Introduction to Justice in Philosophy

Justice in philosophy is the concept of the proper proportion between a person’s deserts (what is merited) and the good and bad things that befall or are allotted to him or her. Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of justice has been the starting point for almost all Western accounts.

For him (Aristotle), the key element of justice is treating like cases alike, an idea that has set later thinkers the task of working out which similarities (need, desert, talent) are relevant. Aristotle distinguishes between justice in the distribution of wealth or other goods (distributive justice) and justice in reparation, as, for example, in punishing someone for a wrong he has done (retributive justice).

Through the instrumentality of law regulated by the state, the concept of justice in the philosophy of law became dearer. As the law grew and developed the concept of justice walked parallel and expanded its tentacles into different spheres of human activities. The essence of legal justice lies in ensuring uniformity and certainty of law and at the same time ensuring the rights and duties duly respected by all.

The notion of justice is the impartiality imbibed in it. The violation of justice which is enforced by the law results in state sanction as ‘punishment’.The concept of justice is as old as the origin and growth of human society. A man living in society desires peace and, while living in, he tends to experience a conflict of interests and expects rightful conduct on the others part. 

Comprehensive Definition of Justice

Starting with the origin of justice, the English word “Justice” derives from the Latin “Justitia” meaning righteousness or equity. The Roman goddess of justice portrayed as a blindfolded woman with a sword in one hand and a pair of scales of justice in the other has a more complicated derivation.

The earlier versions of justice had an implication of propriety and everything in its place and are best summed up in Tennyson’s single line – Gods in heaven and all right with the world.

Justice in philosophy of law is the quality of being just; Righteousness equitableness, or moral rightness; to uphold the justice of a cause. It is the moral principle determining just conduct. It is the administering of deserved punishment or reward. The maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings; a court of justice. Justice in its broadest context includes both the attainment of that which is just and the philosophical discussion of that which is just.

The concept of justice is based on numerous fields, and many differing viewpoints and perspectives including the concepts of moral correctness based on ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity, and fairness. The concept of justice differs in every culture.

Early theories of Justice were set out by the Ancient Greek philosophers Plato in his work the Republic, and Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Throughout history, various theories have been established.

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The word justice meaning ‘the exercise of authority in vindication of right by assigning reward or punishment is over 860 years old (c. 1140 AD). Justice is defined as just behavior or treatment. Justice is rendering to everyone that which is his due. Justice is a very interesting thing; the desire for justice is often felt only when an injustice actually happens. Indeed, if it were not for the existence of injustices, we wouldn’t have a need for justice in the first place. Justice depends upon a perpetual flow of victims. If there are no victims, then no justice is necessary.

It has been distinguished from equity in this respect, while justice means merely doing what positive law demands, equity means the doing of what is fair and right in every separate case.

The Notion of Justice by Some notable Philosophers

  • Plato’s Notion of Justice
  • John Rawls Notion of Justice
  • St Augustine’s Notion of Justice
  • Immanuel Kant’s Notion of Justice
  • Aristotle’s Notion of Justice

1. Plato‘s Notion of Justice

The notion of Justice has been treated by many other philosophers. Starting with an ancient philosopher Plato (348/347 BC), in his philosophy, he gives a prominent place to the idea of justice. Plato was highly dissatisfied with the prevailing degenerating conditions in Athens.

The Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin and was ultimately responsible for Socrates’s death. The amateur meddlesomeness and excessive individualism because the main targets of Plato’s attack. This attack came in the form of the construction of an ideal society in which justice reigned supreme since Plato believed justice to be the remedy for curing these evils.

After criticizing the conventional theories of justice presented by Cephalus, Polymarchus, Thrasymachus, and Glaucon, Plato gives his own theory of justice according to which individuals, justice is a ‘human virtue’ that makes a person self-consistent and good; socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good.

Plato says that Justice is not mere strength, but it is a harmonious strength. Justice is not the right of the stronger but the effective harmony of the whole. All moral conceptions revolve about the good of the whole – individual as well as social. Justice is, for Plato, at once a part of human virtue and the bond, which joins man together in society. It is the identical quality that makes good and social. Justice is an order and duty.

2. John Rawls Notion of Justice

John Rawls (1921 – 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. Rawls constructs justice as fairness around specific interpretations of the ideas that citizens are free and equal and that society should be fair.

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He sees it as resolving the tensions between the ideas of freedom and equality, which have been highlighted both by the socialist critique of liberal democracy and the conservative critique of the modern welfare state.

Rawls holds that justice as fairness is the most egalitarian, and also the most plausible, interpretation of these fundamental concepts of liberalism. He also argues that justice as fairness provides a superior understanding of justice to that of the dominant tradition in modern political thought: utilitarianism.

Rawls makes his final clarification on the principles of justice in one paragraph: Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts. 

First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. 

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ‘just’ person as one who typically “does what is morally ‘right’ and is disposed to ‘giving everyone his or her due’, offering the word ‘fair’ as a synonym.

The word comes from the Latin ‘Jus’, meaning right or law. But philosophers want to get beyond etymology and dictionary definitions to consider, for example, the nature of justice as both a moral virtue of character and a desirable quality of political society, as well as how it applies to ethical and social decision making. We have seen the theory of Plato and contemporary philosopher Rawls.

3. St. Augustine’s Notion of Justice

St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) a medieval philosopher was born and raised in the Roman Province of North Africa, during his life, he experienced the injustices, the corruption, and the erosion of the Roman Empire. His conception of Justice is the familiar one of “the virtue by which all people are given their due”.

Aquinas’s theory of justice is also quite compatible with Augustine’s. He offers us an Aristotelian definition, maintaining that ‘justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will’.

He sees justice as a moral habit of a virtuous character what specifically distinguishes it from other moral virtue is that by justice, a person is consistently committed to respecting the rights of others over time. Aquinas considers justice to be preeminent among the moral values.

4. Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Justice

Kant’s theory of justice is seen clearly in his metaphysical elements of justice, which constitutes the first part of his metaphysics of morals, Kant develops his theory of justice. For Kant, justice is inextricably bound up with obligations with which we can rightly be required to comply.

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According to Kant, there is only one innate human right possessed by all persons, that is the right freely to do what one wills, so long as that is compatible with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law’.

Thus one person’s right freely to act cannot extend to infringing on the freedom of others or the violation of their rights. This leads to Kant’s ultimate universal principle of justice.

5. Notion of Justice in Aristotle’s Ethics

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) is an ancient philosopher who lived and contributed immensely to the Golden age of philosophy. He towers over the history of philosophy has made fundamental contributions and impacts in many fields, among them, are logic, metaphysics, physics, biology, ethics, rhetoric, poetics, and politics.

His thoughts and political teachings are evident in practical works, basically in his major books, Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics.

These works are not straightforward scientific treatises, because we pursue practical sciences not simply for the sake of knowledge, as we do the theoretical ones, but also for the sake of the benefits derived from them.

The term ‘just’, as used by Aristotle, has two separate meanings; in its first meaning it is principally used to describe conduct in agreement with the ‘law’, a conduct, therefore, which conforms to an established, authoritative rule of human conduct; in short, it is used to describe a conduct which conforms to whatever constitutes an authoritative instrument of social and moral control.

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In this sense justice denotes a ‘moral disposition which renders men apt to do just things and which causes them to act justly and to wish what is just’. It refers primarily to the application of observance of certain authoritative rules of human conduct and should, consequently, rather be called the virtue of ‘righteousness’ or of ‘moral justice’ (a virtue displayed towards others, a social virtue).

In order to make clear the distinction between ‘justice according to an authoritative rule and equality, Aristotle states that a person whose conduct is ‘unjust’, who acts contrary to certain moral principles, and therefore, lacks virtue, is not necessarily unjust as far as the principle of Equality is concerned: that is to say, ‘ he need not be one who has or claims more than his fair due’.

Justice in the sense of equality has to do with eternal and commensurable things; it is concerned with the proportionate ratio of commensurable goods. Thus, a ‘just’ wage is a wage proportionate to the type and amount of labor invested, it is one which is neither too great nor too little (disproportionate), but midway between the two extremes.

Similarly, a just law is the idea mean between the two extremes of defect and excess. Justice or the ‘just in the sense of moral virtue is determined by the authoritative rule or rules of human conduct, while justice, in the sense of “proportionate fairness” is founded on the principle of Equality.

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This parallelism of “moral justice” and equality raises many difficult questions, particularly as regards the relation of these two terms. It is not permissible to assume that equality alone constitutes the basis of all “legal justice”, since Aristotle himself makes the definite assertion that the common welfare of a politically organized society depends primarily upon “moral justice”, which alone preserves happiness.

Nor, on the other hand, does “moral justice”, as a general virtue, hold a rank superior to that of equality. It cannot, therefore, be made use of to define, modify, or compliment the principle of Equality.

Relationship Between Moral Justice and Equity in Aristotle

Aristotle explains the relations of ‘moral justice’ and equality by pointing out that equality is related to “moral justice” in the same way as the part is related to the whole.

Moral justice and equality are not two co-extensive terms. In order to illustrate this particular relationship, he adds that not everything which runs counter to the notion of ‘moral justice’ also runs counter to the principle of equality, while whatever runs counter to the principle of equality also runs counter to the notion of moral justice.

In other words, every infraction of the principle of “justice in the wider sense” (Equality) constitutes an infraction of the principle of “justice in the wider sense (moral justice), while not every infraction of the principle of “moral justice” implies an infraction of the principle of equality.

By this, one might be led to believe that “Equality”, as used by Aristotle, is merely one particular moral concept among others. A particular aspect of general moral justice is not the case, however, for Aristotle’s very definition of the term ‘Equality’ shows it to be a principle of the most particular nature and not merely a derivative aspect of the principle of moral justice.

