The Idea of Social Justice in the Ancient World
K. D. IRANI
The notion of justice is an abstraction emerging from an intuition embedded in human nature, that in any interaction among humans a person should get what he or she deserves. Put in another way, no one should receive undeserved benefits or be made to bear undeserved burdens. This is sometimes called the principle of intrinsic justice. There is another, but related, aspect of justice, often called the principle of comparative justice, requiring that persons be treated equally. This requirement in the Aristotelian formulation states that equals be treated as equals, and unequals be treated as unequals.
Though in very ancient times these principles were widely accepted, the first more clearly than the second, they were not articulated, as we do, in the language of rights. The language of rights, familiar to us, comes to us from Roman law where its roots lay in Stoic philosophy. In ancient society, as far as we can gather, juridical language used concepts such as violation, deprivation, causing of harm, and so forth, calling for remedial action. The judicial authority was called upon to do justice, that is, to restore the person who suffered deprivation or harm to the state that he or she deserved to be in. Juridical thought and language moved in the sphere of restoration to a state seen as the removal of unjust benefits or burdens rather than as the adjudication of conflicting claims in accordance with the rights of the parties.
One of the early applications of this mode of judicial thought appeared in the enforcement of contracts. In ancient practice contracts properly entered into were strictly enforced throughout the ancient world. Nonetheless, when a case of enforcement of a contract arose before a judge and the contract was seen to be egregiously unfair, the judge often altered the terms to make it somewhat fair.