Political Justice Research Paper

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Political justice is a term whose meaning varies according to the different aspects of justice that it is used to highlight. This research paper discusses four different ways in which the term is used: (a) to characterize the principles that govern a distinctly political sphere of distributive justice; (b) to point to a distinctly political way of arriving at principles of distributive justice; (c) to describe the departures from the ordinary forms of criminal justice that are required by political trials and war crime tribunals; and (d) to characterize the distinctive forms of justice that emerge within political as opposed to other forms of community. After looking at each of these different ways of talking about political justice, the paper concludes by exploring some of the controversies that emerge from the tensions among them.

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1. Political Justice

1.1 Political Justice As A Sphere Of Distributive Justice

The simplest and most familiar way of talking about political justice is as a particular sphere of distributive justice (Walzer 1983, Chap. 13). Justice is most frequently described as a set of principles that guide the distribution of goods within a community. As a sphere of distributive justice, political justice refers to the principles by which distinctly political goods, such as citizenship, voting rights, and access to political office, are distributed. Debates about these principles, with their clash of democratic, meritocratic, and aristocratic arguments, are a familiar feature of everyday political life as well as the history of political thought, so they do not need much elaboration here.

1.2 Political Justice As A Source Of Distributive Principles

This way of talking about political justice is much less familiar, at least beyond the walls of the academy. John Rawls, the author of the influential book, A Theory of Justice (1971), has popularized it within the academic community. A political conception of justice, according to Rawls, is one in which shared principles of distributive justice are derived from the agreement of rational people who find themselves in a common political situation or culture, rather than from what Rawls calls ‘comprehensive’ claims about human nature, rationality or well-being. Political justice, in Rawls’ sense, is contrasted with metaphysical justice or philosophic justice rather than with principles of justice that govern the distribution of goods in other spheres of life, such as the economy, the family, or civil society. Rawls argues, in particular, that rational and truly impartial participants in a democratic public culture would respond to the challenges of a pluralistic society by choosing the two principles of justice that he defended A Theory of Justice. Rawls developed this conception of political justice in order to defend his theory of justice against complaints that it rested upon untenable assumptions about human nature and rationality (Rawls 1985, 1993). It has become popular among some scholars who welcome it as a way of philosophizing about justice without metaphysics. There is, however, a great deal of controversy about whether Rawls can reach his substantive conclusions successfully without invoking the kind of assumptions about human nature and rationality that he declares off-limits to a ‘political’ theory of justice.

1.3 Political Justice As Extralegal Procedures Of Criminal Justice

A third way of talking about political justice focuses on the exercise of justice in criminal trials. It refers to those difficult cases in which extraordinary circumstances make it impossible to follow the ordinary norms of legal procedure that are designed to shield criminal justice from partisan political beliefs and passions. Such cases include, most prominently, the trials of political leaders for acts that they committed in previous regimes and of members of defeated nations for acts that its members committed in war (Kirchheimer 1961, Shklar 1986). In political trials or war crime tribunals many well-known and generally respected norms of criminal procedure, such as judgment by neutral third parties and the prohibition against retroactive legislation, are hard, if not impossible, to follow. As a result, these exercises of justice look questionable from a purely legal point of view, the imposition of the political preferences of the powerful rather than an application of the rule of law.

The need for this particular conception of political justice has been questioned from two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, many scholars believe that we can extend the familiar norms of the rule of law even into the controversial arena of political trials and war crime tribunals. On the other hand, other scholars believe that the distinction between political and ordinary cases, or between politics and law, is a myth. They argue that all criminal cases are, in effect, political because rule of law norms invariably subordinate legal judgments to partisan political goals and opinions.

1.4 Political Justice As Communal Practice

A fourth and final way of talking about political justice treats it as the distinctive way in which judgments about right and wrong are made and enforced within political communities. Political justice, in this sense, is contrasted with domestic justice or imperial justice, i.e., with the way in which justice is practiced in communities that lack the conceptions of citizenship and sharing of power that are usually associated with the idea of political community. The classic model for this version of political justice can be found in Book 5 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues there that we need to distinguish the form of justice that develops among those who take turns in ruling and being ruled, i.e., among members of a political community, from the forms that develop among members of families or subjects of large empires. He goes on to argue that in political communities justice takes two different forms: conventional right, which concerns judgments about matters—such as which side of the road we should drive on—where we are looking for agreement rather than an intrinsically correct standard of justice; and natural right, which concerns judgments about matters—such as how to punish murder—where we debate about intrinsically correct standards (Yack 1993, Chap. 5). Understood in this way, political justice represents a way of exercising power rather than one aspect of distributive justice.

