On Philosophy

June 21, 2006

Justice and Ethics

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 1:23 am

Often we consider a just action to be ethical, and ethical actions to be just. It seems reasonable then to suppose then that the principles of justice are some portion of the total principles that make up ethics. I would argue however that while just behavior and ethical behavior often overlap it is not necessarily so, and from this that, while justice and ethics may indeed justify some of the same actions and principles, they are really two different ideals with different principles, that may in fact come into conflict.

In general I would say that ethical principles are motivated by mercy, to act ethically is to act in the best interests of both yourself and of other people. Of course different ethical theories disagree as to what is in the best interests of people (pleasure, lack of pain, achievement, ect), as well as to the extent to which the interests of others should be weighed against your own. In contrast principles of justice seem to be motivated primarily by considerations of fairness. Generally it is accepted that to act justly towards other people it to treat them all equally except when they have merited special treatment by some action of theirs (for example you give merchandise only to the customers who have paid you, not to all of them equally).

To understand how the principles of ethics and justice are different from each other it is perhaps best to examine cases in which they disagree. Consider then a principle under which some money is taken from the richest members of society and used to provide for the poorest members. It is reasonable to suppose that, if the amount of money taken from the richest members was small enough not to inconvenience them greatly, the principle might be ethically sound. However such a principle could not be considered just, since it isn’t fair for the money of one group of people to be taken and given to another group of people, unless it is as some form of punishment imposed on the first group of people.

Likewise principles of justice and principles of ethics disagree as to the purpose and nature of punishment. Viewed by ethical standards punishment (such as imprisonment) is justified because it prevents or discourages the criminal from hurting more people. However ethically there is no reason to make the imprisonment (if that is the punishment that we are considering) especially uncomfortable. In fact prison under a perfectly ethical society might be like a moderately priced hotel, practical and not especially uncomfortable. One would also expect that under such a system great attention would be given towards helping the prisoners resolve their psychological problems and towards aiding their integration into society as productive and happy citizens. Principles of justice however support different kinds of punishment, and for different reasons. Under such principles punishment is not justified because it prevents harm to future victims, but because it is restoring the balance between the criminal and their victims. Thus the punishment itself should inflict as much harm on the criminal as the criminal did to others (although not necessarily in the same form, perhaps crimes of violence can be balanced with a long sentence in an unpleasant facility). Punishment motivated by principles of justice is not performed with special consideration towards the criminal’s future actions. If the criminal chooses to remain a criminal then they will simply be punished again; this is all that justice demands.

So far we have simply examined how various policies might be justified by principle of justice and ethics, however these principles can still pull us in different directions when considering action even in a single case. For example consider Plato’s famous example, where a madman asks for the return of a weapon he has previously lent you. It seems clear that on ethical grounds that you should not return his weapon, out of consideration for his future victims. However in terms of fairness it seems equally reasonable that you should return his weapon. After all he has not wronged you in the past, and thus you have no grounds not to return the weapon.

From these examples then it seems clear that we can’t simply describe justice as part of ethics. So then why do ethics and justice tend to overlap in most cases? Well usually what is just is in everyone’s best interests, and usually what is in our best interests is fair, there is no denying that even if we can provide examples that show that it is not always so. It is probably because of this overlap that justice and ethics are so often confused. For example consider the “ethical” principle that I often work with, that when you take you should give something of greater or equal value in return. It would be more accurate perhaps to call this principle one of justice, not ethics, but even so when it is applied to many situations the results it gives agree with our ethical intuitions.

When justice and ethics conflict then which should we choose? Personally I would lean towards justice, but perhaps this is simply because I have never had enough sympathy for other people. To me it seems that the principles of justice are generally superior since they work primarily with what has happened (in order to achieve a balance between all parties), while the principles of ethics rely more often on predictions of the future (in order to determine what is in people’s best interests), and this makes them somewhat unreliable, as our predictions can often be in error. However I will not pretend to be able to solve this question here, although I will say that you should expect to hear more on it in the future, since it is something I continue to work on.


  1. I think a good way of pointing out the difference between justice is the following:

    Justice = Karma.

    Ethics does not necessarily.

    Comment by Aaron — June 21, 2006 @ 9:06 am

  2. Well since I don’t believe in karma I guess I disagree.

    Comment by Peter — June 21, 2006 @ 11:37 am

  3. “Do you believe in karma?”
    “Karma’s only justice without satisfaction. I don’t believe in justice.”

