One reason why we live in states and societies is that there is no escape. We are born into them, we do not choose them or create them. Rather, they design us and our desires, needs, habits and customs; our own contribution as individuals to their make-up is usually negligible. We are in chains from the very first moment of our existence-even though by nature we may be free. 1 Only collective action can change state and society. We also live in chains because it is the only alternative to a state of universal warfare, as Thomas Hobbes believed, or to a state of universal fear and insecurity, as less pessimistic contract theorists argued. We are not angels and we do not as a rule expect our fellow humans to be angels; we need them in chains to protect ourselves, and we chain ourselves to chain them. Yet the bare existence of a state is not enough to warrant its preservation. In places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, parts of the former USSR and former Yugoslavia, state institutions totally disintegrated even when the state seemed omnipresent.
Our individual chances of having a life worth living depend on the existence of protective and, as such, necessarily oppressive institutions, but institutions also depend on us. To exist and function, the institutions that make up states and societies require our active support; to give this support we need good reasons, and one among many good reasons is thought to be justice. To paraphrase Augustine, it is justice that makes the difference between the state and a band of robbers; it is justice that legitimizes institutions. And justice happens to be the subject of this book. It is not my intention to claim, let alone prove, that justice is all that counts. A society needs many other virtues to provide a haven for our wandering souls and even then it is not necessarily a safe and comfortable place to be. Justice is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for a life worth living, yet even in the very limited sense in which I shall interpret justice it makes a fundamental difference.