What is Justice?

What is Justice?
Justice demands individual accountability for criminal wrongdoing. It also
aims to achieve socioeconomic justice, democratic equality, and reparations for
historical wrongs. These may seem like separable aims. Nevertheless, I will
make the case for their interconnection. In particular, I will make the case that
a society that aspires to embrace democratic values will relate standards of
individual accountability in criminal law to prospects for achieving social jus-
tice. It will do this by linking the justif‌ication of criminal liability to the benef‌its
of a democratic system of law. Proponents of the retributive theory deny this.
The focus and guiding principle of the retributive theory of criminal justice is
an individual standard of responsibility for wrongdoing. According to the re-
tributive theory, the imperative of individual accountability applies under any
circumstances in which one person wrongs another person, including unjust cir-
cumstances. When a serious moral wrong has been committed, the demands of
a democratically just social order are beside the point of criminal justice. I dis-
Retributive justice is expressed roughly by the concept of lex talionis: the law
of retaliation. Today we reject the notion that criminal offenders deserve pun-
ishment that resembles their crimes in kind. We do not rape rapists or disf‌igure
people who have scarred others. Yet, many people endorse the idea that crimi-
nal offenders deserve harms proportional in degree to their blameworthy
wrongdoing. In fact, the justice of proportional harming seems obvious to many
people. I do not f‌ind it obvious. I will argue that the retributive theory of crimi-
nal justice neglects the importance of the relationship between the practice of
punishment and the broader requirements of social justice.
I. RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 890
II. THE PRACTICE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 892
* Erin I. Kelly is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University in Medford, MA. Kelly received a
Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford University. Her
scholarship focuses on political and moral philosophy, with a particular emphasis on criminal law, its
relation to the realities of historical injustice, and the aspirations of democratic equality. She is the
author of The Limits of Blame: Rethinking Punishment and Responsibility (Harvard Univ. Press, 2018).
© 2021, Erin I. Kelly.

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