Digest of terms


a key value in human society, but endlessly controversial. It was summarized in classical antiquity as suum cuique, to each his/her due. Yet what is due to people? Two main areas need to be distinguished: social justice, and legal justice. Yet while their spheres are different, both rely ultimately on moral values, prominent among which are fairness, rights, and some notion of equality.

Legal (or penal) justice is the province of criminal and civil law, and in both cases the principle of equality before the law is important: cases should be decided on their merits, not on the social status of the people involved. This was not always so, thus modern legal systems presuppose a distinctive egalitarian morality of fairness. Various punishments may be thought due to those found legally guilty, but there is disagreement regarding their ultimate justification. Main reasons adduced are: protection of society (imprisonment prevents further victims); deterrence (as discouragement to imitation); reform and rehabilitation (to the ultimate benefit of society); and retribution.

Retributive justice is retaliatory in a 'payback' sense against the person(s) responsible for unjust actions and consequences. Its most common form is that of 'an eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth' (the 'lex talionis', law of retaliation) i.e. seeking direct equivalence of the hurt experienced. Exponents say that the logic of justice requires a direct match, and arguably, even if one rejects the idea of strict retribution, in societies lacking a formal legal system, police and prisons, this was at least a necessary system of deterrence. Today, though, critics complain that it uses wrong against wrong, brutality against brutality, and that justice should be a merciful and not just a mechanical calculation. This connects with ideals of reform and rehabilitation. Conceptions of legal justice remain hotly contested, and critics argue that practice (unsurprisingly) lacks consistency.

Social justice is concerned with the distribution of benefits and burdens in society (and is known also as distributive justice). In the broadest terms we find hierarchical and egalitarian models of social justice, each permitting rival interpretations.

Hierarchical systems appeal to alleged relevant differences between people. These include, or have traditionally included, differences of race, sex, nobility of birth ('blue blood'), and caste. In modern liberalism they include differences between people in terms of contribution to society, and relatedly of merit or desert, leading to advocacy of a meritocracy..

Egalitarian systems appeal to the importance of satisfying basic needs, which are common to all, and shared citizenship with respect for equal civil (as well as human) rights.

Both systems claim to be fair - so fairness too can be a contested concept. In Europe, though, very much more than in America, varieties of each system are credited with important value, giving rise to what are in effect hybrid models of some kind of welfare state.

Debates concerning justice, both legal and social, often mesh with religious considerations, either in respect of belief in the personal justice of God, or the impersonal mechanism of karma. The latter is held to support social justice as hierarchy; the former is claimed in support of both models. In respect of legal justice, it is plausible to see the different human ideas of punishment colouring people's conceptions of God, and having been once attributed, are then reclaimed in support of one's own preferred position. This would be contested by traditional believers in revelation - a view that can lead to positions being held with marked intransigence, not least where particular misdemeanours are held to merit divinely sanctioned punishments. In such cases there is a tendency by some to arrogate to humanity the task of punishment properly left to God; while there is a further tendency to a reluctance to countenance the possibility that punishments appropriate in the original scriptural settings may need to be rethought in today's very different circumstances.

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