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Critically evaluate the view that justice is available in society

Justice is best understood as the satisfaction and maintenance of rights, "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought" (Rawls 1993). Justice can be viewed as comprising of two main broad divisions, distributive justice and retributive justice, these will be outlined and analysed in the following.  The former is concerned with the distribution of desirable things, i.e. influence, money, respect, land, between people who are thought to deserve it.

Theories of distributive justice need to address three central concerns, namely, what is to be distributed? Between whom shall it be divided? What is the most just method of distribution? The first, relatively simple principle of distributive justice is strict egalitarianism, which advocates the allocation of equal material goods to all members of society. This principle is most commonly justified as the most effective way of guaranteeing that people have equal respect is through having equality in material goods and services.  Problems for this principle are the construction of appropriate indices for measurement (referred to as the index problem) and the specification of time frames. The principle stipulates that there should be the same level of material goods and services, the problems is how to specify these levels. One attempt to solve this problem is to allocate the same bundle of goods instead of the same level. So, everybody would be given 2 loaves of bread, one laptop, 4 apples etc. The main problem with this system is that there will be many other configurations of goods and services that would make some people better off without making anybody else worse off, i.e. a person preferring apples to bread will be better off trading part of her bundle with somebody who has a greater preference for bread. It is likely that most people would have some item or other that they could trade in order to make themselves better off. Consequently, allocating identical bundles will make almost everybody worse off than they potentially could be under some other allocation so some index for measuring the value of goods and services is required. Money is an index for the value of goods and services but it is an imperfect one, and other indices must be grafted onto this structure to take account of goods that are not material, such as opportunities. Other criticisms of this approach are that is unduly restricts freedom and does not pay any due to what people deserve. The most common criticism, however, is a welfare based one: that people can be materially better off if incomes are not strictly equal, it is this fact that inspired the Difference Principle (Rawls 1993).

In an effort to redress the perceived callousness of the retributive system there is a utilitarian variety of this system. Under utilitarianism, punishment cannot be good in itself, but may be considered a necessary sacrifice in order to increase overall utility in the long term. It may do this in one of the following ways, the threat of punishment may deter people from making choices which would decrease overall utility; punishment might have the effect of rehabilitating wrongdoers so that their future actions maximise welfare; for those who are unrecoverable sociopaths, imprisonment would protect against their crimes and the attendant decrease of utility. A criticism of this approach is that, as before, it is difficult to produce an index of utility. Elster (1991) writes that (1) It is not possible to combine all the diverse goods into a single index of 'utility' which can measured for an individual; (2) Even if you could do the necessary weighing and combining of the goods to construct such an index for an individual, there is no conceptually adequate way of calibrating such a measure between individuals. 

There are diverse conceptions of justice and how justice is to be best achieved. The social contract theorists, including Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, asserted that justice is tied to the democratic system, where citizens and government are both party to a social contract that grants consent to legitimate rule by government. Marxist theories of justice embrace some variety of strict egalitarianism.  However we care to define justice, it is clear that our need for a system of justice ensures it is a fundamental tenet of any modern society, one which is and indeed must be attainable and striven for if society is to cohere in any useful and harmonious sense.  Although justice is ultimately an ideal, and one from which we often fall short, we must continue our pursuit of it in order to maintain peace and the welfare of the citizenry.

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