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Understanding Justice a Bit More

Our current public discourse, that is focused in particular on the concerns which are also those of this website and of its community of subscribers interested in Henry George’s writing, centers on notions of justice. No concept is more central to our common concerns than the concept of justice as the term is usually employed in our current public discourse.

There are, however, several types of justice, and Georgist discourse is largely focused on only one of them, distributive justice. This type of justice, particularly since its revival as a concern and subject of discourse in the past half century by Harvard philosopher John Rawls, is now called “justice as fairness.” Rawls described distributive justice as that place any person would occupy if his “original position” fell behind a “veil of ignorance.” The appeal of Rawls’ thought on this subject is due to his assertion of the need for moral equality and democratic membership in community.

But, though integral to justice overall, this is only one aspect of that justice; often, our communities and democracies call upon notions of procedural justice as well. And, although it is frequently linked associated with the means of addressing distributive justice, this latter has to do with processes, and insists for resolution of differences on processes fully and widely accepted, along with a need for government transparency. Though its premises are often implicit in other notions of justice, procedural justice is itself a distinct and identifiable system of reason and logic.

A third kind of justice often goes by the name restorative justice. It has to do with making amends, particularly with regard to how governments and communities respond to crimes and to other recognized acts of harm and/or unfair conditions. Restorative justice often entails and includes notions of procedural justice. It calls for solutions which often are distributive in character.

There is still another type of justice that is separate from these others in both its character and resolution: retributive justice. Often applied in cases of injury or crime, it seeks solutions which are fair, proportionate, and that are not vengeful. But it is different from restorative justice in so far as punishment is typically called for; the injured party or victim is not involved.

The last type of justice that comes to mind is commutative justice, which pertains to the fairness of exchanges, especially as they are transacted in markets. With this type of justice too, only when transparency is achieved can this type of fairness also be achieved. In cases where market exchanges are not fully transparent and understood, commutative justice does not have the conditions in which to exist.

Typically, more than one kind of justice is involved when an administrative policy or practice is implemented. Therefore, to fully understand justice, as being at once fair, open, inclusive, and lasting, it is helpful to distinguish these different types of justice.

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