Political Ideas of Justice

Mankind has always had a problem in deciding what should be the exact meaning of justice and nearly always ended up explaining it in the context of the times. Loosely it has meant what is good and it has been stretched accordingly. As D.D. Raphael commented justice is ‘Janus like or dual faced, showing two different faces at the same time. It is legal as well as moral. It is concerned with social ordering and rights of society as much as individual right…It is conservative (looking to the past) as well as reformative (looking to the future)’ .

The Greeks and the Romans first attempted to settle on a meaning of justice (as far as western thought is concerned, that is). Plato, the Greek philosopher defined justice as one of the principles of what he called virtue along with temperance, wisdom, and courage. Justice is about sticking to one’s duty or station in life, he said and is the virtue that harmonises all the other virtues. According to him justice is the virtue that introduced or preserved balance in any society. His disciple Aristotle, modified the notion of justice by stating that justice necessarily implies a certain level of equality. This equality could be based upon (1) identity of treatment and (2) proportionality or equivalence. He further said identity of treatment leads to ‘commutative justice’ and proportionality leads to ‘distributive justice’ – the role of the courts and the judges being to distribute commutative justice and the role of the legislature being to distribute distributive justice. In legal disputes between two individuals the punishment should be as per the principles of commutative justice with the judiciary seeking to reach the middle point of equality. And in matters of allotment of political rights, honour, wealth, and goods, it should be as per the principles of distributive justice. Also there is a need to reconcile the demands of distributive and commutative justice in any society, and so he saw the concept of justice in any society as a moving equilibrium, and nothing that is fixed, forever.

The Romans and the Stoics developed a rather different notion of justice. They regarded justice as that which is not adapted from laws and customs but is discovered by reason. It would be divine and same for all men. Laws of society must be in with these laws to be worth anything. Positive law, to be worthy of law must conform to it and the idea of Natural Justice which the Stoics first developed and which was later adopted by the Roman Catholic Christian fathers and which treated all men as equal. Justian in his book Institutes made a distinction between the law discovered or developed by reason and that of the common people or the common law of the people or jus gentium.

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