The categorical imperative incorporates two criteria for determining moral right and wrong: universalizability and reversibility. Universalizability means the person’s reasons for acting must be reasons that everyone could act on at least in principle. Reversibility means the person’s reasons for acting must be reasons that he or she would be willing to have all others use, even as a basis of how they treat him or her. That is, one’s reasons for acting must be reasons that everyone could act upon in principle, and the person’s reasons must be such that he would be willing to have all others use them as well.

Unlike utilitarianism, which focuses on consequences, Kantian theory focuses on interior motivations. The second formulation Kant gives of the categorical imperative is this: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

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Or never treat people only as means, but always also as ends. What Kant means by “treating humanity as an end” is that everyone should treat each human being as a being whose existence as a free rational person should be promoted. For Kant, this means two things: (a) respect each person’s freedom by treating people only as they have freely consented to be treated beforehand, and (b) develop each person’s capacity to freely choose for him or herself the aims he or she will pursue.

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Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative can be expressed in the following principle: “An action is morally right for a person if, and only if, in performing the action, the person does not use others merely as a means for advancing his or her own interests, but also both respects and develops their capacity to choose freely for themselves.” This version of the categorical imperative implies that human beings have an equal dignity that sets them apart from things such as tools or machines and that is incompatible with their being manipulated, deceived, or otherwise unwillingly exploited to satisfy the self-interests of another.

However, even if the categorical imperative explains why people have moral rights, it cannot by itself tell us what particular moral rights humans have. And when rights come into conflict, it cannot tell us which right should take precedence. Still, there seem to be three basic rights that can be defended on Kantian grounds:

1. Humans have a clear interest in being provided with the work, food, clothing, housing, and medical care they need to live.
2. Humans have a clear interest in being free from injury and in being free to live and think as they choose.
3. Humans have a clear interest in preserving the institution of contracts. Despite the attractiveness of Kant’s theory, critics have argued that, like utilitarianism, it has its limitations and inadequacies. A first problem that critics have traditionally pointed out is that Kant’s theory is not precise enough to always be useful. Second, some critics claim that although we might be able to agree on the kinds of interests that have the status of moral rights, there is substantial disagreement concerning what the limits of each of these rights are and concerning how each of these rights should be balanced against other conflicting rights. A third group of criticisms that have been made of Kant’s theory is that there are counterexamples that show the theory sometimes goes wrong. Most counterexamples to Kant’s theory focus on the criteria of universalizability and reversibility.

A very different view of rights is based on the work of libertarian philosophers such as Robert Nozick. They claim that freedom from constraint is necessarily good, and that all constraints imposed on one by others are necessary evils, except when they prevent even greater human constraints. The only basic right we all possess is the negative right to be free from the coercion of other human beings.

Libertarians may pass too quickly over the fact that the freedom of one person necessarily imposes constraints on other persons, if only that others must be constrained from interfering with that person. If I have the right to unionize, for example, I constrain the rights of my employer to treat me as he sees fit. Though libertarians tend to use Kant to support their views, there is no consensus on whether or not this is actually possible. There is also no good reason to assume that only negative rights exist.

Justice and Fairness

The dispute over “brown lung” disease caused by cotton dust illustrates how references to justice and fairness permeate such concerns. Justice and fairness are essentially comparative. They are concerned with the comparative treatment given to the members of a group when benefits and burdens are distributed, when rules and laws are administered, when members of a group cooperate or compete with each other, and when people are punished for the wrongs they have done or compensated for the wrongs they have suffered. Justice generally refers to matters that are more serious than fairness, though some philosophers maintain that fairness is more fundamental. In general, we think that considerations of justice are more important than utilitarian concerns: greater benefits for some do not justify injustices to others. However, standards of justice not generally override individual moral rights. This is probably because justice is, to some extent, based on individual moral rights. There are three categories of issues involving justice:

1. Distributive justice is concerned with the fair distribution of society’s benefits and burdens.
2. Retributive justice refers to the just imposition of penalties and punishments 3. Compensatory justice is concerned with compensating people for what they lose when harmed by others.

