Justice and Fairness

Justice and Fairness
Source: Summary of Ch. 2 section in M. Velásquez, Business Ethics
A theme running through many of the discussions on moral decisions are the
ideas of justice and fairness. “These are concerned with the comparative
treatment given to the members of a group when benefits and burdens are
distributed, when rules and laws are administered, when members of a group
cooperate or compete with each other, and when people are punished for the
wrongs they have done or compensated for the wrongs they have suffered.” (p.
How the concepts are used:
Justice is usually more important than utilitarian considerations.
Example: Even if slavery may be beneficial to more members of society,
we condemn a society that has slavery. Greater benefits for some cannot
justify injustice for others.
Qualification: sometimes a degree of injustice may be tolerated for the
greater benefit, such as when a country has extreme deprivation and
poverty, we will tolerate inequalities in order to encourage greater
economic gains so that everyone will benefit.
Standards of justice do not usually override the moral rights of individuals.
Example: The moral rights of some individuals cannot be sacrificed
merely in order to secure a somewhat better distribution of economic
Qualification: Correcting extreme injustices may justify restricting some
individual rights. Property rights for example may be legitimately
redistributed for the sake of justice (taxes, land).
Three Types of Justice – Distributive, Retributive and Compensatory
1. Distributive justice – concerned with the fair distribution of society’s
benefits and burdens.
2. Retributive justice – concerns the just imposition of punishments and
penalties on those who do wrong.
3. Compensatory justice – concerns the just way of compensating
people for what they lost when they were wronged by others.
Distributive justice
Concerns of distribution arise when conflicting claims on benefits and
burdens of society cannot be satisfied, because of scarcity of benefits
(e.g. jobs, food, housing, medical care, income, wealth, etc.) or too
many burdens (e.g. unpleasant work, drudgery, substandard housing,
health injuries, etc.)
Societies must develop principles for allocating scarce benefits and
undesirable burdens in ways that are just and that resolve the
conflicts in a fair way.
This means that people should be treated equally in terms of relevant
factors, and given equal benefits and burdens. Equal pay for equal
work, for example.
However, the general principle of giving similar benefits and burdens
to everyone according to “relevant factors” does not specify what
those relevant factors are. In other words, what characteristics are
relevant when determining what benefits and burdens people should
receive? For example, if resources are scarce we might use a “firstcome, first-serve” criteria. Or businesses use seniority when
distributing wages.
Possible Principles for the Distribution of Benefits and Burdens
Justice as Equality – Egalitarianism
Strict egalitarians hold that are no relevant differences among people
that can justify unequal treatment. Every person should be given
exactly equal shares of a society’s or a group’s benefits and burdens.
Goods and burdens should be shared by everyone equally.
Example: the family model. Kids should receive over the course of
their lives equal shares of what parents can give them.
Interestingly, when members of a group are all compensated
equally, they tend to become more cooperative and have greater
solidarity. Also, workers in countries such as Japan, which is
characterized as having a more collectivist culture, prefer the
principle of equality more than workers in countries such as the
U.S., which is more individualistic.
 There is no quality that all humans posses to the same
 Ignores some characteristics that should be taken into
account in distributing goods: needs, ability and effort.
 There is a difference between political equality and
economic equality.
 Economic equality may have to be limited. Everyone should
have the right to a minimum standard of living (this however
is difficult to define, and depends on the country).
Justice Based on Contribution: Capitalist Justice
This is the idea that society’s benefits should be distributed in
proportion to what each individual contributes to a society and/or
group. The more a person contributes to society’s pool of economic
goods, the more the person is entitled to take. The more a worker
contributes to a project, the more the worker should be paid.
This is the model most widely used to establish salaries and
wages in American companies. This is particularly the case
because the relationships among members of the group tend to
be impersonal and the product of work is independent of the work
of others.
This tends to promote an uncooperative and competitive
atmosphere in which resources and information are less willingly
shared and in which status differences emerge.
How should “contribution to the group” be measured?
 Work effort - a long-standing tradition based on the work ethic.
Problem – if there is no reference to productivity, this can
reward incompetence and inefficiency. Also ignores talents,
abilities and experience.
 Productivity – e.g. services rendered, capital invested,
commodities manufactured, literary, scientific or aesthetic
Problem – ignores people’s needs. The handicapped, ill,
untrained, and immature may be unable to produce anything
worthwhile. And the value of many artistic, literary and
scientific products is based on someone’s subjective judgment.
Could we base value on market forces rather than intrinsic
worth? Still ignores people’s needs. Also, markets ignore any
intrinsic value of products.
Justice Based on Needs and Abilities: Socialism
Work burdens should be distributed according to people’s abilities,
and benefits should be distributed according to people’s needs.
According to people’s abilities because we value our ability to realize
our full potential, and that is achieved by distributing work in such a
way that a person can be as productive as possible. According to
people’s needs, because the benefits produced through work should
be used to promote human happiness and well-being.
A family model is appropriate here. So are team sports in
which members distribute burdens according to each athletes
ability and will stand together and help each other according to
each one’s need.
Sometimes managers will assign work to people’s abilities, but may
retreat when workers complain about no greater compensation. May
also give special treatment to people with special needs, like the
Needs and abilities certainly should be taken into account when
determining how benefits and burdens should be distributed among
the members of a group or society. People who become ill due to
work conditions should be compensated, for example. Individuals
should also be employed in occupations for which they are fitted as
far as possible.
 No relationship between amount of effort and amount of
renumeration received (because renumeration depends on
need, not on effort). No incentive to work hard.
 A large society cannot be based on a model of the family.
Humans are basically self-interested and cannot be
motivated by fraternal willingness to share and help.
Socialists say that people are created this way by their
social institutions (note the attempt to create the comrade
feeling). People are born into families where the develop
the virtues of helping each other.
 If this were principle were used, it would obliterate
individual freedom. Everyone would be given an occupation
according to their abilities, not their free choice. Also,
someone like the government has to decide on jobs for
people and what constitutes a need. Substitutes
paternalism for freedom.
Justice as Freedom: Libertarianism
This perspective focuses on free choice as the basis for justice. “Any
distribution of benefits and burdens is just if it is the result of
individuals freely choosing to exchange with each other the goods
each person already owns.”
People should be allowed to keep everything they make and
everything they are freely given. Therefore it would be wrong to tax
one person to provide welfare benefits for someone else’s needs.
Every person has a right to freedom from coercion, and this right
takes priority over all other rights and values. The only distribution
that is just is one that results from free individual choices. “Any
distribution that results from an attempt to impose a certain pattern
on society (equality or needs) will therefore be unjust.
 This perspective enshrines a particular value – freedom
from coercion from others and sacrifices all other rights and
values to it. Other forms of freedom should be guaranteed,
such as freedom from ignorance and freedom from hunger.
Sometimes these other freedoms override freedom from
coercion. Those with surplus money, for example, may
have to be taxed to provide for those who are starving.
This principle will generate unjust treatment of the
Justice as Fairness: John Rawls
John Rawls tried to create a comprehensive moral theory to combine
the various considerations above.
His theory is based on the assumption that conflicts involving justice
should be settled by first devising a fair method for choosing the
principles by which the conflicts are resolved.
Method: our method for devising principles consists of determining
what principles a group of rational self-interested persons would
choose to live by if they knew they would live in a society
governed by those principles but they did not yet now what each
of them would turn out to be like in that society. This is called the
original position and their ignorance the veil of ignorance. In this
way he meant to come up with ethical principles that do not
protect ones own special interests (since we wouldn’t know what
our position in society would be).
Note that such principles would incorporate the Kantian moral
ideas of reversibility and universalizability.
Principles: the distribution of benefits and burdens in a society is
just if and only if:
1. each person has an equal right to the most extensive basic
liberties compatible with similar liberties for all, and
2. social and economic inequalities are arranged so that they
are both:
a. to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged
persons, and
b. attached to offices and positions open to all under
conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
 Not everyone agrees that the method is adequate. The fact
that hypothetical people would chose these principles is not
to say the principles are morally justified.
 The people in the original position may not choose Rawl’s
principles at all. Utilitarians would say that people would
choose their principle – the greatest good for the greatest
Benefits of the theory:
 The theory preserves basic values that are embedded in
our moral beliefs – e.g. freedom, equality of opportunity,
concern for the disadvantaged.
 The theory fits in easily to the basic economic institutions of
Western societies – does not reject market system, work
incentives, nor the inequalities consequent on a division of
 Incorporates the communitarian and individualistic strains
that are intertwined in Western culture.
 Takes in to account the criteria of need, ability, effort, and
 Proponents claim that the theory does take into account the
essence of morality – impartial principles that take into
account the special interests of everyone.
Retributive Justice
The question of under what conditions it is just to punish a person for
doing wrong. We might identify 3:
1. If people do not know or freely choose what they are doing, then
they cannot be held responsible – ignorance and ability
2. Certitude that the person being punished is actually guilty. For this
reason we have systems of due process.
3. Punishments must be consistent and proportioned to the wrong.
Everyone must be given the same punishment for the same
infraction. Punishment should be proportional to the wrong.
Punishment should not be greater than its effect in deterring
Compensatory Justice
Restoring to a person what the person has lost by being wronged by
someone else. There are no hard and fast rules for determining this. At a
minimum the wrongdoer should restore what was taken or destroyed.
However, some losses are impossible to measure, such as a loss to a
reputation. Others are impossible to restore, such as a life.
Traditional moralists have argued that a person has a moral obligation to
compensate an injured party only if three conditions are met:
1. The action that inflicted the injury was wrong or negligent.
2. The person’s action was the real cause of the injury.
3. The person inflicted the injury voluntarily.
The most controversial forms of compensation undoubtedly are the
preferential treatment programs that attempt to remedy past injustices
against groups, such as the affirmative action programs in U.S.
universities that have had quotas for people of different racial groups.