What Is Justice, What Does It Mean?June 28, 2021
Generally speaking, justice represents a special type of moral judgment in which everyone gets what they deserve, since Plato and Aristotle. Giving everyone what is “required” is the main aim of justice (Heywood 2007, p. 42). Liberal theory of justice expresses this moral judgment based on the understanding of equality in various contexts.
Liberal theory’s conception of equality in the first sense derives from its individualist defenses. For liberal theorists who believe that individuals have natural rights, the fact that each individual is born “equal and free” leads to the conclusion that all individuals are of equal moral worth. This conclusion also lays the foundation for human rights, demonstrating the belief that every human being deserves similar respect simply as a human being.
Liberal theory’s understanding of equality in the second sense can also be called formal equality. Accordingly, all individuals are equal in terms of fundamental rights and can enjoy the same formal status. In other words, rights should be distributed equally among all individuals without any group or class privilege.
From the liberal point of view, social statuses or innate random differences such as gender, race and color cannot prevent individuals from enjoying the same rights. There are two areas where the formal equality understanding manifests itself in practice: political equality and legal equality. According to liberal theory, every individual is equal before the law and factors that are not related to the legal framework have no influence on the legal decision-making process. Political equality, on the other hand, is related to the equality of the right to vote and to be elected to the same extent for every individual. The one-person, one-vote formulation is the backbone of liberal democracies.
Thirdly, liberal theory’s understanding of equality shows itself in the concept of “equality of opportunity”. Equality of opportunity means that individuals can reach the statuses they want in society, in proportion to their abilities and skills. In other words, no status can be prohibited from access by an individual or a group because of its particular nature. Individuals have the right to develop themselves in the subjects for which they are innately talented. In short, “equality for a liberal means that individuals have equal opportunity to develop their unequal skills and abilities” (Heywood 2007, p. 43).
The fact that individuals are not equal in terms of their skills and abilities means that they will not be equal in the social order. While individuals who have a talent or skill by chance can take advantage of the opportunities in front of them in terms of obtaining social status, some other individuals will not be able to take advantage of some opportunities even if they are open to them, again by chance. In this respect, it can be said that the liberal understanding of equality is the product of a distribution based on chance. As a matter of fact, due to this feature, the concept of equal opportunity is criticized by many thinkers, as will be discussed later. Despite all the criticisms leveled at equality of opportunity, liberal theorists argue that such an understanding of equality will lead individuals to work more. Moreover, liberals do not find social equality unfair on the grounds that it treats unequals as if they are equal, and they argue that if everyone succeeds to the extent of their character and willingness to work, it will create a more just order.
Although liberal thinkers show a great deal of agreement on the acceptance of equal opportunity, the issue of how to put such principles of justice into practice brings with it some differences of opinion. Whereas classical liberals adopt a strict merit rule, both economically and morally, egalitarian liberals such as John Rawls argue that social inequalities are acceptable only if and only if they work in favor of economically disadvantaged groups.
As it is seen, while social justice continues to exist as a problem in liberal theory, it also causes differences of opinion among theorists. The lack of social justice also provides the main arguments for the criticism of liberal theorists to a large extent.
Social and Economic Justice
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer Yıldırım