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Status: 03.09.2013 | archive

Even in antiquity, ideas about justice were diverse. There was a striking difference between the early Egyptian and Assyrian high cultures on the one hand, in which justice was derived from a divine world order, and Greece of the archaic period from around 800 to 500 BC. Because the gods, in the early Greek epics such as the Odyssey, by no means acted according to a deliberate overall plan, but intervened in world events - not least out of self-interest - depending on the situation, for the benefit or disadvantage of people. The philosophical controversy of the Greeks with the question of justice began in the fifth century BC with the Sophists, a group of philosophers who placed man, his ethics and his possibilities of knowledge at the center of their considerations. Using different approaches, they explained justice as a natural or social phenomenon.

The great Greek philosopher Plato (428 / 427-347 BC)

Some of them are given the floor by the great Greek philosopher Plato (428 / 427-347 BC) - not a sophist himself - in the "dialogues" that he has handed down in writing. For example, Callicles of Acharnai came to the conclusion that justice by nature corresponds to a preference for the stronger. Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, on the other hand, exposes justice as an instrument used by the rulers to secure their interests.

Plato's idea of ​​justice

Plato, on the other hand, emphasized for the first time that justice is also a question of the personal attitude of the individual. In his work, "The State" ("Politeia"), however, he also turned his gaze to the community. Plato stated that justice is responsible for the harmony of the human soul by keeping the balance between its three parts: the courageous, the thinking and the desiring part. Analogously, he saw the state divided into three parts: a class of "guardians", that is, warriors, a class of philosopher rulers and a class of craftsmen and farmers. In Plato, the classes - like the parts of the soul - correspond to their respective virtues: bravery, wisdom and prudence, the latter sharing the latter with the other two classes. Justice, as the fourth and highest of the so-called cardinal virtues, unites the parts of the state into a reasonable whole. Another aspect of justice was important for Plato: that "each individual only one should exercise a public profession in the city, namely the one for which his nature is best suited ". Because justice is" that everyone has and does what is his own ", Plato has his teacher Socrates explain in" The State ".

The difference between the general definition of justice as "the best of the virtues" and its special aspects, the fair distribution of tasks and goods on the one hand, and the appropriate compensation for goods sold or damaged on the other, was worked out more precisely by Plato's pupil Aristotle.


Like Plato, he differentiated between two types of equality in human coexistence: One is purely numerical, it is arithmetic equality and applies, for example, to business partners, one of whom owes the other a corresponding value for a given good, or if one harms the other and has to pay for the damage caused. The second form of equality, on the other hand, has a qualitative character and is decisive in the distribution of goods and offices. For Aristotle, as for Plato, there is more to those whose general merits are greater. Many of the fundamental considerations of Plato and his pupil Aristotle can still be found more than 500 years later in the Roman legal scholar Ulpian (170-223), who formulated three principles of law:

"Live honorably! Do no one wrong! Give everyone his own!"


Late antiquity and the Middle Ages - Plato and Aristotle ’heirs

Even in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Platonic concept of justice was of significant influence. Plato's idea of ​​the harmony of the soul can be found in the Neoplatonist Plotinus (around 205-270) as well as in the church father Augustine (354-430). However, both differentiated between a still imperfect justice on earth, and a higher, true - with Augustine heavenly - form of justice. According to Augustine, the reason for the imperfect character of the virtues in earthly conditions was the original sin of man. Accordingly, in his eyes, true righteousness depended on God's grace. The theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) found an independent definition of justice. For him, justice was achieved by doing what was morally recognized as right for its own sake. An important step for the Christian doctrine of justice was the translation of Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" into Latin around 1246/47 and the commentary by Albertus Magnus (around 1200-1280) on it. Through Magnus and his student Thomas Aquinas (around 1225-1274), Aristotle's differentiated view of justice found its way into Christian theology.