    –The Way of the Gun

    Comment by Carl — June 21, 2006 @ 6:12 pm

  4. You say that justice is fairness, and that according to justice fairness we should treat everyone equally “except when they have merited special treatment by some action of theirs”.

    I would broaden the idea of fairness somewhat, to mean that a fair situation or rule means that the right factors determine the distribution of some good thing. As in your idea, the default might be give everyone an equal ammount. In many situations, however, it might be good to give people different amounts. Using your example, it is good to give the good of merchandise to those who pay for it. This can be seen in many situations. A fair game means the person who gets the victory (wins) is the one who played hardest, had the most skill, etc. A deviation from fairness happens when a different factor determines who wins. For example, a team should not win because it has more players. This is the same idea as a “fair” competition in business. The most profitable businesses should be the ones who deliver the best products for the lowest prices, not those who manipulate the market or consumers.

    I think from this it is possible to see that ethics comes before fairness. How can we determine what should determine who gets what without first using ethical considerations? This goes for your “special treatment” idea; obviously it is not fair to give everyone the same thing all of the time; this might mean everyone should go to jail or everyone shouldn’t, not that only criminals should. In fact, in most cases it really doesn’t make sense to give the same ammount to everyone. What ethics needs to determine is when we should give “special treatment” to certain people; that is, what should determine who gets what? In some cases pure equality might determine it, but in most cases we need more.

    Now of course maybe something besides ethics determines when we give “special treatment” (or, in my wording, what factors should determine distribution of goods in certain situations), so maybe thats something you could develop in more detail if you stick to to your ethics and justice overlapping idea.

    Comment by catquas — June 21, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

  5. “right factors determine the distribution of some good thing”
    To broaden justice in this way can be to make it ethics, which seems to be what you are doing here. Justice doesn’t take into account what is good, almost by definition. So a distribution where the greatest good is achieved is not motivated by justice but by ethics. It may or may not be just.

    As for special treatment, I don’t see any reasons why ethics needs to be involved. You simply need to agree on what has value, for example money, property, happiness, lack of pain, and then give special treatment based on imbalances in these factors. For example money, being valued, merits the merchandise, which is also valued. The criminal’s actions take away what is valued (property, health), and thus something must be taken from the criminal to fix the balance. No where in this description did we have to resort to ethical principles of what is best for people, although often acting in this way is in the best interest of the majority (for other reasons).

    The reason that I would argue that ethics is different from this, and cannot be derived solely from this, is because ethics has mercy where justice has none. In a perfectly just system when your actions result in someone’s death you must pay the penalty, and you will be treated harshly. In an ethical system your punishment will probably be less severe because the goal is to benefit everyone (rehabilitation), and simply punishing the criminal is of little benefit to anyone. Justice demands no more and no less than an eye for an eye, but such a system is rarely as ethical as it could be. Actions such as altruism are motivated only by ethics, there is no reason that justice should require such an act.

    For these reasons then I consider justice and ethics to be distinct and irreconcilable. The task becomes then to figure out how they should be balanced against each other and what should motivate this balance.

    Comment by Peter — June 21, 2006 @ 9:47 pm

  6. You seem to be saying that if one person benefits by taking value from another person, the person who benefits must give up an amount which is (at least?) of value equal to the loss of the other person. In other words, if I benefit at the expense of another person that benefit must be negated.

    One problem with this is how determine what things are of value. You say that justice does not take into account what is good, but it does take into account what has value. What is the difference between these?

    Another problem is that sometimes someone makes a gain at the expense of another without it being what would normally consider unjust. Suppose demand for a product rises and the price of the product therefore rises. This is a gain for the producer and a loss for the consumers. Does that mean the producer has to be punished?

    Comment by catquas — June 22, 2006 @ 9:56 am

  7. Although Blackburn (sp? sorry, my books are all in boxes) would disagree with me I would argue that a claim to what has value is more foundational than justice or ethics, and rightly belongs to neither.

    The demand for a product rising implies that it’s value has somehow become greater to the customers (otherwise they wouldn’t be willing to pay more), and thus it is perfectly fair that the producer charge more. As far as economics go I would argue that pure competition is always fair, with monopolistic pricing being unfair.

    Comment by Peter — June 22, 2006 @ 10:44 pm

  8. Valuable to whom? Cocoa Frosted Sugar Bombs ain’t worth nothin’ to a diabetic. Insulin shots ain’t worth nothin’ to me.

