Justice – definition and meaning

Justice is one of our most fundamental principles. Justice includes social, ethical and moral values. It is a theory by which human society applies fairness. The term goes hand-in-hand with the rule of law. It guarantees that all decisions adhere to the law, i.e., rules and regulations. It also ensures that nobody is above the law.

Put simply; it is the system which judges people in courts of law. It is also the system that punishes people who break the law.

The term may also refer to a person; specifically a judge in a high court. A Justice of the Peace is a lay judicial officer who hears minor offense charges.

It can mean slightly different things depending on where you live. Across the world, we have different histories, beliefs, and values.

For example, in one country drinking alcohol is legal and acceptable. However, in another country drinking alcohol is illegal and unacceptable.

However, we all see the concept as a way to make sure that society thrives and that we treat each other fairly.

According to ft.com/lexicon, the Financial Times’ glossary of terms, the word means:

“The system by which people are judged in courts of law and criminals are punished.”

“A judge in a law court. The title of a judge in the high court.”

According to Law.com, justice is: “1. Fairness. 2. Moral rightness. 3. A scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/ her/its due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal. 4. An appellate judge.

Etymology of justice

Etymology is the study of where words come from, i.e., their origins. It also determines how the meanings of words have evolved. An etymologist is somebody who studies the origin of words.

The word first emerged in the English language in Britain in the twelfth century. It meant ‘the exercise of authority in vindication of right by assigning reward or punishment.’ It also meant the ‘quality of being just and fair, conformity to truth, and moral soundness.’

The word came from the Old French word Justice, which came from Latin Iustitia. The Latin word meant ‘equity’ and ‘righteousness.’


One of the first philosophers to define justice was Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC). Plato was the founder of the Academy in Athens, the Western world’s first institution of higher learning. He defined the term in two ways:

– First, individually, as a virtue that allows people to abstain from bad things. Our sense of right and wrong prevents bad things from luring us. Our aim in this definition of justice is to be consistent and good.

– Second, it is a component of social consciousness. It makes society internally harmonious and good.

Over the centuries, the meaning of the term has broadened. Hence, today it has a much wider meaning that in Plato’s time. In fact, justice is now present in virtually every sector of society and the economy.

Four types of justice

Today, there are four types of justice:

Distributive or Economic Justice is all about fairness in what we receive. It includes everything, from goods to attention. It is at the roots of socialism, which focuses on equality, i.e., we are all the same.

Procedural justice ensures that the decisions people take are fair. The notion of fair play exists here.

If we believe that things were distributed fairly, we are more likely to accept imbalances. In other words, we are more likely to accept that others have more than we have.

Retributive justice works on the principle of punishment. However, we are forever debating what constitutes proportional and fair punishment.

Some people insist that retribution is necessary. Others, however, point to statistics regarding repeat offenders and believe that society needs to take a different approach.

Restorative or Corrective Justice focuses on the people affected by a crime. It also tries to find ways of compensating them. It has the notion of putting things back as they should be, i.e., restitution.

An apology is an example of retribution. It is probably the simplest and most straightforward example.

Restoration may include an action or a payment of money to the person who received injustice.

Video – What is Justice?

We use the term all the time. However, we are rarely specific about what the word means.

In this Crash Course video, Hank tries to explain what justice means.