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justice, social

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Arguments about justice feature not only in sociology, but also in philosophy, political science, social policy, psychology, and of course law itself. Justice is a central moral standard in social life, is generally held to have a prominent role in social theory and social action, and so it is perhaps not surprising that all the social sciences have examined the concept at some length. (The best multi-disciplinary overview is R. L. Cohen 's edited collection entitled Justice: Views from the Social Sciences, 1986.)

It is conventional to distinguish ‘formal justice’ (the law) and material justice (morality and politics), although some theorists of justice treat the two concepts as parallel or overlapping, and argue that since legal or criminal justice concerns the distribution of penalties to the guilty, it has much in common with social justice, which deals with the allocation of scarce goods (and ‘bads’) to a population: both are premissed on the ideas of due process, impartiality, and distribution according to appropriate criteria. In older literature, a distinction is usually drawn between social (or as it is frequently termed ‘distributive’) justice, and retributive justice. The latter holds that the guilty should be punished simply because wrongdoing as such ought to be punished, regardless of the consequences of doing so in terms of deterring further misdemeanours, or making any other contribution to social utility. Retributivism is, therefore, only one theory of criminal justice. In the psychological literature, a fivefold distinction is sometimes made (following T. Eckhoff, Justice: Its Determinants in Social Interaction, 1974) between equity, or fair exchange, where equity is defined as the equivalence of the output to input ratios of all parties involved in an exchange; distributive justice, or fair allocation, involving the one-way distribution of resources, rights, obligations, or whatever across a category of recipients; procedural justice, or fair procedures and mechanisms, recognizing that an agreed and fair procedure might nevertheless result in a distribution of outcomes that some would define as unjust; retributive justice, or just compensation, dealing with fairness in the allocation of punishments or level of compensation for victimization; and, finally, justice as equality—which may be equality of opportunity, equality of objective outcome, subjective equality (equality of outcomes taking into account need or desert), rank-order equality (in which the allocation of rewards follows normative expectations in order to avoid felt injustice), or equity (equality relative to individual contributions). As will be evident by now this is a subject replete with typologies and codification.

A wide variety of principles are available to regulate social and economic inequalities and so the concept of social justice is the subject of great dispute. Different political ideologies yield different principles of justice. Among the variety of concepts and theories advanced in this way, those of desert, merit, entitlement, equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, need, and functional inequality would seem to be most relevant to sociologists.

Most academic debate about the concept of justice starts with John Rawls's famous ‘difference principle’, which asserts that inequalities in the distribution of scarce goods (power, money, access to healthcare, or whatever) are justified only if they serve to increase the advantage of the least favoured groups in society (see his A Theory of Justice, 1972). What makes this a principle of justice is the idea that justice consists in considering society from an impartial standpoint, in Rawls's case from an imagined ‘original position’ in which agreement is reached by hypothetical rational self-interested people deprived of information about their talents and attributes, choosing behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. According to Rawls, people constrained in this way to choose impartially would be concerned to maximize the well-being of the least advantaged members of society lest they themselves fall into that group, so they will agree to permit inequalities only if these contribute to the welfare of the poor. This proposition then forms part of Rawls's theory of ‘justice as fairness’, which rests on three principles, which because they may sometimes conflict are ordered in lexical priority as follows: the principle of greatest equal liberty (each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all); which takes absolute priority over the principle of equality of fair opportunity (positions are to be open to all under conditions in which persons of similar abilities have equal access to office); which, in turn, takes absolute priority over the difference principle itself, which (as we have seen) requires social and economic institutions to be arranged so as to benefit maximally the worst-off. Note that there is no suggestion anywhere in this theory that people in any sense deserve their advantages.


Subjects: Social sciencesSociology

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