The Interpretation of Justice in Law and Morality Circles

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Table of Contents

  • Types of Justice
  • Conservative versus Ideal Justice
  • Corrective versus Distributive Justice
  • Conclusion

Coming from the latin word justus or justitia, the Old English definition of justice – or iustice back then – was the “administration of the law.” This, combined with “just,” formed the word justice.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, this word specifically is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Dictionary, a dictionary used for specific legal terms, states justice in a simpler way: “fairness” or “moral rightness.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, “unjust” as defined by the Oxford Dictionary means to “not [be] based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.”

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There are two scenarios in which justice is showcased:



For the first scenario, this could range anything from theft to murder. Each level of crime is met with an appropriate punishment that either a jury or judge agrees on. These levels of crime can be organized in a simple outline like this:

Level 1: Violations or Infractions. Usually met with a fine. These can involve actions such as minor theft and traffic violations.

Level 2: Misdemeanors. Can range from three months of jail time to a year, or a fine over $1000 is often assigned. Examples include assault and theft of a property ranging from hundreds to a thousand dollars.

Level 3: Felonies. Usually results in more than one year of imprisonment, including life imprisonment. Examples include murder, sexual assault, kidnappings and a high-end theft.

For the second scenario, our morality typically involves three levels, or stages, of moral development as categorized by Kohlberg, an American psychologist:

Level 1: Preconventional. The child’s sense of morality is controlled by his or her environment, often by parents or a guardian – an obedience-and-punishment routine is established by this so-called guardian and followed by the child. Through this, the child will learn what to do and what not to do depending on the aftermath of an action or situation.

Level 2: Conventional. Emphasis is placed by an authoritative figure or society on good behavior and making good relationships with other people, often friends. At this stage, the child often blindly follows and accepts the rules established.

Level 3: Postconventional. Because the basic rules of morality are drilled into children at a young age, we are now free to apply these rules and determine whether or not something is right – which is frequently the stage when people find that opinions can differ on issues that test our morality. This level constitutes of “abstract principles and values” that our moral reasoning depends on.

The second scenario overlaps with the first scenario, with the difference being that the second scenario is often the cause of the first.

With this and Kohlberg’s Stages in mind, let’s evaluate each of the following levels already listed at the top:

Level 1: As we are raised to believe that hurting or harming others are wrong, we can apply this and come up with the idea that these acts of crime – for instance, stealing a bike or running a red light – are minor and thus need to be responded with small penalties.

Level 2: Since misdemeanors often involve physical assault, we are led to believe that these acts are more severe and therefore need to entail more serious punishments.

Level 3: These felonies are often perceived as “immoral” by society since we as a whole feel disgusted at an act that entails violence and pain. We have thus come up with the most severe forms of punishments as consequences: either 1+ or life imprisonment, or the death penalty. These consequences however, also test our morality – the reason for the controversial issue surrounding the death penalty.

Examining each of the stages listed by Kohlberg, we can see the timeline of morality and justice unfold: first, a child, with no sense of morality, is raised by a guardian-like figure who decided what things were right or wrong – things that were predetermined by society; second, as more people tell the child more rules that are seemingly shared and agreed upon, the more the child will accept them without question; third, the child, now grown up, inflicts these guidelines as well as his or her own beliefs onto a new generation of kids. This cycle goes on and on, generation after generation.

While justice may be showcased in law and morality, there are certain aspects that the term “justice” includes as written in the Institute of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD: individual claims, charity and enforceable obligation, impartiality, and justice.

While justice can be regarded in terms of groups, Hume states in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that justice is mostly involved in individuality, and how each person is treated – and this so-called “treatment” is called justice. We demand justice – whether it be racial, political, social, inequality, we never ask or beg for justice. As the U.S. Declaration of Independence writes, “all men are created equal, [and]... they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....” Thus, human rights and justice are, in other words, obligated to the people. As we have stated in the past, we have been given these God-given, fundamental rights and therefore have the power to agree on more complex moral issues to expand the meaning of justice.

