Justice and a "Just World"

These formal definitions mean very little to citizens who strongly believe their relative or friend, victimized by a crime, is not being treated with fairness and justice. Their view of justice is commonly negative: sentences are too short and the law provides too much protection to criminals; the “rich” are favoured over the “poor”; anyone can “get off” if they have a good lawyer; the process is too slow (Brillon, 121).

The field of social psychology and research on “beliefs in a just world” help to explain these attitudes.

Researchers examined the extent to which people believed they have control over their life experiences. They tested the hypothesis, derived from analyzing public attitudes, that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, people generally believe they get what they deserve and they are responsible for the situations in which they find themselves. A Just World Scale has been developed to explore this concept further (Furnham, Smith & Green).

This research noted contradictions in the way people react to the fate of one another: sometimes deep compassion and self-denying behavior is exhibited in response to the suffering of others. At other times people react with relative indifference (Lerner, p. 1).. Who is “deserving” and what is just evolves out of the socialization process for children and adults. So, not surprisingly, justice is not always an altruistic matter of doing right by others; it can also be a selfish matter of not letting others do wrong to us. It begins with what we think we deserve for ourselves (Kain).

A sense of entitlement is also an aspect of viewing the world as just. People generally set their expectations, engage in activities, and evaluate outcomes for themselves and others based on what they believe they are entitled to, and not necessarily on the basis of what they want or desire (Lerner).

“Power-distance” is an important factor. Those who have more property, wealth, and power will more likely have stronger just world beliefs than those who have little or no power (Furnham).

People’s sense of vulnerability and the inability to control their personal circumstances tend to create views that the world is not just (Forest).

This research on beliefs in a just world offers some insight into the citizen who exclaims “There is no justice!” They are more likely to be people who feel powerless and vulnerable, believing that their relative or friend is entitled and deserving of more in terms of retribution. What these citizens are asking for, however, is not really justice.

Justice in Canada

It has often been said that the primary purpose of law is, or ought to be, the implementation of justice (Wright, p. 1859). It is for this reason that justice in Canadian society is simply legal justice – the justice of law and the courts. Justice is what is decided by the lawmakers in terms of how they view “the common good” (Wright, pp. 1864-1871) and the courts in terms of how they interpret the law. Other considerations such as equity and fairness and similar dimensions of justice are difficult and sometimes impossible to be narrowly applied in a way that will satisfy individuals and some groups of citizens. The law in our society is the sole determinant of what a person deserves if they break the law and what each victim will receive or not receive as a result of this decision

Selected Bibliography

Black Henry Campbell. Black’s Law Dictionary. Revised Fourth Edition by the Publishers Editorial Staff. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publication Co., 1968.

Burton, William C. Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. Third Edition. NY: MacMillan Library Reference USA, 1998, p. 32.

Curzon L. B. Dictionary of Law. Sixth edition. Longman, 2002, pp. 237-238.

Davis Mark S. The Concise Dictionary of Crime and Justice. Sage Publications, 2002.

English Arthur. A Dictionary of Words and Phrases used in Ancient and Modern Law.
Littleton, Colorado: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1987.

Forkosch Morris D. “Justice.” In: Dictionary of the History of Ideas; Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Philip P. Wiener, general editor. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973, pp. 652-659.

Forest Kay B. (1995). The role of critical events in predicting world views: linking two social psychologies. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. 10(2):331-348.

Furnham Adrian. (1993) Just world beliefs in twelve societies. Journal of Social Psychology. 133 (3):317-330.

Gardner John D., ed. The Encyclopedia of Words and Phrases Legal Maxims. Canada. 16th Cumulative Supplement, volume 2. Carswell, 1993, 2-59.

Kass Leon R.(1996). A genealogy of justice. Commentary. 102(1):44-52.

Brillon Yves. Public opinion about the penal system: A cynical view of criminal justice. In: Law in a Cynical Society? Opinion and Law in the 1980s. Dale Gibson and Janet K. Baldwin, eds., Carswell Legal Publications Western Division, 1985, 120-128.

Lerner Melvin J. (1977). The justice motive: Some hypotheses as to its origins and forms. Journal of Personality. 45:1-52.

Smith Kevin B., Green David N. (1984). Individual correlates of the belief in a just world. Psychological Reports. 54 (April):435-438.

Williams Vergil L. Justice Model of Corrections. In Dictionary of American Penology; An Introductory Guide. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 118-120.

Wright Richard (2000). The principles of justice. Notre Dame Law Review. 75 (5, August):1859-1892.