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What Do You Mean by "Justice"?


Suppose you hold in your hand the winning lottery ticket. The prize is 150 million dollars!


Having done your due diligence and put a plan in place, you go to redeem your ticket and retrieve the prize. Yet, en route, you are mugged by a thief, beaten, and relieved of your winning ticket and receipt.


Putting aside an itch for more details to the story, what would be your moral appraisal of this situation?


You might simply say, “The thief did something wrong to me.”


Sure, that’s fine. Probably correct. But why?


What makes what he did wrong? Any ideas? What are your go-to “ethics tools” that you use to describe or explain the morality of a given situation?


Might I suggest a classic concept - Justice.


It was unjust that your ticket was taken from you. Perhaps this adds a dimension to the rather “thin” concept of wrongness.


But if you’re like me, you’ll want to pry a bit further. Ok, but what makes something unjust? Philosophers have been trying to articulate this for millenia, and there are some incredibly helpful entries into that storied catalogue.

To make things simple, let’s briefly peek at two main views: Justice as Right Order and Justice as Rights Respecting.


The Justice as Right Order view maintains that justice is something achieved when everything is working as it should in its proper place, within a properly functioning system. The system of society, when working well, is one where denizens don’t thieve from each other. That is, the just society is one without thievery. Now, of course, the rubber meets the road as we ask how to curb the thieving that does occur and how to procure justice after injustice has occurred. Public policy suggestions abound.


The same questions can be asked of the other view, Justice as Rights Respecting. On this view, individuals have a certain collection of rights, whether natural or conferred, that ought to be respected. I have a right to not be stolen from, all things considered. I personally have been violated, a wrong has been done to me. Injustice occurs, not so much when the system isn’t functioning properly, but when I, the bearer of rights, and others like me, have my rights violated or disrespected.


We don’t need to pick one right now, and there may be a good argument for adopting both simultaneously into our ethical theorizing. Yet, we have enough so far to begin to see an issue with our current cultural moment:


People are using the term “justice” all over the place, yet it’s multiple possible meanings cause people to talk past each other. Some may have an unconscious commitment that one’s view of justice precludes a different view, or worse, obviously mandates certain public policies.


To complicate matters, additional ethical vocabulary gets added to the strange brew of cultural conversation via social media: fairness, equality, equity, liberation, victimhood, privilege, harm, benefit, freedom, and others. What do any of these have to do with justice - and what view of justice is adopted when drawing the connections?


Depending on what connections are made, well-intentioned and reasonable people might disagree about whether justice demands certain courses of action. For example, a concept of justice that prizes equity likely would lead someone to recommend a different set of policies than one who adopted a concept of justice that values the increase of liberty. But simply claiming to be on the side of justice doesn’t work. We need more productive conversation than that.


If you are curious about these topics, join us for part 1 of our 2 part conversation on justice. You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.


Stay Curious!