Questions of distributive justice arise when there is a scarcity of benefits or a plethora of burdens; not enough food or health care, for example, or too much unpleasant work. When resources are scarce, we must develop principles to allocate them fairly. The fundamental principle involved is that equals should be treated equally (and unequals treated unequally). However, it is not clear in just what respects people must be equal. The fundamental principle of distributive justice may be expressed as follows:

“Individuals who are similar in all respects relevant to the kind of treatment in question should be given similar benefits and burdens, even if they are dissimilar in other irrelevant respects; and individuals who are dissimilar in a relevant respect ought to be treated dissimilarly, in proportion to their dissimilarity.” Egalitarians hold that there are no relevant differences among people that can justify unequal treatment. According to the egalitarian, all benefits and burdens should be distributed according to the following formula:

“Every person should be given exactly equal shares of a society’s or a group’s benefits and burdens.” Though equality is an attractive social ideal for many, egalitarianism has been strongly criticized. Some critics claim that need, ability, and effort are all relevant differences among people, and that it would be unjust to ignore these differences

In the context of intractable conflict, the terms ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ are often used interchangeably. Taken in its broader sense, justice is action in accordance with the requirements of some law.[1] Some maintain that justice stems from God’s will or command, while others believe that justice is inherent in nature itself. Still others believe that justice consists of rules common to all humanity that emerge out of some sort of consensus. This sort of justice is often thought of as something higher than a society’s legal system. It is in those cases where an action seems to violate some universal rule of conduct that we are likely to call it “unjust.” In its narrower sense, justice is fairness. It is action that pays due regard to the proper interests, property, and safety of one’s fellows.[2] While justice in the broader sense is often thought of as transcendental, justice as fairness is more context-bound. Parties concerned with fairness typically strive to work out something comfortable and adopt procedures that resemble rules of a game.

They work to ensure that people receive their “fair share” of benefits and burdens and adhere to a system of “fair play.” The principles of justice and fairness can be thought of as rules of “fair play” for issues of social justice. Whether they turn out to be grounded in universal laws or ones that are more context-bound, these principles determine the way in which the various types of justice are carried out.

For example, principles of distributive justice determine what counts as a “fair share” of the public assets, while principles of retributive or restorative justiceshape our response to activity that violates a society’s rules of “fair play.” Social justice requires both that the rules be fair, and also that people play by the rules. People often frame justice issues in terms of fairness and invoke principles of justice and fairness to explain their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their state or government.[3] They want institutions to treat them fairly and to operate according to fair rules. What constitutes fair treatment and fair rules is often expressed by a variety of justice principles.

Desserts, Equity, Equality, and Need

The principles of equity, equality, and need are most relevant in the context of distributive justice, but might play a role in a variety of social justice issues. These principles all appeal to the notion of dessert, the idea that fair treatment is a matter of giving people what they deserve. In general, people deserve to be rewarded for their effort and productivity, punished for their transgressions, treated as equal persons, and have their basic needs met. However, because these principles may come into conflict, it is often difficult to achieve all of these goals simultaneously. According to the principle of equity, a fair economic system is one that distributes goods to individuals in proportion to their input. While input typically comes in the form of productivity, ability or talent might also play a role. People who produce more or better products…either by working harder, or by being more talented, this argument goes, should be paid more for their efforts than should people who produce less.

Note that this sort of distribution may not succeed in meeting the needs of all members of society. In addition, the idea that justice requires the unequal treatment of unequals is in tension with the principle of equality. This principle of egalitarianism suggests that the fairest allocation is one that distributes benefits and burdens equally among all parties. If there are profits of $100,000, and 10 people in the company, the principle of equality would suggest that everyone would get $10,000. This principle, however, ignores differences in effort, talent, and productivity. Also, because people have different needs, an equal initial distribution may not result in an equal outcome.