Types of Justice

The difference between the meanings of legal and moral is that legal rights are rights that the government or authority implanted, while moral rights are rights grounded into ethics. Not every legal right is moral, nor is every moral right legal. However, both share a similarity: they evolve over time. For instance, slavery was considered something that was legal and moral in the eyes of most people; now, it is considered an immoral, illegal act.

Considering past historical events and comparing these events to the present, it seems that when most people feel the same way at something, then that something is given a “common” definition that seems to agree with the majority’s feelings. For instance, if most people feel disgusted at murder, then it’s immediately agreed upon that that act is immoral, leading to the act being written into law.

However, there are more than one type of justice in the court.

Conservative versus Ideal Justice

Conservative justice is simply the act of “respecting people’s reasonable expectations”. Or to put in different terms, the act of justice under already existing laws. On the other hand, the idea of an “ideal justice” is to have law reforms. However, Sidgwick, a person who strongly supported conservative justice, presented the “paradox of conservative justice” in The Methods of Ethics (1st edition, 1874). As quoted, “the paradox is that “ideal justice” demands that we carry out reforms but “conservative justice” requires respecting people’s reasonable expectations... [however,] carrying out reforms seems to imply that those expectations would not be respected”. This paradox ultimately brings up another question: should the government try to please the people by not correcting certain societal injustices, or should it try to fix them and end up disappointing the people, whom they are serving? Rawls attempts to answer this question by saying that these two types of justice do not try to displease the people’s existing expectations (Rawls 1993, pg. 283); he fails to answer the dilemma at hand, however. Plato even argues that justice is “fulfilling one’s agreements, and... abiding by one’s agreement to abide by the laws of the city unless one can persuade it to change them”. This persuasion by other people is a form of an ideal justice, while the agreement to abide by current laws reflects conservative justice.

Corrective versus Distributive Justice

Corrective justice involves a bilateral relationship between the victim and the wrongdoer.

People and unjust conduct

There are typically two types of people who engage in unjust conduct:

Those who have empathy, aka neurotypicals or empaths;

Those who don’t, aka psychopaths.

According to the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) – a 20-item list, with each item scored from 0 to 2 – created by Robert Hare, people who score a total of 30 or higher (with 40 being the maximum) are considered psychopaths. Typically, psychopaths are known as “callous... showing a lack of empathy” as their brains have weaker-than-average connections among their emotional systems. Thus, they can’t determine for themselves what is truly morally right or not; rather, they have to depend on their knowledge of the law to distinguish between “right” and “wrong.”

The difference between empaths and psychopaths is the fact that empaths have a sense of morality and thus can have different definitions and scenarios of morality, while psychopaths don’t.

For example, someone who is an empath might think of stealing an object for personal reasons, but eventually would refrain from the thought since he or she personally thinks it’s unjust. However, psychopaths would think of stealing and eventually end up stealing, regardless of whether this act is right or wrong; they would act on their instincts or their desire for stimulation. However, they do know from experience and knowledge that this so-called act of stealing is frowned upon in society, and will end up not committing it solely due to the reason that they don’t want to attract unwanted attention to themselves.

Most psychopaths commit the things they do – murder, assault, theft – because they do not care and they do not think that these acts are morally right or wrong. But do they know whether these acts are legally right?

The response is that while they are cold-blooded, calculating people, and do know legal consequences for these actions, the acts that they commit are simply a stimulation for their brain; they find pleasure in carrying out these crimes that most people will find disgust in.

Plato uncovers the revelation that while justice is classified as an overarching virtue, it “covers only part of individual morality”.10 When one thinks of lying, he or she might classify lying as morally wrong and deceptive – but a word that doesn’t appear with the rest of the list is unjust. This “list of words” related to lying changes when it’s placed in a different context with society; when this lying affects someone else or a community, then it’s fair and reasonable to think that lying is unjust in this situation, which leads to the conclusion that wrongdoings against another person is considered unjust. Thus, people who lie may not know or consider themselves as someone who engages in unjust conduct, but once this lie affects someone else, a neurotypical might find this lie unjust.


Looking back at the history and past studies, we can conclude that justice is a matter of agreement and that the people who engage in unjust conduct do so knowingly. Even if an ideal justice was established (saying that the people’s expectations are mostly satisfied), the difference between an unjust and just conduct still remains.

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