Contemporary Theories of Justice

Justice is a complex concept that has been debated and written about for centuries. Philosophers, legal scholars, and ethicists have all grappled with the meaning of justice and how best to achieve it in society. In the contemporary era, several major theories of justice have emerged and gained prominence. These theories attempt to provide a framework for what constitutes a just society, how justice should be distributed, and what obligations we have to each other.

This article will provide an overview of the most influential contemporary theories of justice. It will explain the key principles and reasons behind each theory, the main philosophers and thinkers associated with each one, and some of the critiques or counterarguments that have been made. The three theories that will be covered are:

  • Utilitarianism
  • Egalitarian liberalism
  • Capability theory

By examining these theories of justice, we can better understand different perspectives on fairness, equality, and human rights. This can inform both ethical thinking and policy debates about how to structure society. Achieving justice requires grappling with complex social, political, and economic forces. Contemporary theories provide frameworks for thinking through notions of justice in a systematic way.


Utilitarianism is a moral theory that evaluates actions and policies based on their consequences. The core principle of utilitarianism is maximizing utility, which refers to producing the greatest amount of good or happiness overall. Utility is defined in terms of well-being, pleasure, and the absence of suffering. Utilitarian ethics are forward-looking rather than backward-looking – the focus is on promoting good outcomes rather than punishing past wrongs.

Utilitarianism originated in the writings of 18th and 19th century philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham argued that societies should aim to achieve “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Mill refined this theory by distinguishing higher and lower pleasures, arguing that intellectual, moral, and spiritual pursuits yield greater utility than simple physical pleasures.

When considering policies, utilitarianism suggests we weigh costs and benefits and adopt those that will result in the most net utility. Cost-benefit analyses are a key tool in policy evaluation from a utilitarian perspective. Utilitarians also support egalitarian distributions of resources, since marginal utility tends to decline as one has more. That is, an extra dollar improves well-being more for a poor person than a wealthy person.

Utilitarianism provides a universal framework focused on human welfare and consequences. However, critics argue it is too impersonal and can justify violations of individual rights for the greater good. Utilitarian calculations can also be difficult to make accurately. Key philosophers and economists who developed and applied utilitarianism include Bentham, Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and Paul Samuelson.

Egalitarian Liberalism

Egalitarian liberalism holds that justice requires not just protecting basic liberties, but also addressing inequalities that undermine freedom and opportunity. A just society must offer equality of opportunity and eliminate arbitrary disadvantages based on factors like race, gender, or socioeconomic status. While focused on equality, egalitarian liberalism still values core civil liberties like free speech, religion, and association.

John Rawls was highly influential in developing contemporary egalitarian liberalism. In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, he advanced two key principles of justice:

1) Equal basic liberties – everyone should have the same inalienable rights and freedoms like voting, speech, assembly, and conscience.

2) Fair equality of opportunity – society should ensure positions and offices are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. There should be no arbitrary discrimination.

Rawls argued that even meritocracy alone is not enough, as it fails to account for natural talents and starting conditions into which people are born. His “veil of ignorance” thought experiment proposed that just principles are those people would choose if designing a society without knowing their own advantages or position within it.

Other major egalitarian liberals include Ronald Dworkin, who argued for resource equality rather than just procedural equality, and Martha Nussbaum, who linked social justice to human capabilities. Critics argue egalitarian liberalism unduly burdens the successful and talented to provide for others.

Capability Theory

Capability theory was pioneered by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum as an alternative approach to human development and social justice. Capability theory argues that justice should focus on expanding people’s capabilities – their freedom to achieve various “functionings” or life outcomes they have reason to value. These functionings can include being nourished, being educated, having shelter, participating politically, and more.

In this approach, development is about removing barriers to freedom rather than just increasing incomes. Capabilities are influenced by both a person’s resources and the relative conversion of resources to functionings by different people. Equality of capability matters more than equality of income or utility. As Nussbaum argues, “The goal is to give people the tools they need to have dignified lives.”