The principle of equality not only creates a definite moral criterion for the administration of human conduct but also becomes actual in and through the principle of moral justice. At the same time, the principle of moral justice unfolds and manifests itself in the different forms of Equality.

In fact, the principle of equality is essential to a complete understanding of the full implication and significance of the principle of moral justice, the more so, since it constitutes a vital part or element of that principle namely, one form in which moral justice is manifested while moral justice as such expresses the fullness of what is called “righteous” or “justice” is, in its ultimate meaning and content, but the ideal coincidence of human conduct with certain authoritative moral rules, while equality is one of the forms in which this virtue appears.

Only now are we able not only to appreciate Aristotle’s reason for conceiving of two types of justice which, though separate and distinct, are nevertheless grounded in the same genus but also to understand why he makes two separate inquiries into the nature of justice.

While there exists but one universal concept of the ‘just’, it is simultaneously from two directions of the principle of equality. The just is the same, in both instances, although the particular forms in which justice is administered as formulated the ‘modes’ of justice are separate.

For instance, if a man displays certain vices, such as throwing away his shield from cowardice or using vile language from bad temper, one might assume that his actions were prompted by a wish to avoid bearing his fair share of the burden of evil and thus, since to aspire to deficiency of proportionate evil is a violation of the principle of equity, that he had been guilty of an ‘injustice in the narrow sense’.

But since these examples of ‘vice’ is meant to describe conduct motivated primarily by cowardice, ill-temper, and the like, and not so much by the desire for disproportionate gain, the principle violated is seen to that of moral justice.

The illustration shows that our moral evaluation of an action depends upon our viewpoint, that is to say, upon whether we examine such an action as regards its relation to an authoritatively established rule of conduct, whether we consider it in the light of its manifest effects upon others and its particular motivation, or whether we evaluate it by the criterion or whether it exceeds or falls short of that ‘mean’ which is expressed by the principle of equality and which is concerned with the proportionate ration of commensurable goods.

Justice is a virtue, the most difficult of all virtues which differs from all other virtues in that it displayed towards others and not towards oneself. It is the most perfect virtue because it does what is to the advantage of another.

Aristotle’s Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics is the name normally given to Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics. The work, which plays a pre-eminent role in defining Aristotelian ethics, consists of ten books, originally separate scrolls, and is understood to be based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum.

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The little is often assumed to refer to his son Nicomachus, to whom the work was dedicated. The theme of the work is a Socratic question previously explored in the works of Plato, Aristotle’s friend and teacher of lawmen should best live. Ethics by Aristotle is practical rather than theoretical.

In other words, it is not only a contemplation about good living, because it also aims to create good living. Ethics is about how individuals should best live. Aristotle aimed for ethics to be both an intellectual and a practical pursuit, with the ultimate goal of human well-being and happiness. He believed that being revised well and developing virtuous habits could help a person to live well.

Aristotle also discusses the relationship between the Nicomachean Ethics to the Eudemonian ethics and the Magna Moralia. It is interesting to note that the books V (that concerning justice), VI, and VII of the Nicomachean ethics belong also to the Eudemian ethics.


Having viewed the notion of justice in Aristotle’s Ethics, one could deduce that it is necessary for citizens to obey the law in order to be just. Although, civil law itself can be unjust in the sense of being unfair to some, so there is a need to consider special justice as a function of fairness like all moral virtues, for Aristotle, Justice is a rational mean between bad extremes.

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The notion of community and the common good play a central role in Aristotle’s theory of justice. In both the Eudemon and the Nicomachean Ethics as well as the politics, standards of justice are understood in terms of what is required for the achievement of the goods that bring people together to co-operate for their mutual benefit. Hence, justice is equality or fairness in distributions and exchange.


Anto-Hermann Chroust and David L. Osborn, Aristotle’s Conception of Justice, 17 Notre Dame 2. Rev. 129 (1942).

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans Terence twin, Second Edition (called “Nicomachean”) Indianapolis, Hackett 1999.

Aristotle, “Politica” 1287 a 18. The English term “norm” – what is right and just by an established convention.

Cruzer, H. Aristotle, the Virtues, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Great, A. The Ethics of Aristotle, 3rd London: Longmans, Green, and co, 1874.

Irwin, T. Plato’s Ethics, Oxford University Press, 1995.

John Arthur and William H. Shaw, ed., Justice and Economic Distribution. Englewood (LIffs, M): Prentice-Hall, 1978.   

Marcia Homiak, “Virtue and Self-Love in Aristotle’s Ethics”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy. (1981).

Richard Kraut: Interpretation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013).

Ronald Polansky, companion to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed (Cambridge University Press 2014).

Young, C. D, “Aristotle’s Justice” in Richard Kraut (ed), The Backwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 179-78. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

Lingard M. “The Conceptual Unity of Friendship in the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics: Apeiron 48 . 2 (2015), 195 – 219.

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