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Injustice, one in a series of allegorical capitals depicting vices and virtues at the Ducal Palace in Venice 4778 - Venezia - Palazzo ducale - Capitello 12 - Iniusticia seva sum - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 31-Jul-2008.jpg
Injustice, one in a series of allegorical capitals depicting vices and virtues at the Ducal Palace in Venice

Injustice is a quality relating to unfairness or undeserved outcomes. The term may be applied in reference to a particular event or situation, or to a larger status quo. In Western philosophy and jurisprudence, injustice is very commonly—but not always—defined as either the absence or the opposite of justice. [1] [2] [3]

Status quo is a Latin phrase meaning the existing state of affairs, particularly with regard to social or political issues. In the sociological sense, it generally applies to maintain or change existing social structure and values. With regard to policy debate, the status quo refers to how conditions are at the time and how the affirmative team can solve these conditions for example "The countries are now trying to maintain a status quo with regards to their nuclear arsenal which will help them if the situation gets any worse."

Western philosophy philosophy of the Western world

Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western world. Historically, the term refers to the philosophical thinking of Western culture, beginning with Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics such as Thales and Pythagoras, and eventually covering a large area of the globe. The word philosophy itself originated from the Ancient Greek: philosophia (φιλοσοφία), literally, "the love of wisdom".

Jurisprudence theoretical study of law, by philosophers and social scientists

Jurisprudence or legal theory is the theoretical study of law, principally by philosophers but, from the twentieth century, also by social scientists. Scholars of jurisprudence, also known as jurists or legal theorists, hope to obtain a deeper understanding of legal reasoning, legal systems, legal institutions, and the role of law in society.


The sense of injustice is a universal human feature, though the exact circumstances considered unjust can vary from culture to culture. While even acts of nature can sometimes arouse the sense of injustice, the sense is usually felt in relation to human action such as misuse, abuse, neglect, or malfeasance that is uncorrected or else sanctioned by a legal system or fellow human beings.

Abuse is the improper usage or treatment of an entity, often to unfairly or improperly gain benefit. Abuse can come in many forms, such as: physical or verbal maltreatment, injury, assault, violation, rape, unjust practices, crimes, or other types of aggression. To these descriptions, one can also add the Kantian notion of the wrongness of using another human being as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Some sources describe abuse as "socially constructed", which means there may be more or less recognition of the suffering of a victim at different times and societies.

The sense of injustice can be a powerful motivational condition, causing people to take action not just to defend themselves but also others who they perceive to be unfairly treated.

Relationship with justice

Professor Judith Shklar has written that Western philosophers tend to spend much more time discussing the concept of 'justice' rather than 'injustice'. On the other hand, she states both historical writing and fiction use instances of injustice as subject matter far more often than justice. [4]

Judith Nisse Shklar was a political theorist, and worked at Harvard University as the John Cowles Professor of Government.

In philosophy and jurisprudence, the dominant view has been that injustice and justice are two sides of the same coin—that injustice is simply a lack of justice. This view has been challenged by professors including Judith Shklar, Thomas W Simon and Eric Heinze, who consider that justice and injustice are independent qualities. So, in this minority view, you can increase the justice of a situation without reducing the injustice. Heinze has even gone as far as to argue that an increase in justice can actually cause an increase in injustice. [2] [3] [4]

Eric Heinze Legal philosopher

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law and Humanities at the School of Law Queen Mary, University of London. He has made contributions in the areas of legal philosophy, justice theory, jurisprudence, and human rights He has also contributed to the law and literature movement.

A relatively common view among philosophers and other writers is that while justice and injustice may be interdependent, it is injustice that is the primary quality. Many writers have written that, while it is hard to directly define or even perceive justice, it is easy to demonstrate that injustice can be perceived by all. [5] According to von Hayek, the earliest known thinker to state that injustice is the primary quality was Heraclitus, whose view was echoed by Aristotle and dozens of others down the centuries. Hayek said that writers often express the idea that injustice is the primary concept "as though it were a new discovery", suggesting the view is rarely directly expressed in theories on Justice. But Hayek went on to say that legal positivism has proved that injustice, not justice, is the primary quality. [6]

Friedrich Hayek Austrian and British economist

Friedrich August von Hayek, often referred to by his initials F.A. Hayek, was an Anglo-Austrian economist and philosopher best known for his defence of classical liberalism. Hayek shared the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for his "pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and [...] penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena". Hayek was also a major social theorist and political philosopher of the 20th century and his account of how changing prices communicate information that helps individuals co-ordinate their plans is widely regarded as an important achievement in economics, leading to his Nobel Prize.

Heraclitus pre-Socratic Greek philosopher

Heraclitus of Ephesus (; Greek: Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος, translit. Hērákleitos ho Ephésios; was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, and a native of the city of Ephesus, then part of the Persian Empire. He was of distinguished parentage. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. From the lonely life he led, and still more from the apparently riddled and allegedly paradoxical nature of his philosophy and his stress upon the heedless unconsciousness of humankind, he was called "The Obscure" and the "Weeping Philosopher".

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he is considered the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Sense of injustice

A metaphorical injustice eating the innocent in Guillaume Rouille's Justicie atque Iniusticie. The legs of the beast include adolesces sine obedietia (disobedient youth) and plebs sine disciplina(undisciplined commoners). Flickr - Yale Law Library - Beast of Injustice.jpg
A metaphorical injustice eating the innocent in Guillaume Rouillé's Justicie atque Iniusticie. The legs of the beast include adolescés sine obediétia (disobedient youth) and plebs sine disciplina(undisciplined commoners).

Scholars including Judith Shklar, Edmond Cahn and Barrington Moore, Jr. have surveyed anthropological and historical work on injustice, concluding that the sense of injustice is found everywhere there are men and women; it is a human universal. [4] [8] [9] These writers, and others like Simone Weil, Elizabeth Wolgast and Thomas W Simon, hold that the sense of injustice is a powerful motivational condition — unlike the sense of justice which tends to be conceived in more abstract ways, and tends to inspire contemplation rather than action. [2] [10] [11] [12]

Simone Weil French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist

Simone Adolphine Weil was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist. The mathematician André Weil was her brother.

Cahn held that, for evolutionary reasons, humans who witness others being subjected to injustice can respond as though it was an act of aggression towards themselves. There can be an immediate, visceral activation of the flight or fight system. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. puts it "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". [13] A 2012 study published in Psychological Science found that even babies have a sense of injustice and dislike having it violated, even when they witness events that do not directly effect them. [14] [15]

In the field of jurisprudence, Cahn has argued that it is an important skill for lawyers to know how to rouse a jury's sense of injustice — something best done by appeals to the particular, not by abstractions or boilerplate type statements. Barrington Moore asserts that reasons why populations often submit to oppression for long periods of time is that they consider it inevitable and so their sense of injustice is not aroused. He says that a widely shared sense of injustice is an essential, though not sufficient, cause of rebellion. Writers including Simone Weil, Elizabeth Wolgast and Judith Shklar have said that an aroused sense of injustice can be an essential prerequisite to action needed for protecting the weak and afflicted. [4] [8] [9] [10] [11]


A common cause of injustice is human selfishness. As Plato described at length in The Republic , people will often commit acts of injustice when they calculate it is in their interests to do so. [3] Plato also adds that "The highest reach of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not". Human injustice is not always caused by attempt to gain unfair advantage or malice; it may be simply the result of the flawed human decision making. For example, studies have found that judges sitting on review boards are less likely to reach decisions favorable to applicants depending on how long it is since the judges had their last food break. [16] [17] Misuse and abuse with regard to a particular case or context may represent a systemic failure to serve the cause of justice (cf. legal vacuum). [2] [8]


The Innocence Project provides a wealth of cases in which the U.S. justice system prosecuted and convicted the wrong person.

