Defining Justice: 4 Core Concepts and Ideas

Depending on the era and the culture, various papers by Chantal Thomas, Cornell professor, show justice can be defined in a number of ways that may seem incompatible with each other. Concepts of justice generally fall into four basic categories:

  • Retribution is generally considered to be one of the oldest forms of justice and is enshrined in the “eye-for-an-eye” system that metes out the same punishment to the offender as was inflicted upon the victim.
  • Restorative justice involves the use of reparations and repayments to make up for the losses suffered by the victim of the crime.
  • Distributive justice is concerned with economic equality and the fair division of assets among all members of the societal group.
  • Procedural justice considers the various components that make up the legal system, including laws, decisions, precedents and the means employed to determine the structure of these methods for resolving disputes.
Defining Justice 4 Core Concepts and Ideas

Elements of each category of justice are included in the legal systems of most countries and form the basis for ordinances, laws and penalties for crimes and civil offenses.

  1. Retributive Justice

The Old Testament of the Bible contains numerous examples of retributive justice. Prior to these Biblical references to retribution, the Code of Hammurabi prescribed many of the same punishments for various crimes. In its simplest form, retribution is punishment that is intended to fit the crime:

  • The taking of a life would be punished by the loss of one’s own life.
  • Maiming or wounding another person would result in the same treatment for the offender.

In modern practice, retributive justice does not require that the punishment be exactly equivalent to the crime; instead, it is expected that the punishment will be of proportionate severity to the crime. For example, if murder is regarded more harshly than theft, as it is in most cultures, then the punishment for committing murder should be more severe than that levied against those who commit theft. One argument in favor of retributive justice is the deterrent effect that harsh punishments may have on those who would otherwise consider committing a crime.

  1. Restorative Justice

Especially in civil cases, reparations and compensation are favored over strict punishment for crimes. While punitive damages do exist in the civil field, they tend to be employed only for the most egregious cases of negligence or willful disregard for the welfare of others.

Financial restitution is the usual method for compensating the victims of these crimes. Fines, settlements and court-awarded compensation can help individuals and families to recover from their losses and can serve as a financial deterrent for companies and individuals to prevent further losses in the future.

In some cases, defendants in these cases may be required to perform community service as part of their restitution. This ensures that they give of their time as well as their financial resources when making amends for their wrongful actions.

  1. Distributive Justice

The equitable distribution of wealth and resources is necessary to ensure stability and happiness within a society. This need not be an equal distribution; however, it must be a distribution considered acceptable and fair to the majority of those within the society.

Systems in which the majority of wealth is concentrated at the very top of the pyramid typically result in dissatisfaction and unrest among the rest of the populace. These disparities have historically led to revolts among the lower classes and were motivating causes in both the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.

These drastic consequences may be preventable by implementing the principles of distributive justice and ensuring that all members in a given society have the opportunity to better themselves financially and socially. Education and welfare programs are among the most common tools used to enforce distributive justice in modern times.

  1. Procedural Justice

Proponents of procedural justice attempt to ensure fairness in the application of the law. By seeking outcomes that are perceived as optimally fair to all parties and working to ensure that the legal process produces these outcomes, advocates for this category of justice can uphold their ideals in a practical way.

Public participation not only in the application of the law but also in the legislative process is necessary to promote the perception of fairness throughout a society. This can ensure greater compliance with laws agreed upon and acceptable to the majority of citizens in a particular legal system.

Promoting all four categories of justice can generate greater engagement and increased satisfaction among the constituents served by a particular legal system. By working to ensure fair and equitable legal and economic conditions, political and social leaders can create a more positive environment for all citizens under their care.