"Man is man's wolf"

With the modern age, the skepticism among philosophers grew as to whether humans are at all interested in behaving fairly towards their neighbor. The opposite is the case, stated the Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who was committed to the new, experience-oriented, scientific thinking: Man is "man's wolf" and the "war of all against all" is the natural state among people who each have no free will and are dominated by their selfish instinct for self-preservation. In order to put an end to the resulting insecurity, according to Hobbes, people must collectively transfer their power to a state, with whose legal system it is essentially possible to establish justice in the first place.

Enlightenment - "Back to nature" of man

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also proposed such a "social contract". But unlike Hobbes, who saw the state above all as a guarantor for the legal protection of individual property, for Rousseau private property was the root of human evil. For Rousseau, from the moment of first taking possession, society developed away from an almost paradisiacal, pre-civilizational state of nature towards an ever more pronounced common rule of "the rich" over the poor and simple-minded. For Rousseau, the state initially only serves as protection against the inequality of rich and poor. In order to make it a just state, a "social contract" is required, which arises through the free agreement of all citizens. Through the treaty, citizens submit to the common will of their majority, the common will, which is the basis for their laws.

"The citizen agrees to all laws, even to those that have gone through against his will, even to those that punish him if he violates one of them. The constant will of all members of the state is the common will; through it they are citizens and are free . "


The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

For the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) "the legislative power can only come to the united will of the people". His general moral law, "the categorical imperative", gives the answer to the question of justice:

"Act in such a way that the maxim of your will can at any time also apply as the principle of general legislation."


Theory of Justice in the 19th and 20th Centuries

While for Rousseau justice meant realizing the equality and freedom innate in human beings in society, for Hobbes justice actually only arose within the framework of a state legal system. In the different approaches of Hobbes and Rousseau, a question that has shaped the justice discourse since antiquity was raised: the question of whether justice, as an ethically decisive value, is part of a supranational, natural, sometimes divine order, or whether it is the result of a social legal order. The so-called legal positivists of the 19th and 20th centuries assumed that the positive law established by the state possessed independence from moral norms such as justice, and that positive law did not require any further justification as long as it was constitutionally established. It is true that the various positions of legal positivism differ in the extent to which they see positive law independent of morality. But the teaching itself has been criticized, at least since the German National Socialists based their reign of terror on the basis of regularly adopted laws.

Rousseau's critical appraisal of private property and the division of society into haves and non-haves anticipated another intellectual trend that established itself in the 19th century, socialism. Its most important representative, Karl Marx, with his criticism of the production conditions in bourgeois-capitalist society also questioned their morals, but concentrated on an analysis of economic conditions. His vision of a post-bourgeois communist society, however, "each according to his abilities, each according to his needs", suggests Plato's idea of ​​justice.

Current theories on the question of justice

In the second half of the 20th century in particular, the concept of justice was increasingly expanded, for example to include questions of intergenerational justice or global justice. The "Theory of Justice" (1971) by the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) is one of the most important contemporary models of justice. He formulated two principles of distributive justice in a society: First, in dealing with institutions, everyone has "an equal right to the greatest possible freedom, which is compatible with the same freedom for all." And secondly, social inequalities caused by the institution are to be classified as "arbitrary" if it cannot be assumed that they will work to the benefit of all. The "positions and offices with which these inequalities are connected or through which they arise must be open to everyone." In order to determine the principles of coexistence, Rawls proposed a thought experiment under the heading "veil of ignorance": a situation that fakes, the people concerned decide on the principles without knowing in which social position they would affect their own decision. An experiment in terms of so-called "procedural justice". This term summarizes contemporary approaches with which justice is to be achieved by means of suitable societal decision-making processes. This also includes the discourse ethics of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas

It stipulates that social decisions should ideally be preceded by an open discourse between all those involved. In doing so, however, they should not, as in the Rawls' model, adopt "a common perspective" thanks to an "information restriction", but rather "put themselves in the perspective and thus the self-understanding of everyone else". In the discourse, arguments and counter-arguments are used to find a result that everyone can agree to. In this way, justice is not created according to overarching principles, but through the consensus of those actually affected.