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What Is Justice?

Every society wrestles with the nature of justice, punishment, fairness, and order. The iconic image of a blindfolded woman wielding a set of scales – or sometimes a sword – has endured as a symbol around the world. Beyond a symbol, what is justice? This article covers the three main types of justice, what the earliest justice systems looked like, and the famous philosophers who developed theories of justice.

Justice refers to concepts of fairness, equality, moral behavior, lawfulness, and order. It seeks to answer questions like “What are people owed?” and “What makes a punishment just?” Everyone from philosophers to policymakers to humanitarians is interested in what justice means.

What are the three main types of justice?

Justice can be boiled down into three types: distributive, retributive, and restorative.

Distributive justice

Distributive justice is about the fair division of resources within a community. “Fair division” means everyone either gets or has access to the same services and physical goods. Why? The basis of distributive justice is that everyone is morally equal. Distributive justice affects areas like income, wealth, opportunities, jobs, welfare, and infrastructure. Principles of distributive justice include equity, need, and proportionality. While the basic definition of distributive justice is simple, how a society should fairly distribute resources is complex.

Retributive justice

Retributive justice, which can also be called criminal justice, focuses on how to punish crime. It’s based on the idea that when wrongdoing is committed, the wrongdoer should get a proportionate punishment. That doesn’t mean the wrongdoer should be subjected to exactly the same ordeal (i.e. if someone hits someone in the face, they don’t need to be hit back as their formal punishment), but it needs to be proportionate. Those who study retributive justice also tend to emphasize the need for indifference, meaning that justice shouldn’t be personal or based on revenge. While many justice systems include some kind of retributive justice, its effectiveness is debatable. Considering the flaws in many criminal justice systems, retributive justice can also end up harming innocent people or unfairly punishing certain groups over others.

Restorative justice

Restorative justice was developed in the 1970s, though many of its tenets come from Indigenous justice practices. Restorative justice focuses on helping victims of crimes, but it also wants to help offenders understand the harm they’ve caused. The goal is repair, not punishment. Engagement, accountability, cooperation, and community are all essential principles. Restorative justice practices have been used in many criminal justice cases, but they’ve also been adopted during conflicts involving families, schools, and workplaces. Unlike retributive justice, restorative justice doesn’t focus on what criminals deserve, but rather on what victims need to heal and what communities can do to prevent re-offending.

You can learn more about Justice in this course by Harvard University.

What were the world’s earliest justice systems?

Societies have changed drastically over the millennia. Justice systems are no exception, although all have dealt with concerns like property rights, murder, theft, marriage, and so on. Here are three examples of early justice systems:


The oldest law code from Mesopotamia – known as the Code of Urukagina – is referenced in other texts, but no copies exist today. We know more about the Code of Ur-Nammu (2100-2050 BCE), which is named after the ruler Ur-Nammu. The Code, which consists of 57 laws, establishes fines for all punishments except capital offenses, which are dealt with more harshly. The Code of Hammurabi, named after the first king of Babylon, is more famous than the earlier Ur-Nammu code. Through its 282 rules involving marriage, inheritances, crimes, punishment, violence, and more, Hammurabi’s code established a comprehensive legal code. Unlike Ur-Nammu’s code, Hammurabi’s tended to adopt an “eye for an eye” framework. This included harsh punishments like the cutting off of eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. It also said someone accused of a crime should be considered innocent until proven guilty. It’s believed that the Code of Hammurabi inspired other ancient justice systems.

What about a court system? In Mesopotamian society, disputes between individuals could be settled privately, but if that wasn’t possible, they could go to court. There were no lawyers, however. A local council would hear a case, followed by a judge or a court. Local courts tended to deal with civil and criminal cases, such as theft and property issues. Only men served in the courts.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian law was based on the concept of ma’at, which means harmony. Egyptians even had a goddess named Ma’at, who personified truth, justice, and harmony. She held the universe in balance. Without her, everything would descend into chaos, which to Egyptians was the same as injustice. Ma’at was also an important figure in the Afterlife. After a person died, they would travel to the Hall of Judgement where their heart was weighed on a scale against Ma’at’s feather of truth. If their heart was balanced, they could continue to the Afterlife. If it didn’t, the person ceased to exist.

Historians haven’t found an ancient Egyptian code like the Code of Ur-Nammu or Hammurabi, so specifics are unknown. We do know that religious principles governed Egyptian law, so the king, as a god on earth, served as society’s top judge. There were also local courts that dealt with village concerns. Land, water rights, and other property issues were common. Those accused of crimes were considered guilty until proven innocent, so if someone made a false accusation and was found out, punishments were harsh. In ancient Egyptian society, justice was about avoiding chaos, so anything that threatened harmony was met with severe consequences. Murder, tomb-robbing, and rape were punished with death or mutilation.

