Conceptions of Justice
JUSTICE IS A COMPLEX notion that has been debated across the centuries and will likely continue as a contested concept beyond our time. While this chapter cannot be an exhaustive look at the infinite philosophies of justice, it does provide an understanding of some of the major theories, as well as resources for further reading. We begin with a look at the classic Greek ideas of justice and move forward through time to include modern and postmodern understandings.
Western thought and philosophy is often drawn back to the ancient Greeks and their conceptions of justice, equality, and politics. This section of the chapter highlights some of these ancient understandings and their influence upon later writings and conceptions.
In Pangle's (1980) interpretation of The Laws of Plato, Plato references both religious and mythical ideas of justice. In this work, an Athenian stranger inquired about the origin of laws and was told that the gods, including Zeus and Apollo, were responsible for local laws depending on the group in question. The stranger further asked about the influence of Homer (ca. 800 B.C.) upon the laws of the cities and was assured that Homer was influential.1
While the physical embodiment of Homer is the source of controversy and philosophical debate, the idea of justice as vengeance is clear in the tale of the Iliad (Homer 1961). The philosophical legacy of Homer was not entirely embraced by the Greeks but was questioned and expanded upon by Plato in his documentation of Socrates' dialogues regarding questions of justice. This style of inquiry implies that ideas should not be merely handed down by gods or legends but should be debated and decided upon by a group of citizens. This exemplifies the Greek political tradition of democracy. There is a direct line from the Greek tradition to our current Western tradition of debate and