The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: In approximately 2100 words, this entry defines justice, introduces two fundamental distinctions, discusses the natural law and circumstances of justice approaches, and explores various theories of justice.
According to the entry, the concept of social or distributive justice refers to the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens in a democracy. There is a close affinity between justice and democracy because both concepts are closely tied to principles of equality. Throughout political scholarship, the concept of justice has been and remains a most prominent concern. In order to encourage constructive debate about justice, the entry offers two distinctions to define the concept more precisely. First is the distinction between distributive justice, which refers to resource distribution within a community, and commutative justice, which involves issues of reciprocal exchange. A second distinction relates to the object of justice, which can be either the individual or a social institution. Recent debate on the topic has been dominated by the distributive-institutional approach, but further investigation into the nature of justice is necessary.
Two approaches have shaped contemporary discussion of justice--natural law and the circumstances of justice. Natural law holds that nature is the supreme measure of right and wrong, although much debate has ensued about the meaning of "nature." The entry briefly touches on theories of Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Nozick. The "circumstances of justice" approach, coined by David Hume during the 18th century, maintains that certain conditions must exist in order for questions of justice to be meaningful. John Rawls endorses this approach, and the entry details his theory of justice, focusing on its normative dimensions. The entry also offers a glimpse into a new generation of justice scholars who draw from Nozick and Rawls, including David Gauthier, Brian Barry, Carol Gilligan and Michael Walzer.