Grayling's Question

February 28, 2009
If justice is relative, how has it inspired so many reform movements?

Thucydides said that history is philosophy teaching by example. In the case of opponents in a conflict, each claiming "justice" for his side, the lesson of history is twofold. One possibility is that one of them is wrong, or that both are. The other possibility is that both are right. The latter case is typical of the hardest moral dilemmas, and is precisely what makes them dilemmas. History further shows that cases in which both disputants have some claim to be right are not all that rare. And the debate about justice from Plato to Rawls gains some of its poignancy from this fact.

The key point in the question is the motivating power of demands for justice. This is the motivation that underlies movements for liberty, rights and entitlements, political participation, equitable treatment, a fair share, proper remuneration—for these notions overlap, and in one familiar way show that the concept of justice is, at least, intimately connected with that of equity or fairness. From infancy, most people insist on fairness, as if it were instinctual; and its absence is a ready source of resentment. It is easy to understand why injustices are a spur to demands for remedy: injustice is felt as injury.

Correlatively, justice is both felt and recognised as conclusive when it is done. A compromise between disputants which gives both as much or more than they claimed will definitively end their dispute. That is an interesting fact. The closure, settlement and finality of justice when it is done suggests that, whereas arriving at justice is a matter for rationality, accepting that it has been done is a matter in significant part of emotion. Part of the reason why justice is a concept with content, and deeply motivating content, lies here.

History also teaches that most economic and political arrangements are unjust, because the processes that led to them involved inequalities of power. That is one reason why conflicts about justice are endemic. Liberal democracies institutionalise the means for managing such conflicts, and sometimes even try to reduce their causes. But since inequalities also arise from differences in talent, intelligence, hard work and luck, and since these are not always accepted as justifications for inequity, the negotiations for justice are as endemic as the conflicts themselves.

It is little comfort to victims of injustice to hear from Friedrich von Schiller that history is the supreme court of justice. Nor is his dictum wholly true; the myriad petty injustices that are the pixels of the human condition have no chance against time's indifference. But it is true enough for big things: historians will pick them over, and judge, and few will escape posthumous whipping who deserve it. That is a motivation to labour for justice even against the steepest odds, so long as one is sure.

Sent in by Michael Seifu, Dublin.
Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at