A principle of need, on the other hand, proposes that we strive for an equal outcome in which all society or group members get what they need. Thus poor people would get more money, and richer people would get less. This principle is sometimes criticized because it does not recognize differences in productive contributions or distinguish between real needs and manifested needs. Some have suggested that equity, equality, and need are not principles adopted for their own sake but rather ones endorsed to advance some social goal.[4] For example, while equity tends to foster productivity, principles of equality and need tend to stress the importance of positive interpersonal relationships and a sense of belonging among society members.

Impartiality, Consistency, Standing, and Trust

Principles of justice and fairness are also central to procedural, retributive, and restorative justice. Such principles are supposed to ensure procedures that generate unbiased, consistent, and reliable decisions. Here the focus is on carrying out set rules in a fair manner so that a just outcome might be reached. Fair procedures are central to the legitimacy of decisions reached and individuals’ acceptance of those decisions. To ensure fair procedures, both in the context of legal proceedings as well as in negotiation and mediation, the third party carrying out those procedures must be impartial. This means they must make an honest, unbiased decision based on appropriate information.[5] For example, judges should be impartial, and facilitators should not exhibit any prejudice that gives one party unfair advantages. The rules themselves should also be impartial so that they do not favor some people over others from the outset.

An unbiased, universally applied procedure, whether it serves to distribute wealth or deliver decisions, can ensure impartiality as well as consistency. The principle of consistency proposes that “the distinction of some versus others should reflect genuine aspects of personal identity rather than extraneous features of the differentiating mechanism itself.”[6] In other words, the institutional mechanism in question should treat like cases alike and ensure a level playing field for all parties. The principle of standing suggests that people value their membership in a group and that societal institutions and decision-making procedures should affirm their status as members.[7] For example, it might follow from this principle that all stakeholders should have a voice in the decision-making process.

In particular, disadvantaged members of a group or society should be empowered and given an opportunity to be heard. When decision-making procedures treat people with respect and dignity, they feel affirmed. A central premise of restorative justice, for example, is that those directly affected by the offense should have a voice and representation in the decision-making process. Related to issues of respect and dignity is the principle of trust. One measure of fairness is whether society members believe that authorities are concerned with their well being and needs. People’s judgments of procedural fairness result from perceptions that they have been treated “honestly, openly, and with consideration.”[8] If they believe that the authority took their viewpoints into account and tried to treat them fairly, they are more likely to engage in the broader social system.

What is So Important about the Principles of Justice

It may seem to be a simple matter of common sense that justice is central to any well-functioning society. However, the question of what justice is, exactly, and how it is achieved are more difficult matters. The principles of justice and fairness point to ideas of fair treatment and “fair play” that should govern all modes of exchange and interaction in a society. They serve as guidelines for carrying out justice. Not surprisingly, each of the principles of justice and fairness can be applied in a variety of contexts. For example, the principle of dessert applies not only in the distribution of wealth, but also in the distribution of punishments. Likewise, the principles of impartiality and consistency might apply to both an economic system and a decision-making body. And the principle of need plays a central role in both distributive and restorative justice.

In addition, we can also understand conflict in terms of tension that arises between the different justice principles. Conflict about what is just might be expressed as conflict about which principle of justice should be applied in a given situation or how that principle should be implemented.[9] The ways of thinking about justice can have conflicting implications, leading to disputes about fairness. For example, some believe that an equitable distribution is the most fair, while others insist that a society’s assets should be allocated according to need. A conflict may arise surrounding whether to base their economic system on equal opportunity or social welfare.

Similarly, some believe that those who violate the rights of others should receive their just desserts, while others believe that our focus should be on the needs of victims and offenders. A conflict may arise about whether a retributive or restorative justice mechanism is most fair. When principles of justice operate ineffectively or not at all, confidence in society’s institutions may be undermined. Citizens or group members may feel alienated and withdraw their commitment to those “unjust” institutions. Or, they may rebel or begin a revolution in order to create new institutions. If justice principles are applied effectively, on the other hand, that society will tend to be more stable and its members will feel satisfied and secure.

Cite this page

Universality and Reversibility: Justice and Fairness. (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from

Universality and Reversibility: Justice and Fairness

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