A Genealogy of Justice

Commentary, July 1996.


All morally serious people care generally about justice. And when its apparent absence touches them directly, all people, serious or not, find themselves eager for justice. Even self-proclaimed moral relativists become outraged by the Rodney King verdict or the subsequent rioting, the bombing of the World Trade Center or of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But not everyone cares for justice in the same way, or understands it in the same sense. Though most people probably regard both the unfair man and the lawbreaker as unjust, some concentrate on justice as fairness or equality, others on justice as law-abidingness. Some focus on the just distribution of communal goods (voting rights, educational opportunities) and communal burdens (taxes, military obligations). Others focus on just dealings in private exchanges (getting a fair wage, honoring an agreement) or on just punishments for misdeeds, civil and criminal.

These differences should not surprise us, for justice is no simple matter. What it is, where it comes from, why be just—these are questions agitated and left unsettled by the great philosophers, from Socrates onward. But the operative notions of justice in the West, informing the attitudes of contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, come mainly from biblical religion.