Capability theory contends that each person has equal moral worth. The state should expand capabilities through tools like public education, healthcare, social security, and anti-discrimination laws. Critics contend that operationalizing the approach can be difficult – capabilities are hard to measure. There are also questions about whether governments should be accountable for people’s personal choices that restrict their capabilities.

Capability theory has nonetheless impacted social policy discussions, particularly around topics like disability rights and human development measurements. It provides a flexible framework focused on free choice rather than specific outcomes. Expanding human capabilities advances justice from this perspective.

Critiques of Contemporary Theories of Justice

While contemporary theories of justice have provided substantial insights, they have also been subject to various criticisms and debates. Here are some of the major critiques leveled against these theories:

  • Utilitarianism reduces ethics to mere calculus and does not account for individual rights and dignity. Justice is complicated – the ends do not always justify the means.
  • Egalitarian liberalism curtails economic liberties and places too many demands on the state. It overemphasizes equality of outcomes rather than processes.
  • Capability theory is too focused on individual freedoms and does not sufficiently consider social responsibilities. Implementing policies to expand capabilities is also practically difficult.
  • Theories rely too much on abstract reasoning removed from the complexity of real world policymaking. Principles of justice must be balanced with feasibility constraints.
  • Notions of fairness and equality themselves have contested definitions – different cultures interpret these ideals differently. Theories assume objective notions of justice when these notions evolve across history.
  • Individualistic Western biases shape many theories, which overlook more collective worldviews of justice found in Asian, African, and indigenous societies. Access to community and reciprocity matter alongside individual rights.
  • The law has limited power to achieve justice, which also depends on culture, economic forces, social movements, technology, and complex historical factors that theories simplify.

While debates continue, these contemporary theories have helped frame discussions of justice in legal, political, economic, and social realms. They provide intellectual guidance on notions of fairness while acknowledging justice is multifaceted and its pursuit requires nuance.

Rawls and Nozick: Contrasting 20th Century Perspectives

Two of the most influential perspectives on justice in the 20th century came from philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Though both focused on justice in liberal democracies, their views diverged substantially. Comparing Rawls and Nozick illustrates differences between egalitarian liberalism and libertarianism.

John Rawls

  • Justice is fairness
  • Society should minimize inequality and maximize the position of the least advantaged
  • Individual talents are arbitrary – success is not completely deserved
  • Inequalities must benefit everyone

Robert Nozick

  • Justice protects individual liberty
  • Society should minimize coercion and state power
  • People deserve what they earn with their talents and efforts
  • No obligation to assist the disadvantaged

Rawls supported redistribution to reduce inequality since talents and starting positions are arbitrary. Nozick opposed redistribution – it amounts to coercion and violating people’s rights. Rawls focused on equality of outcomes, Nozick on procedural fairness.

This contrast shows how theories of justice diverge on the economic rights vs. responsibilities of the disadvantaged, the moral meaning of talent and effort, and the acceptable uses of state power. It also underscores how concepts of justice are malleable to different ideologies like egalitarianism and libertarianism.

Feminist Perspectives on Justice

Feminist thinkers have developed important perspectives on justice that critique mainstream theories as disproportionately derived from male experiences and values. Feminism contends notions of fairness and social arrangements cannot be detached from gender realities. Patriarchal biases have shaped societies and philosophies of justice.

Key feminist insights include:

  • Justice must consider reproductive rights, family roles, sexuality, gender violence, and the gendered division of labor. Mainstream theories downplay these “private sphere” issues.
  • Fairness requires addressing vulnerabilities and capabilities neglected by overly individualistic male perspectives on autonomy and property rights.
  • Historical oppression shapes present opportunities – equality requires affirmative redress rather than just non-discrimination.
  • Societal ideals of justice are culturally male-coded, neglecting values stereotyped as feminine like care, empathy, nurturance.
  • Theories by mostly privileged men overlook diverse women’s life experiences – feminists aim to correct this skewed perspective.

