Justice: Some of Its Many Meanings

This version last modified on March 22, 2010.

Main Types of Justice
distributive justice justice in assigning rewards and burdens as if from a common source
retributive justice justice concerned with punishment for infraction of a rule (or law)
compensatory justicejustice concerned with restoring to persons what they lost when harmed by a second party

Regarding distributive justice, there is one fundamental or general or formal principle, and there are several specific or material principles.

The fundamental (or general) principle of distributive justice:

In assignment of benefits and burdens, those who are equal in relevant ways should be treated equally, those who are unequal in relevant ways should be treated unequally in proportion to their inequality.

Specific Principles of Distributive Justice (See Note below.)
Name of PrincipleFormulation
Strict EgalitarianEvery person should receive equal benefits and burdens
Merit--Plato's VersionPeople should be rewarded with positions of responsibility according to their intelligence, capacity for devotion to the public good, and education.
Merit--SeniorityPersons should be rewarded financially according to the number of years they have held a job.
Merit--Effort. . . according to their work effort.
Merit--Output. . . according to the quantity and quality of their work
An Early Christian or "Socialist"
or Nurturant Parent Family Formula
People should be assigned burdens according to abilities, benefits according to need.
Libertarian Burdens should be assigned as they are voluntarily accepted, benefits as others voluntarily give them and as one creates them for oneself through labor on materials of which one is rightful owner. This version also includes the benefits and burdens (rights and duties) that arise from contracts voluntarily entered into.

Note. John Rawls' principles are not included here. Though they can be understood as blending elements of merit, egalitarian, libertarian, and "socialist" principles, they are not an arbitrary synthesis but have their own carefully worked out derivation from a reasonable model of fairness. Moreover, their scope is not limited to material rewards and burdens but is concerned with powers and opportunities as well. See John Rawls on Justice.