2. Comparisons And Controversies

These four ways of talking about political justice are logically compatible with each other. In practice, however, there are some tensions among them, tensions that inspire interesting controversies in contemporary debates about justice.

The most interesting of these tensions is the difference between the first two conceptions of political justice described above, each of which treats political justice as a component of distributive justice and the last two conceptions, each of which treats it as something more than distributive justice. In most theories the ‘normal model’ of justice (Shklar 1990), is a distributive model, a set of rules and principles governing the distribution of goods within a particular community. The third and fourth conceptions of political justice discussed above, however, challenge this normal, distributive model of justice in a way that the first two conceptions do not. For if you believe that there is a realm of criminal justice in which political judgments about the good of communities should take precedence over pre-existing rules and procedures, then you are treating justice as something more than the distribution of goods according to the impartial application of generally recognized rules and principles.

And if you believe that political justice concerns a distinctly political way of exercising power to further the good of a community, then distributive models of justice look like attempts to de-politicize the exercise of justice, attempts to hide the assertion of power that accompanies every attempt to impose standards of justice upon a community.

Viewed from the perspective of the third and fourth conceptions of political justice outlined above, the Rawlsian conception is strikingly apolitical. Rawls may start out from our shared political condition, what he calls ‘the fact of pluralism.’ But in order to deal with this situation he asks us to imagine how rational and truly impartial participants in a shared democratic public culture would choose to order the basic institutions of their society. As a result, there are no politics, at least as politics are ordinarily understood, in Rawls’ conception of political justice: no competition for power, no efforts at persuasion or cooptation, no tests of our ability to use power wisely. Politics, as ordinarily understood, are subordinated to a set of principles of justice in Rawls’ conception of political justice.

But viewed from the perspective of Rawlsian and other ‘normal’ models of justice, there is strikingly little justice in conceptions of political justice that treat justice as more than the application of a body of preexisting rules and principles. For making justice depend on the partial and contestable judgments that inform the exercise of political power takes away the determinacy that most theorists associate with the concept of justice. Without stable standards equally available to all, how, they ask, can we use justice to settle our conflicts and establish social order? There may well be, from their point of view, a sphere of activity in which the exercise of power cannot be guided by pre-existing rules and principles. But in that sphere we go beyond the reach of justice and have to call on other virtues, such as prudence, benevolence, or courage, to guide us.

Where does this controversy leave us with regard to the concept of political justice? The first conception of political justice, as a particular sphere of distributive justice, is relatively uncontroversial. As long as political rights and privileges are distributed within a community, there will always be debate about the best way to do so. Such debates continue today, most often among various versions of democratic and meritocratic principles of distributive justice.

The other three conceptions of political justice are, in contrast, quite controversial, as we have seen. All three conceptions grow out of the loss of the sense that we can derive the content and legitimacy of our standards of justice from a set of principles sanctioned by God or nature. But Rawls responds to that loss by trying to show how human beings confronted by a common political situation can construct such a set of principles for themselves without invoking higher authority. And those who employ the last two conceptions of political justice respond by insisting that we must acknowledge and accept the partial and uncertain use of power that inevitably accompanies the exercise of justice in political life. The theoretical difficulties that years of criticism have identified in Rawls’ attempts to justify his two principles of justice raise serious doubts about his conception of political justice. But the lack of determinacy and stability in the opposing conceptions of political justice raise very legitimate concerns about our ability to use them to maintain a decent political order. Until these concerns are met by a more systematic and convincing theory, these conceptions of political justice seem unlikely to replace distributive models as the mainstream approach to theorizing about justice.


  1. Aristotle 1956 Nicomachean Ethics. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA
  2. Kirchheimer O 1961 Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedure for Political Ends. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  3. Rawls J 1971 A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. Rawls J 1985 Justice as fairness: Political, not metaphysical. Philosophy and Public Affairs 14: 223–51
  5. Rawls J 1993 Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press, New York
  6. Shklar J N 1986 Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  7. Shklar J N 1990 The Faces of Injustice. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  8. Walzer M 1983 Spheres of Justice. Basic Books, New York
  9. Yack B 1993 The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
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