Major contributors to feminist philosophy include Susan Moller Okin, Martha Nussbaum, Iris Marion Young, and Angela Davis. Feminist perspectives enrich understandings of justice by highlighting neglected issues and demonstrating the plurality of human experiences. This helps remedy past marginalization while adding nuance to debates on fairness.

Justice in Non-Western Philosophies

Western theories of justice have often dominated academic discourse. However, examining non-Western perspectives expands understandings of justice by offering alternative worldviews and cultural priorities. Contextual moral reasoning can upend assumptions by revealing diverse ways of conceptualizing justice.

Important non-Western justice perspectives include:

  • Buddhist – Justice as right conduct focused on cultivating virtues like compassion, moderation, wisdom. Restorative justice to heal communities and prevent harm.
  • Confucian – Justice through social order, roles, and responsibility. Shared prosperity and harmony valued over individual interests.
  • Hindu – Justice as upholding dharma (duty according to cosmic order). Law of karma affects present circumstances. Ahimsa (non-violence) emphasized.
  • African – Justice via communal interdependence. Reparations for past wrongs. Reconciliation through sharing narratives and repairing social bonds.
  • Indigenous – Justice grounded in stewardship of shared land. Respecting relationships between humanity/nature. Restoring intergenerational balance and reciprocity.
  • Islamic – Justice through submitting individual desires to God’s will. Charity as social justice obligation. Communal solidarity provides basis for economic ethics.

These perspectives expand the moral framework beyond individual rights and equal procedures. Justice also depends on shared bonds,duties, narratives, harmony, and context. While general theories have merit, inclusive understandings require incorporating plural cultural worldviews as ethical touchstones.

Justice in the Real World: Bridging Theory and Application

In practice, achieving justice involves complex tradeoffs between competing interests and priorities. Enshrining principles is easier than implementation.BLANK Even the best philosophical theories struggle to translate perfectly into messy policy decisions. Challenges include:

  • Weighing multiple principles – equality, fairness, utility, rights. No single value solves all moral dilemmas.
  • Incorporating feasibility – ideal and practical justice diverge with real-world constraints like limited resources.
  • Majority vs. minority interests – what protects core freedoms while respecting democratic will?
  • Individual vs. collective rights – where is the boundary between just demands and undue burdens?
  • Past vs. present claims to justice – how long do historic grievances obligate repair? What is the statute of limitations on rectifying injustice?
  • Animal and environmental ethics – expanding justice perspectives beyond humanity.
  • Technological change – adapting theories to unprecedented advances affecting work, bioethics, automation, etc.
  • Subjectivity and implicit biases – overcoming entrenched assumptions.
  • Compliance and enforcement – achieving adherence and accountability.
  • International justice – obligations beyond borders.

These realities demonstrate the difficulties of applying even thoughtfully developed principles. Justice often requires situational judgment, compromise, and vivid ethical reasoning surveying the full context. General theories can inform, but practical justice-seeking is an endless aspiration, not a utopian end state.


Justice remains a perpetually unfinished project. Contemporary theories have advanced understandings, but practical justice requires translating ideals into imperfect solutions, combining theories judiciously, and balancing varied interests. Ongoing dialogue on justice is needed, learning from diverse perspectives and applying nuance to complex social dynamics.

As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Achieving this bending requires diligence across generations. Theories provide guideposts, but the journey toward justice is tread step-by-step. There are no panaceas – only the hard, commendable, collaborative work of confronting injustice and expanding freedoms. Justice is accomplished cooperatively, creatively, and sometimes at great sacrifice. With vigilance and wisdom, bit by bit, wrongs can be righted and fairness advanced.


Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Dworkin, Ronald. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006.

Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Okin, Susan Moller. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

Pogge, Thomas. World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Solomon, Robert C. A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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