    I think a lot of things are subjective, not meaning that there’s nothing real behind them, but that they take their value from the relationship they have with particular folks.

    Comment by Carl — June 22, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

  9. No one said objective value was needed for justice, ideally. For more on what makes something valuable I recommend McDowell.

    Comment by Peter — June 22, 2006 @ 11:44 pm

  10. “The demand for a product rising implies that it’s value has somehow become greater to the customers (otherwise they wouldn’t be willing to pay more), and thus it is perfectly fair that the producer charge more.”

    Not necessarily all consumers. Of course there are many reasons prices rise, but one may be that more consumers have entered the market. These new people increase demand, making the price higher. But there is no need for the original consumers to value the product more.

    Comment by catquas — June 23, 2006 @ 5:36 pm

  11. @Peter, I don’t think you got my post. I wasn’t saying karma as in justice is the same as the mystical belief of karma, but as the idea that you get punished or rewarded depending on your actions (the more regular karma-ish belief)

    Comment by Aaron — June 25, 2006 @ 2:42 pm

  12. we see justice as something that has to be done in our society (like a chore). but justice should really be seen as a motivational or impartial way of bringing ones wrong doing to a equal and just ending that pleases everyone. but considering the way our society works these days, this isnt going to happen any time soon.

    Comment by nat — February 23, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  13. I think that the term ‘justice’ should be used for the moral assessment of social rules from an institutional perspective, whereas the term ‘ethics’ has an interactional stance, deals mainly with the ethical assessment of individuals and collective agents (Pogge, 2005). In other words, I intend social institutions as a separate domain of moral investigation, the sphere of justice, for I ultimately conduct an “institutional moral analysis extended to the realm of international relations” (Pogge, 2005, p. 4). Ethics, on the other hand, refers to the moral assessment of the conduct and character of individual and of groups of individuals.

    Comment by Marco — April 2, 2007 @ 6:58 am

  14. Why are we so concerned about this in the first place? The truth is that we just don’t want to do something wrong. But if you are serving something you are bound to make sacrifices to do it. One of those sacrifices might be making some of the mistakes we would be trying to avoid with discussions and thoughts like this. At some point we all have to stop wasting time and make a move, and if we don’t know exactly what the best move to make is, we should take our best guess. In the end, if we do make mistake then all we will have done is show others what they can expect us to do in the future. That may make us less useful to our cause in the future because it will eliminate the possibility of future partnerships, so it requires some forethought. But from my point of view, being relatively reasonable, even someone has made mistakes in the past that doesn’t necessarily bar them from ever working with me again. As long as they were doing their best for the goal and haven’t made such a critical mistake that they have to be considered dangerous, then I can get past it.

    This makes an interesting assumption: There is some goal that we ought to be working for. This, of course, brings up the issue of the meaning of life or purpose of life. I’m not going to try to address that problem. I can say, however, that we are all in a state of ignorance about the answer and, as such, can all logically respond in the same way. I would suggest that the most logical policy to adopt is the same one that we all use anyway: To increase the probability of something meaningful to be done. I really doubt that anyone would disagree with that, although some people do think that they know exactly what the purpose of life is. And actually, the whole reason we need a theory of ethics in the first place is because we are all playing our parts in our own perceptions of reality. Since we are all headed in different directions we need to know how to interact with those whose actions interfere with our own.

    Our own objective dictates the rules of our ethical theories. Different objectives dictate different rules, and therein lies the problem. If my idea of reality states that i ought to collect as many hot dogs as i can and someone else’s reality states that all people should die as quickly as possible then there’s going to be a problem. I would suggest that there are some “rules” that we all ought to adopt because we all see things differently and none of us knows the truth. The most important of these rules would be that we never use violence against one another. That way whatever happens, people will retain their right to choose. And indeed, that is a rule for almost all ethical theories (Islam being the most notable exception).

    So, again, the real problem with ethics is that we don’t always follow the rules. Think about Plato’s example of the madman or someone else’s (can’t remember who) example of the man who walks up to you on the street with a crazy look in his eye and asks you where your wife is. If these crazy people weren’t breaking the rules in the first place there would be no need to have a theory of justice or whatever fairness…

    My point is this. We only need to decide what the best ways are to do two things:
    1) Allow everyone to live free even in the presence of varying ideals and goals; and 2) Deal with those who don’t subscribe to those rules. Hmm….

    Comment by nick — April 2, 2007 @ 8:41 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: