Politics in Minutes (2016)

Concept of justice

Just as the concept of liberty was re-examined in the late 20th century, so too was there a reappraisal of the notion of justice. In the US in the 1970s, Johns Rawls and Robert Nozick presented interpretations that encapsulated respectively contemporary liberal-left and conservative-right thinking on the issue of the just distribution of wealth. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses a thought experiment in which we are invited to construct a society from scratch, but from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to how privileged each one of us is at the start. To avoid the risk of being part of a poor underclass, he argues, we opt for a fair and reasonably equal distribution. The essence of social justice, he concludes, is fairness. In reply to this, Nozick presented his argument that a distribution of goods is just when it arises from exchanges freely entered into. This may end up in inequalities, with some doing better from the deals than others, but unless it is a result of theft, fraud or coercion, the distribution is just. Justice, says Rawls, is a matter of entitlement, not fairness.