8 Types of Justice (And How to Deal With Them)

Justice is one of the most popular recurring concepts in value debate. In the current Stoa resolution, it is the obvious front-runner value. But not all justice is created equal. Here are eight possible definition types.

1. The Useless Definition

Oxford Dictionaries: “Just behavior or treatment” (source)

A definition of justice that uses the word just is functionally useless. Justice is the quality of being just. Obviousness is the quality of being obvious.

2. Moral Rightness

American Heritage Dictionary: “a. The principle of moral rightness; decency. b. Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness.” (source)

This is almost as useless; for something to be just, it needs to have a positive moral charge. In all likelihood, the whole debate is about assigning moral charges, so justice is completely removed from the arena of argumentation. We know good things are good; the question is: is the resolution good?

Your best bet is to accept this value and run your value as a criterion, or some more advanced version of that basic tactic. Remember, a value this generic can’t possibly conflict with your case unless you’re asserting that the resolution is amoral.

3. Fairness

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: “fairness in the way people are dealt with” (source)

This is a popular definition that was explored in some interesting ways by John Rawls. If a definition effectively makes justice and fairness interchangeable, a definition of fairness is in order. If it isn’t explained, ask for one in cross-ex so your opponent can’t wiggle away once he sees your arguments.

4. Legal System

Macmillan Dictionary: “the legal process of judging and punishing people” (source)

This is a stark contrast from moral rightness and is possibly an amoral definition of justice. This definition is an iceberg; there’s a lot hiding under the surface. Explore it with questions like: “If a legal system puts an innocent person to death, is it just?”

5. What is Owed

Random House Unabridged Dictionary: “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.” (source)

Another popular definition that takes many forms: punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent, giving to each what is due, etc. Aristotle explored this notion thoroughly. Almost every standard argument against justice applies here: it prevents mercy, we all deserve punishment, it’s impossible to measure, etc.

6. The Megadefinition

YourDictionary: “use of power as appointed by law, honor or standards to support fair treatment and due reward.” (source)

Some definitions combine many different types. The example combines Fairness, Legal System, and What is Owed together. This makes the definition both very narrow because it only exists where all three components intersect, and very obscure because measuring all three things at the same time is a real challenge. Being pencil-narrow and difficult to use rarely makes for a good value.

7. The Hidden Value

Merriam-Webster’s Glossary of Legal Terms “the establishment or determination of rights according to law or equity” (source)

Sometimes, the word justice is just inappropriately slapped onto a different value. “Justice is operationally defined as the upholding of societal goods.” So, Societal Good. “Justice is operationally defined as the protection of the human rights to life, liberty, and property.” So, Human Rights. If justice is part of the resolution you’re debating, you should be able to make quick work of this by pointing out that your opponent is talking about something completely different.

However, if it’s your opponent’s value, you do not get to redefine it. Your value is what your opponent says it is. It belongs to him. You can say that you object to the term justice being used and propose a different word, but the core content is meaningful and must be refuted as presented. If you change what your opponent argued, you’re committing a straw man fallacy.

8. The Obscure Definition

Philosophers have taken many different cracks at justice, producing some diverse and interesting definitions. For example, Plato talked about harmonious function: justice in the context of a civilization with specialized people cooperating with each other. This can lead to some very interesting debates.

If you’re tempted to use an obscure definition, consider making your tag something more specific than justice to avoid confusion. Harmonious Function would be better, for example.

If you’re up against it, make sure everyone is clear that we’re not talking about the common meaning of justice, we’re talking about the obscure meaning your opponent is using. Then take it down on a case-by-case basis.

Always listen carefully to your opponent’s definitions. Identify which definition pattern he’s using, then exploit whatever weakness he created.