Ancient China

Confucius, who we’ll learn more about shortly, had a major impact on ancient China’s view of justice and law. Confucius and his disciples believed a harmonious society depended on five relationships. These were the relationships between a ruler and subject, a husband and wife, a father and son, an older and younger brother, and a friend and friend. When everyone worked on being a good person, cared for these relationships, and fulfilled their responsibilities, society wouldn’t even need strict laws or punishments.

The imperial Chinese code during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) rejected Confucius’ teachings in favor of Legalism, which taught that humans were naturally violent. To prevent humans from falling into their natural, evil state, Legalism taught that the government needed to take full control. Li Si, the counselor to the first emperor, created a harsh code following the unification of China. The emperor appointed district officials who served as judges and investigators. Those accused of crimes were guilty until proven innocent while trials didn’t have lawyers or juries. Punishments varied based on the crime, but many were harsh. Fines, hard labor, beatings, and banishment were doled out for minor violations. Serious crimes were punished with mutilations, castration, and death. When the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) made Confucianism the state philosophy, China’s justice system softened.

How have philosophers defined justice?

The earliest justice systems didn’t come from thin air; many were deeply impacted by influential philosophers. Philosophy has continued to play a leading role in how society develops and deploys justice. As justice is one of history’s most discussed topics, it’s challenging to distill it to just a few figures. There are many other important thinkers not included in the following list, but the four here are a good starting point.

Confucius (551-479 BCE)

We’ve already discussed Confucius a little, but there are a few other things worth knowing about his views on justice and law. He based everything on the belief that humans were naturally good, which meant they understood the difference between right and wrong and were drawn to doing the right thing. They still needed guidance, however, but instead of specific laws, Confucius advocated for a code of ethics that included Five Constants and Four Virtues. These included Zhong (loyalty) and Yi (justice and righteousness). By following this code of ethics and maintaining a hierarchy of authority (sons obey fathers, younger brothers obey older brothers, and wives obey husbands), Confucius believed strict justice systems wouldn’t be necessary. In Confucius’ view, justice is about ethical behavior (which comes naturally to humans) and maintaining hierarchies.

Plato (428/7-348/7 BCE)

Plato built on his teacher Socrates’ ideas about justice and the belief that absolute truths exist. Because absolute truth exists, Plato believed justice couldn’t be subjective. Balance and control were essential, as well as a hierarchy. Plato’s vision of a “just” society had three classes: craftspeople, auxiliaries, and guardians. The guardians were in charge, but to achieve justice, all classes must embody certain virtues. Craftspeople should be temperate, auxiliaries should be courageous, and guardians should be wise. In Plato’s mind, only guardians – who were led by a philosopher king – could understand what justice looked like. Like Confucius, Plato’s concept of justice depends on groups staying in a hierarchy and living moral lives.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is considered one of the modern West’s most influential figures, centered his ideas about justice on freedom. In his view, freedom is what gives human beings our dignity; it’s our only innate right. All laws must be created through the lens of freedom, bearing in mind that people don’t have the right to infringe on the freedom of others. For Kant, the only moral laws were laws that saw people as free, equal, and independent. What about crime and punishment? Kant believed in retributive justice and lex talonis, which is the theory that punishments need to inflict similar harm as the wrong done. If someone commits murder, death is the only equivalent punishment. Kant does also advocate for forgiveness, however, saying that repaying a wrong out of revenge or hatred is not virtuous. Kant devoted a good deal of his work to justice, applying his theories to private, private, and international law.

John Rawls (1921-2002)

In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, which is one of the 20th century’s most important books. In this book, Rawls sought to define what a just society looks like. He performed a thought experiment where a group of people live behind “a veil of ignorance.” The veil hides the differences between the individuals, such as their social, economic, gendered, racial, and historical differences. With no outside influences, people wouldn’t try to benefit one group over another. Eventually, the group would settle on two principles. The first states that everyone has the same basic liberties that can’t be taken away, but that may be limited only if someone’s liberties are infringing on those of another person. Rawls’ second principle focuses on equality, including equal opportunities to hold private and public offices, as well as equal (or as close to equal as possible) wealth distribution. To be just, a society must reduce inequalities as best as it can. Rawls called his theory “justice as fairness.” His ideas have been very influential in academic discussions about social justice and human rights, as well as policy-making.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.