What Is Justice?

Just as we intuitively understand what love means even if we cannot explain all its different shades of meaning, we also have an intuitive understanding of justice even though we may not be able to define it precisely. In that sense justice is a lot like love. In addition, both love and justice evoke passionate responses from their advocates. And as with love, no one hates justice, everyone wants justice for oneself and to some extent for others also. But unlike love, which is an aspect of our relationships with a few people whom we know well, justice concerns our life in society, the way in which public life is ordered and the principles according to which social goods and social duties are distributed among different members of society.

All cultures and traditions have grappled with questions of justice although they may have interpreted the concept in different ways.

  • in ancient Indian society, justice was associated with dharma and maintaining dharma or a just social order, was considered to be a primary duty of kings;
  • in China, Confucius, the famous philosopher argued that kings should maintain justice by punishing wrong doers and rewarding the virtuous;
  • in fourth century B.C. Athens (Greece), Plato discussed issues of justice in his book The Republic.

Through a long dialogue between Socrates and his young friends, Glaucon and deimantus, Plato examined why we should be concerned about justice. The young people ask Socrates why we should be just. They observe that people who were unjust seemed to be much better off than those who were just. Those who twisted rules to serve their interests, avoided paying taxes and were willing to lie and be deceitful, were often more successful than those who were truthful and just. If one were smart enough to avoid being caught then it would seem that being unjust is better than being just. You may have heard people expressing similar sentiments even today.

“They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by the lawful and just.”
(Glaucon to Socrates in The Republic).

Socrates reminds these young people that if everyone were to be unjust, if everyone manipulated rules to suit their own interests, no one could be sure of benefiting from injustice. Nobody would be secure and this was likely to harm all of them. Hence, it is in our own long term interest to obey the laws and be just. Socrates clarified that we need to understand clearly what justice means in order to figure out why it is important to be just. He explained that justice does not only mean doing good to our friends and harm to our enemies, or pursuing our own interests. Justice involves the well-being of all people. Just as a doctor is concerned with the well-being of his/her patients, similarly the just ruler or the just government must be concerned with the well-being of the people. Ensuring the well-being of the people includes giving each person his due.

The idea that justice involves giving each person his due continues to be an important part of our present day understanding of justice. However, our understanding of what is due to a person has changed from the time of Plato. Today, our understanding of what is just is closely linked to our understanding of what is due to each person as a human being. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, human beings possess dignity. If all persons are granted dignity then what is due to each of them is that they have the opportunity to develop their talents and pursue their chosen goals. Justice requires that we give due and equal consideration to all individuals.

Equal Treatment for Equals

Although there might be broad agreement in modern society about the equal importance of all people, it is not a simple matter to decide how to give each person his/her due. A number of different principles have been put forward in this regard. One of the principles is the principle of treating equals equally. It is considered that all individuals share certain characteristics as human beings. Therefore they deserve equal rights and equal treatment. Some of the important rights which are granted in most liberal democracies today include civil rights such as the rights of life, liberty and property, political rights like the right to vote, which enable people to participate in political processes, and certain social rights which would include the right to enjoy equal opportunities with other members of the society.

Apart from equal rights, the principle of treating equals equally would require that people should not be discriminated against on grounds of class, caste, race or gender. They should be judged on the basis of their work and actions and not on the basis of the group to which they belong. Therefore, if two persons from different castes perform the same kind of work, whether it be breaking stones or delivering Pizzas, they should receive the same kind of reward. If a person gets one hundred rupees for some work and another receives only seventy five rupees for the same work because they belong to different castes, then it would be unfair or unjust. Similarly, if a male teacher in a school gets a higher salary than a female teacher, then this difference would also be unjustifiable and wrong.

Proportionate Justice

Equal treatment is not the only principle of justice. There could be circumstances in which we might feel that treating everybody equally would be unjust.

For instance, how would you react if it was decided in your school that all those who did an exam should get equal marks because they are all students of the same school and did the same exam? Here you might think it would be more fair if students were awarded marks according to the quality of their answer papers and also, possibly, the degree of effort they had put in.

In other words, provided everybody starts from the same base line of equal rights, justice in such cases would mean rewarding people in proportion to the scale and quality of their effort.

Most people would agree that although people should get the same reward for the same work, it would be fair and just to reward different kinds of work differently if we take into account factors such as the effort required, the skills required, the possible dangers involved in that work, and so on.

If we use these criteria we may find that certain kinds of workers in our society are not paid a wage which takes such factors sufficiently into account. For instance, miners, skilled craftsmen, or people in sometimes dangerous but socially useful professions like policemen, may not always get a reward which is just if we compare it to what some others in society may be earning.

For justice in society, the principle of equal treatment needs to be balanced with the principle of proportionality.

Recognition of Special Needs

Third principle of justice which we recognise is for a society to take into account special needs of people while distributing rewards or duties. This would be considered a way of promoting social justice.

In terms of their basic status and rights as members of the society justice may require that people be treated equally. But even nondiscrimination between people and rewarding them proportionately to their efforts might not be enough to ensure that people enjoy equality in other aspects of their lives in society nor that the society as a whole is just.

The principle of taking account of the special needs of people does not necessarily contradict the principle of equal treatment so much as extend it because the principle of treating equals equally could imply that people who are not equal in certain important respects could be treated differently.

People with special needs or disabilities could be considered unequal in some particular respect and deserving of special help.

But it is not always easy to get agreement regarding which inequalities of people should be recognised for providing them special help. Physical disabilities, age or lack of access to good education or health care, are some of the factors which are considered grounds for special treatment in many countries. It is believed that if people who enjoy very different standard of living and opportunities are treated equally in all respects with those who have been deprived of even the basic minimum need to live a healthy and productive life, the result is likely to be an unequal society, not an egalitarian and just one.

In our country, lack of access to good education or health care and other such facilities is often found combined with social discrimination on grounds of caste. The Constitution therefore allowed for reservations of government jobs and quotas for admissions to educational institutions for people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Governments might sometimes find it difficult to harmonise the three principles of justice which have been discussed —

  • equal treatment for equals;
  • recognition of different efforts and skills while determining rewards and burdens;
  • provision of minimum standard of living and equal opportunities to the needy.

Pursuing equality of treatment by itself might sometimes work against giving due reward to merit. Emphasising rewarding merit as the main principle of justice might mean that marginalised sections would be at a disadvantage in many areas because they have not had access to facilities such as good nourishment or education. Different groups in the country might favour different policies depending upon which principle of justice they emphasise. It then becomes a function of governments to harmonise the different principles to promote a just society.


Bibliography : NCERT – Political Theory


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