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Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy

Project Topic: The Concept of Justice in Plato’s Political Philosophy vis-a-vis Nigerian Situation


  1. Notion of Justice

1.1       Meaning of Justice?

The word justice comes from the Latin word “Justitia” or “Justus” meaning equitableness, unprejudiced, adjudication of conflicting interest on the basis of legal or moral principle, lawfulness; what is rightful due. In fact, it is simply the way in which each person gets what belongs to him. This is why the yardstick for measuring the worth of any human society is the level of justice and fair play in that society.[1]

In giving credence to this view P. J. Proudhon rightly attests that:

Justice under various names governs the world -nature and humanity, science and conscience, Logic and morals, political economic, politics, history, literature, and art. Justice is that which is most primitive in the human soul, most fundament in society, most sacred among ideas, and what the masses demand with great ardour. It is the essence of religions and at the same time the form of reason, the sacred object of faith, the beginning, middle, and end of knowledge. What can be imagined stronger, more complete than Justice?[2]

Justice therefore, is very important in the actualization of peace, harmony, and order in the society, because it is found in all facets of our human endeavours. Thus, J. pieper asserts also that:

Among the things that preoccupy us today there seems a few that are not connected with justice in a very intimate fashion.[3]

Furthermore, among philosophers, justice also connotes fairness, due, equality, human rights, and treating equals equally. The definition given by Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary makes the meaning of justice very simple and clear. It defines justice as “the fair treatment of people.”[4]

Recently, the meaning of justice has gotten its deeper understanding by some scholars who worked from new methods. They try to understand it in three methods, psychological, sociological, and historical methods. In psychological method, it is understood as being placed intimately to the social conscience in so far as it reconfigures the “thou” as the limit and norm of action towards others.

Sociologically speaking, justice depends on the prevalent ideology, since the individual move himself to action according to an ideal module, be it proposed or imposed by the society.

Historical method distinguished three views of justice: Hellenic, roman and Christian. The first two views converge in the fact that the “Nomos” and the “Physis” promote the progress of society through the harmony of contraries. Christian justice instead required the sacrifice of the few for the social whole.                    Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues together with prudence, temperance and courage. However, an indelible characteristic that distinguishes it from other virtues was its unique quality of requiring an external action for its perfection.[5] Thus, Brian Wren says:

Justice cannot be applied except between people who have some relevant attributes in common and, to be consistent, it must give them equal treatment.[6]

Hence, it involves 1- Thou relation. Justice has to do with objective rightness.

For John Macquarie, justice is equipped with threes sense, viz: justice in the widest sense, justice in the narrow sense and justice in the proper sense.[7]In the widest sense, justice is seen as righteousness or rectitude. In the narrow sense, it simply means conformity to the law. In the proper sense, it is the harmonious functioning of the constituent parts in the individual person, or in the state. It is in this sense that Plato understands justice. In line with this, George Sabine asserts:

Justice is the bond, which holds the society together, a harmonious union of individuals each of whom has found his life work in accordance with his natural fitness and his training.[8]

1.2    Kinds of Justice

Originally, justice can be said to be of three kinds they are; legal, distributive and commutative justice. But later vindictive justice was discovered and was added as yet another kind of justice. Thus, let us try to understand the meaning of these different kinds of justice.

Legal Justice (Legalis Justitia)

This type of justice is often identified as general justice. This type of justice deals with the relationship between the individual and the state. It involves the obligation of the individual with the state. Thus, recommending that every individual has a role to play for the common good and for the welfare of a given polity. Thus, Omoregbe says:

Since the common good takes precedence over private interest, legal justice demands that the common good should not be sacrificed for the private interest of the individual or for his or her convenience.[9]

Therefore, any violation of the legitimate statutes aimed at the maintenance of the general body by an individual is seen as an attack against legal justice.

Legal justice has two senses:

  1. Justice according to law (b) Law according to justice

The former, tries to see whether the administration of justice is done according to the prevalent law. But in the later, the principles of law are only valid when it conforms to the demands of justice.

Distributive Justice (Distributiva Justitia)

Distributive justice deals primarily with the relationship between society and its members. It commands that benefits and burdens be shared in the society to proportional equality. Thus, any distribution of goods and services in the state that neglects certain people is a direct violation of distributive justice.

Distributive justice is guided by certain principles viz: strict egalitarianism, the difference principle, welfare-based principle, feminist principle etc. These principles can vary according to what is to be distributed (income, jobs, welfare, etc.); and on what basis distribution should be made (equality, maximization, according to individual characteristics, according to free transactions etc).[10] Therefore, “any act of disproportion in the distribution of goods and services or partiality in awarding favours is breach of distributive justice.”[11]

Commutative Justice (Comutativa Justitia)

It is derived from Latin word commutatio meaning exchange. It demands that the exchange of goods and services be based on equality of values. It can sometimes be called contractual justice because it is based on contract. That is why it operates mainly on commercial exchange and just regulation of prices and wages. Therefore, it exists between individuals or group and the mean is observed through arithmetical proportion i.e. equality of whatever is exchanged.

Retributive Justice (Retributiva Justitia)

Retributive justice is synonymous with, corrective, remedial or even compensatory justice.

It demands compensation of an injured person especially when it is knowingly caused by another person. It equally demands due punishment of an offender with the view of correcting the offender and deterring the future offenders.  It is important to note that “the offender should not, however, be punished beyond what he or she deserves and he or she should not be punished as a means of vengeance.”[12] In line with this, Omoregbe asserts:

Retributive justice is that aspect of justice which demands appropriate punishment for an offence not out of the spirit of vengeance but in the interest of the community or for the correction of the offender, and it should not be more than it is deserved by the offence.[13]

1.3      Philosophers Views on Justice

The issue of justice as said above remains an enigma. This is because of the inability of philosophers to have a unified and universal understanding of it. Some philosophers see justice as the interest of the stronger; that is to say that might is right.

—This article is incomplete———–This article is incomplete———— It was extracted from a well articulated quality Project, Research Work/Material


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[1] B.O. Eboh, Living Issues in Ethics, Nsukka: Afro–Orbis Publishing Co. Ltd., 2005, p. 102.

[2] P. J. Proudhon, The Idea of Justice and the Problem of Argument, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, p. 5

[3] J. P. Pieper, Justice, New York: Panteon Inc., 1955, p. 9.

[4] A. S. Hornby, Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English, (6th ed.), Sally Wehmeier (ed), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[5] V.J. Bourke, Ethics A Textbook in Moral Philosophy, New York: Macmillan Comp., 1951, p. 329.

[6] B.A. Wren, Education for Justice, Mary Knoll: Orbis Pub., 1977, p. 32.

[7] J. Macquerrie, “Justice” in A Dictionary of Ethics, J. MAcquerrie (ed), London: S.C.M. Press, 1967, p. 183.

[8] G.A. Sabine,  A History of Political Theory, 3rd ed.,New York: George G. Harrep and Co. Ltd., 1937, p. 54.

[9] J. Omoregbe, Ethics, a Systematic and Historical Study, Lagos: Joja Press Ltd., 2004, p. 113.

[10] WWW. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.com.

[11] B.O. Eboh, Living Issues in Ethics, Nsukka: Afro-Orbis Pub. Co. Ltd., 2005, p. 104.

[12] Ibid, p. 105.

[13] J.O. OMoregbe, Op. Cit., p. 113.


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