates justice to the social institutions which form the basis and manipulate the thoughts and acts of human beings. In turn to ensure just and fair social institutions, the establishment of such institutions must be under the “veil of ignorance” by social contract, i.e. all individuals to make collective decisions regarding society being unaware of their natural abilities, social and economic standing.
For example- consider two alternative options and B of a city having five inhabitants and total resources as 100. The total resources are distributed as follows:
A- 10,10,10,10,60
B- 20,20,20,20,20

If it was known to us that we are the fifth citizen, alternative A, although extreme, would appeal to us the most but under the veil of ignorance, the alternative B is likely to be chosen. Why?

The direct consequence of the veil would be for all to choose the alternative that would benefit the maximum and would be closest to the “just and moral” action. Uniform ideas of what is fair, what the are the rights to be guaranteed, what opportunities should be given, what decisions must further be made, prevail in society. The veil of ignorance removes personal biases, conduces rational decisions and aligns the self interest of each individual with the entire group, as he does not know his identity thus ensuring a uniform idea of all. A uniform idea of just action.

Prof. Amartya Sen

The modern discourse about justice has travelled far away from this idea. Rigid insistence that there could only be one precise combination of principles that could serve as the basis of ideal social justice has been greatly questioned. Prof. Amartya Sen perhaps best elaborates this stand via his story of “Three Children and a Flute”.

“Anne, Bob and Carla contesting for the ownership and possession of a flute. Anne being the only one knowing how to play a flute claims it for herself. Bob on the other hand counters with claims of poverty and him being unable to buy a flute. Carla claims to have actually made the flute by her own skill and claims she is entitled to own it.”

To a perfectly neutral individual, all three are good in their claims, their claims being backed by different perspective theories of justice. Anne should have the rightful possession according to the utalitarian view, and similarly Bob according to the egalitarian and Carla according to the liberatians. One of my colleagues also offered a more unique and elaborate solution- Carla should have ownership, but Anne should be allowed to play the flute for money which should in turn be given to Bob. On more critical view, is Carla being denied of her possession, Anne being deprived of the money she had earned by her skill, and Bob gaining money in exchange of no contribution fair? So what exactly is just?

Referencing back to the initial position Justice still remains to be an unanswered question with no definite explanation, perhaps best said by Prof. Sen himself “there may not indeed exist any identifiable perfectly just social arrangement on which impartial agreement would emerge” and the choosing of any one alternative can appear to be just but is instead arbitrary.

There have been several theories and ideological conflicts regarding the word “Justice” but despite of this there are several instances of injustice happening in our world. Justice and injustice are arch enemies of each other which cannot co-exist, further quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Hence the only conclusive and correct statement is “Justice is the absence & removal of Injustices”.


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