Everyone, well nearly everyone, is passionately in favour of justice. It is almost the one single core rallying virtue for humanity. It’s surprising then that justice is in fact indefinable! This is where the endless argument starts. One person’s, or one society’s view of what is just is often very different to that of another person or social group.
Criminal justice may be able to rely on more absolutes, but economic and political justice are far more relative and elusive. In these areas, we don’t in fact want some abstract universal principle of justice, because it can’t be defined and so doesn’t exist. We want our interpretation of justice.
There are frequent calls for distributive justice. Wealth and income should be redistributed from the rich to the poor. But is this always necessarily fair? Such calls would be fair if one person were better off because he/she had cheated the poorer person. Or if their wealth were a question of arbitrary inheritance. But are these always the reasons why some people are better off than others? If it’s due to their greater work or capability, should they be credited with their gain?
John Rawls in ‘A Theory of Justice’ argues that ‘social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society’, his well known ‘maximin’ principle of distributive justice. But Robert Nozick in ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ regards unequal outcomes as just if they derive from equal opportunity starts and free exchange. Aristotle famously said ‘The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal’.
Rawls was heavily influenced by Isaiah Berlin who regularly pointed out that moral objectives can sometimes clash, as for example the values of freedom and equality do – we cannot have both without constraint because freedom may very well generate inequality. There is therefore no unique overall moral absolute, no single definition of justice, even for this reason that values trade off against each other.
David Hume thought that five conditions caused justice to cease to have value. These were conditions of extreme abundance, universal love, extreme poverty or violence, unequal strength and power between people, and isolation of people from each other. His thinking on this was limited and wrong. Extreme abundance may eliminate economic or property injustice, but not for example the injustice of murder. Universal love or altruism may indeed seem to make justice redundant, but rather it may seek and implement a justice which still has to be defined. There is no reason why extreme poverty or inequality should render justice inoperative – quite the contrary as these conditions highlight the need for justice.
Some hold the view that injustice only exists where a situation is enforced ; critics point out that entirely voluntary situations can still be defined as unjust. A further question is whether some relationship between parties is necessary for justice to be defined – is it unjust if two societies who have no contact with each other have very different standards of living?
The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen in his ‘The Idea of Justice’ argues with John Rawls’ theory of justice in that it relies on just institutions working with a social contract towards a transcendental vision of a perfectly just society, which may be unachievable. Sen critiques this for ignoring real actual achievable outcomes, excluding wider interests, and failing to address behaviour. He proposes instead that justice should operate by comparing actual outcomes through a process of unrestricted public reasoning.
Sen might be right in saying that just institutions do not guarantee just outcomes. His conceptualisation of justice is a bottom up process of ‘public reasoning’ but he doesn’t show how it could work. More importantly, he fails to show how reason and public reasoning necessarily promote just outcomes. The puzzle of the Enlightenment which Sen’s proposal highlights is that reason and reasonableness have no necessary link. Reason does not require or drive virtue. Ethics are arbitrary and justice is indefinable.
Sen offers one example, of whether a flute should belong to a child who can play it, a child who has no other toys, or the child who made it. His example demonstrates the problem of defining justice. The base hypothesis of justice would be that the child who has made the flute owns it. Providing that the producer child used her own materials and equipment (and Sen fails to make the crucial point that more detailed information is needed here and in every situational determination of justice), then on what possible basis can two other children who want the flute claim it from the child who made it? If the producer simply has to give the flute to another child then there are unlikely to be any more flutes made. Sen also omits any creative solutions such as sharing of the flute, training other children how to make flutes themselves etc. In the end Sen’s ‘Idea of Justice’ fails to solve the one simple example he offers and leaves justice as an unresolved dilemma.
It is clear that there is massive inequality in the world today. Inequality of outcome, but of opportunity as well. If there is doubt and debate about the equalisation of outcomes, there can surely be less or none about equalisation of opportunity. And yet children’s life chances within and between countries are hugely different as a result of different educational opportunity. Justice would require that all children get a good and equal start. Justice therefore requires sacrifice of selfishness – simply maximising my children’s potential without any regard for other people’s children, and in some implicit way even competitively against them, does not accord with justice or with any of the other virtues that go with it.
Justice requires further qualities and cannot stand as an independent mono value. Justice needs mercy. Mercy is justice’s balancing virtue. Justice can be severe or it can be merciful. This is a question of choice. Justice also needs truth. Without knowing the totality of all relevant facts, and without understanding the context and nuances of these facts, justice cannot be applied, or else is applied blindly and is in danger of being an injustice itself. It is interpreted through generosity and through wisdom.
Not all injustice can be assuaged or corrected. There is simply too much of it around. Legal arguments and settlements to resolve it all would go on for ever. Attempts to compensate for past injustices such as slavery are bound to be incomplete. Shell shocked soldiers who were shot by their own army as deserters cannot be brought back to life. A thief cannot necessarily restore what has been stolen. So some compromise has to be reached and that requires justice’s moderating virtues of generosity and mercy, as well as the grace to bear some injustice in an imperfect world in the interest of establishing a more just ongoing world.