Conceptions of justice

Mary asks:

Is Justice the same as fairness? If there is a difference, what is it?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Fairness is just one conception of the concept “justice”. There are others, as I will explain.

We are talking about distributive or social justice – who gets what – not retributive justice (apt punishment for crime).

The main conceptions of distributive justice are:

  1. Justice as fairness.
  2. Justice as entitlement.
  3. Justice as desert

Here, I can give only a mere sketch of each.

1. The most famous advocate of justice as fairness is John Rawls. He thinks we are more likely to choose fair principles if we dont know how these will affect us as  individuals – if I dont know which bit of the cake I will get, I am more likely to cut fairly. He imagines people choosing behind a “veil of ignorance” – I dont know what talents or status I will have in the society we are making choices about. I might for instance, be an old, white, married man with a good job, or I might be a young, black, unmarried woman on welfare looking after three children. So my choices wont be biased toward either, or to any other social group. He thinks we would thereby choose equal basic liberties, equal opportunity to train for any job, and inequalities justified only if they serve to maximize the position of the worst of. This last principle, the difference principle, is his most contentious. Rawls’s view is in the hypothetical social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

2. The best-known advocate of justice as entitlement is Rawls’s colleague, Robert Nozick. He disagrees that justice is about agreeing fair principles by imagining we dont know how lucky or unlucky we have been in life’s lottery. Rather it’s about protecting people’s legitimate rights to their property. If we own things by initial acquisition and legitimate transfers, then we are entitled to them and to do with them as we wish. He feels that taxation is theft by the state, objects to the state as redistributor, and favours laissez-faire. He’s not saying it’s always fair or that people deserve what they get, often they dont, it’s just their good or bad luck, but it’s not a matter of justice as he sees it.

3. Justice as desert is the view of most non-philosophers. The conventional position is that a person can deserve to earn more than another even if due to factors beyond their control. So, Jane Plain and Christiano Ronaldo work equally hard in demanding jobs, she as a social worker, he as a footballer, but Ronaldo deserves his much higher earnings because is blessed by exceptional ball skills greatly in demand by clubs and fans. An extreme view is that people dont deserve to earn more if they work hard or have talent, because a person’s hard-working character or talent is something they have by luck.. More popular is a mixed view, that people dont deserve more for things beyond their control, such as being born rich, but do for things that are a matter of choice, like working hard or making sacrifices to obtain qualifications.

So, Rawls might think it unfair, and therefore unjust, that Ronaldo earns so much, but the injustice can be mitigated if his high earnings are heavily taxed to help provide funds for the public good and the needy. Nozick might agree it’s unfair, but so what, justice isnt about fairness. He might also think Ronaldo doesnt deserve all that money, but again so what, justice isnt about desert. It’s about entitlement, and surely Ronaldo is entitled to accept pay offers freely made to him. Most non-philosophers think it’s a matter of whether Ronaldo deserves his high earnings: some think he deserves every penny of it, others think that he does deserve high earnings but top footballers’ pay has got out of hand and they now get more than anybody deserves.

As individuals we mostly use a mixture of these three conceptions of justice as we judge the various actions and situations we encounter. Likewise a state’s laws and constitution are likely to be a mix.

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