Posted by: dacalu | 7 December 2012

What Kind of Justice Is That?

Justice means giving to each in proper proportion.

Justice is an abstract principle.  It has no flesh to it.  This can be a challenge on occasion for, while we may all agree to seek justice, we seldom agree on exactly what that means.  A number of ideologies exist that inform how we view justice.

1)   To each equally – egalitarian.  This principle says that every person should have equal rights, opportunities and privileges regardless of any other factor.  It is one of the dominant schools of thought in America, even though it is completely incompatible with

2)   To each according to their ability – meritocratic.  This principle says that every person should be entitled to what they produce.  In the US, the closest we come to consistency is to say that the government should provide according to 1, but should never interfere with #2.

3)   To each according to their need – charitable. This principle says that every person should have the minimal level of rights, opportunities, and privileges necessary to some standard of living.  This concept of justice motivates international concepts of human rights and US laws regarding disabilities, minority groups, and poverty.  I would argue that this is the Christian standard (see, for example Mt. 25:34-46).

4)   To each according to their station – classist.  This principle says that different classes of people deserve different treatment based on their place in society.  It may be defended on the basis of 2, 3, or 5 or simply stated as a truism about the universe.  The US has largely rejected classism, though remnants appear in formal address, a few prerogatives of clergy, and in the military.

5)   To each according to the greater good – functionalist.  This principle says privileges and opportunities should be assigned in a way that maximizes the benefit to society as a whole.  Once again, we can see that different ideas of what’s good for society will make this work dramatically differently for different people; a clear example, however, exists in the military where national defense is the goal.

One of the traps we have fallen into in national debate has been fuzzy thinking or fuzzy speaking about which of these 5 standards of justice we are appealing to at any given time.  I think all Americans still wish to defend the ideal of “Liberty and Justice for All,” but we fail to think critically about what that means.  A Libertarian may be arguing against social services for reason 1 while a Progressive is arguing for them for reason 3.

The challenge for each of us – whether we live in the US or not – is to identify what we mean by justice, which ideology we’re appealing to, and how strongly we’re willing to defend that position.  Is it reasonable to appeal to be egalitarian most of the time, but meritocratic for some few things?  Certainly, but we need to be aware that we cannot simply strengthen one ideology to one end…

Ideologies have a life of their own.  We’ve seen it in the military, where privileges for the sake of the common good have been abused.  We’ve seen it most dramatically in classism, that can start with “separate but equal” and move to domination.  Every ideology has pitfalls.

Whenever you’re making an argument about equal rights or special privileges, quotas or profiling, social security or entitlements, I hope you’ll think a little about which concept of justice appeals to you and how far you’re willing to see it go.



  1. […] equal love, but I don’t think we all warrant equal treatment.  You can see my post on justice for more […]

  2. […] that justice is important, but few people agree on exactly what constitutes just behavior. In a post last year, I set out five notions of justice, all of which have enjoyed some success in Western […]

  3. […] is more I could say (and more I have said here and here), but for now, I simply want to highlight the importance, even the necessity of distinguishing […]

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