See also

Notes and references

  1. McCoubrey, Hilaire and White, Nigel D. Textbook on Jurisprudence. Second Edition. Blackstone Press Limited. 1996. ISBN   1-85431-582-X. Page 276.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Thomas W Simon (1995). "passim, see esp Chpt 1, 'Injustice versus Justice'". Democracy and Social Justice. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN   978-0847679386.
  3. 1 2 3 Eric Heinze (2012). "passim, see esp Chpt 1, 'Nietzsche's echo'". The Concept of Injustice. Routledge. ISBN   978-0415524414.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Judith N. Shklar (1992). "passim, see esp Chpt 1, 'Giving Injustice its due'". The Faces of Injustice. Yale University Press. ISBN   978-0253200556.
  5. Edmond N. Cahn (1946). "Justice, Power and Law". Yale Law Journal . 55 (2): 336–364. doi:10.2307/792700. JSTOR   792700.
  6. See Chapter 8 "THE QUEST FOR JUSTICE" in Vol 2 of von Hayeks's The mirage of social justice (University of Chicago Press, 1978). For a list discussing dozens of writers who have stated down the centuries that injustice, not justice, is the primary concept, look out for the long footnote under the sub heading "Rules of just conduct are generally prohibitions of unjust conduct"
  7. Mike Widener (July 28, 2010), More images in our Flickr galleries, Yale Law Library
  8. 1 2 3 Edmond N Cahn (1975). The sense of injustice. Indiana University Press. pp. passim, see esp pp 24–26, 106. ISBN   978-0253200556.
  9. 1 2 Barrington Moore, Jr. (1978). Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. passim. ISBN   978-0333247839.
  10. 1 2 Richard H Bell (1998). "Chpt 3". Simone Weil: The Way of Justice as Compassion. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN   978-0847690800.
  11. 1 2 Elizabeth Wolgast (1987). The Grammar of Justice. Cornell University Press. p. 103. ISBN   978-0801494024.
  12. Barnett, Clive. The Priority of Injustice: Locating Democracy in Critical Theory. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017). ISBN   978-0820351520
  13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).
  14. Maia Szalavitz (2012-02-20). "Even Babies Can Recognize What's Fair: Babies as young as 19 months are affronted when they see displays of injustice". Time . Retrieved 2016-07-14.
  15. Stephanie Sloane, Renée Baillargeon and David Premack (2012). "Do Infants Have a Sense of Fairness?". Psychological Science . 23 (2): 196–204. doi:10.1177/0956797611422072. PMC   3357325 . PMID   22258431.
  16. "We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break." Shai Danzigera; Jonathan Levav; Liora Avnaim-Pessoa (11 April 2011). "Extraneous factors in judicial decisions". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (17): 6889–92. Bibcode:2011PNAS..108.6889D. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108. PMC   3084045 . PMID   21482790.
  17. For more on the substantial difference in judges' decisions depending on time since last food break, see chpt 3 of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

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Justice Concept of moral fairness and administration of the law

Justice, in its broadest context, includes both the attainment of that which is just and the philosophical discussion of that which is just. The concept of justice is based on numerous fields, and many differing viewpoints and perspectives including the concepts of moral correctness based on ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity and fairness. Often, the general discussion of justice is divided into the realm of social justice as found in philosophy, theology and religion, and, procedural justice as found in the study and application of the law.

Natural law system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and is thus universal; philosophy that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature endowed by "God" or another "Divine" source, and can be understood universally through human reason

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Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.

Jurist legal scholar or academic, a professional who studies, teaches, and develops law

A jurist is someone who researches and studies jurisprudence. Such a person can work as an academic, legal writer or law lecturer. In the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and in many other Commonwealth countries, the word jurist sometimes refers to a barrister, whereas in the United States of America and Canada it often refers to a judge.

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Critical legal studies (CLS) is a school of critical theory that first emerged as a movement in the United States during the 1970s. Critical Legal Studies adherents claim that laws are used to maintain the status quo of society's power structures; it is also held that the law is a codified form of society's biases against marginalized groups. Despite wide variation in the opinions of critical legal scholars around the world there is general consensus regarding the key goals of Critical Legal Studies:

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