Words such as 'just' or 'unjust', 'fair' or 'unfair', are never far from public debate and are guaranteed to generate controversy. The reason is that of all the many aspects of morality they are the aspects which people feel most strongly about. For example, when the relatives of a victim of crime feel that the perpetrator's sentence was not long enough, they often say they have been denied justice, and public outrage is usually on their side.
Justice (or fairness) is a specific notion which can be clearly identified within morality in general. It is the guiding principle of law, and it is therefore necessary for a stable society. From this obvious idea we can isolate what was historically the first and is perhaps still the most important element in justice – the idea of desert. We feel strongly that those infringing the laws of society deserve punishment and those benefiting society deserve reward. The impulse to retaliate is at the root of the institution of punishment.
The flip side of the idea of desert is relevant also. We feel that it is grossly unjust if the wrong people are blamed. A glaring example of this was the behaviour of the Post Office towards its sub-postmasters. Many were blamed and some imprisoned for false accounting, although the fault lay with the computing system of the Post Office. In official inquiries, the Post Office went to great lengths to cover-up its failings and to prevent the truth from coming out. But it is coming out now.
If desert was historically the first element in justice or fairness, it was followed soon by the second element – that of impartiality. Fairness requires that like cases should be treated alike. It is possible to trace one cause of the sense of unfairness in our society at the moment to the failure of successive governments to apply certain policies with impartiality. There is a widespread belief that many of the rich can avoid paying taxes and have in fact done so, whereas the rest of us are pursued for small sums, and the treatment of those on disability or housing benefits is becoming more stringent. This is unfair because it fails to be impartial in the enforcement of political policies.
Both these elements in the concept of justice or fairness – desert and impartiality – can be found in early societies, for example in the Old Testament. But the third element appears later, there are signs of it in the writings of Aristotle (4th century BC). The third element is that of equality. Equality is not the same as impartiality – unequal laws can be applied impartially, as in the case of segregation laws. Equality, however, refers to the equal worth of all human beings. It was an idea which flourished from the 18th-century Enlightenment and has slowly moved human rights to the centre of ideas of justice.
To fail to observe human rights is to fail in justice, to fail to recognise the equal worth of all human beings. A society which detains asylum seekers for long periods, imprisons suspected terrorists without charge, or pays women less than men, fails the equal rights test and is therefore, in these and no doubt other respects, not a fair society. Of course, it might be replied that other values are sometimes more important than fairness. For example, detaining suspected terrorists may occasionally be justified on grounds such as security. Perhaps so, but we still put a moral premium on the idea of the equal worth of human beings. Equality joins impartiality and desert as an essential element of our ideas of what is just or fair.
There is, however, a fourth element which many but not everyone may wish to add to the concept of justice. Indeed, some might argue that it is not an element in justice at all. Its prominence in contemporary thought stems from the philanthropists of the 19th century and socialist ideas in the 20th century. The claim that many contemporary social thinkers make is that justice or fairness requires the relief of welfare needs, such as those for healthcare, housing, unemployment benefits and, as I write, for temporary or permanent loss of employment due to COVID-19.
Those who disagree with this, or are grudging in its acceptance, are not necessarily wanting to grind the faces of the poor; they may simply feel strongly that a fair society does not require the relief of needs, although a humane society might require voluntary institutions concerned with such matters. It is obvious, however, that voluntary societies would be quite inadequate to cope with the exceptional circumstances created by COVID-19. It seems then that we can say either that there is a fourth element in justice to add to impartiality, desert and equality – namely humanity or the relief of welfare needs; or we can say that the demands of justice must in some circumstances be balanced or supplemented by those of what in broad terms we can call the demands of humanity.
An excellent example of this political controversy over the ingredients of justice was the spat between the government and Marcus Rashford over the provision of free school meals during the holidays. The Rashford campaign was supported by a large percentage of the population of England (Scotland in any case provides free school meals during the holidays) because they saw this attempt at alleviating child poverty as a matter of justice. But it was initially rejected as a government duty by many Conservatives because, as one Tory neatly put it, it would amount to nationalising school meals. On the other hand, the Conservatives praised the manner in which local councils, charities and private individuals rushed to give support.
Leaving aside this disagreement over the philosophy of what justice requires, anyone can see that the government management of this was breathtaking in its political clumsiness. To let kids go hungry while subsidising meals in the Westminster canteens was never going to be a vote winner. Just as well Dominic Cummings no longer advises the Westminster Government.
The attempt to encourage greater intervention by charities and communities lay behind David Cameron's inadequately explained conception of the 'Big Society'. He thought of it in social terms, of the activation and mobilisation through voluntary societies and neighbourliness of the extensive goodwill towards others which ordinary people have. Those on the left, indeed most of us, will argue that the relief of need is an essential element in a just society and is therefore a matter for governments. To leave the relief of need to our more general sense of charity is not only over-optimistic but also patronising to those requiring assistance. Nobody wants charity.
I have suggested that there are three universally agreed aspects to justice – desert, impartiality, equality – and a more contentious fourth aspect which I am calling 'humanity', concerned with the relief of needs. These are the philosophical component concepts of justice, but they may not adequately reflect political reality. 'Let justice be done though the heavens fall' is a familiar saying, but a more cynical political position was neatly summed up in the BBC serial Roadkill
: Justice is not a moral concept but a department of State.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow