Rawls defines justice as fairness. But it is not clear to me how justice differs from fairness in the first place. Dictionaries do not help because they all indicate both terms as synonyms of each other. Could anyone point me out how the two are distinct? THANKS!!!

Dictionaries are never much use in philosophy, I have always thought. Rawls is right on this, we tend to link justice and fairness,so that a distribution that is fair is also just. If you think they are different you should come up with what you take to be a counterexample.

Dictionaries can be philosophically disappointing, indeed. But of course one has to remember that they provide only very, very, very brief definitions. Moreover, they're aim is often to capture the common and historical usage, rather than the philosophical theory standing behind the concept. A furniture manufacturer (dictionary) is likely to answer the question, "What's my desk made of?", differently from the way a physicist or chemist (philosopher) would answer. So, I think one reason dictionaries disappoint us philosophically is that often when we go to them to answer a philosophical question we go looking with the wrong expectations.

Anyway, to answer your question directly. Justice can carry meanings that go a bit beyond fairness, though fairness may still be related to them. For one thing, justice is often related explicitly to lawfulness. While all laws ought to be fair, not all fairness is lawfulness. In this regard courts and the institutions of imprisonment, law enforcement, and civil penalty are often spoken of as institutions of justice rather than simply fairness. Courthouse buildings are, accordingly, often referred to as "halls of justice," and the like, rather than "halls of fairness."

Fairness, by contrast, points more explicitly to issues that might be described as "getting or giving up what's proper." That's why issues of fairness generally arise when talking about issues of distribution. Fairness in this way means receiving the benefits and the harms (pleasures and pains; rewards and punishments) that are proper to an individual or collective. Fairness has to do with getting one's fair share, with getting the proper returns from one's labor and investments, with being taxed properly, with getting the punishments that are properly suited to one's crime, with getting the respect and honor that one properly deserves. What's "proper" may be defined in countless ways--according to one's position in a social hierarchy, according to one's position in a family, as an owner, as a worker, as a mother, as a father, as a child, as a stepparent, as a divorced spouse, as a citizen, as a sentient being, as criminal, as a soldier, as a soldier who's lost a limb fighting in a just war, etc. (Aristotle says that equals should receive equally and that unequals should receive unequally, according to the inequality that distinguishes them. Hence those who are unequal to others in the sense of being more important, more productive, more deserving, more in need, more fortunate, more powerful, more virtuous, older or more senior, etc., should receive greater or lesser shares of things, according to the nature of the relevant inequality. See Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Books II.6 and V.3.)

Sometimes, clearly, it's the institutions of law (e.g. civil and criminal courts, legislatures) that decide what's "proper" for one to receive and what's proper for someone else to take, but it's also clearly not always or only institutions of law that decide what's proper.

Now, justice as lawfulness may simply refer to the social instiutions of law and justice, but it may also refer to what philosophers have called the "natural law." Some philosophers (e.g. the Stoics and Thomas Aquinas) have argued that there is a kind of law that exists independently of human societies, an independent standard against which social laws may be judged. Hence, one can appeal to the natural law (usually grasped by the natural human capacity to reason) to decide whether social laws are just or unjust. For many natural law theorists the natural law is ultimately rooted in the divine--in fact, many have argued that it's a part of divine law (the part that natural reason grasps, the part that's manifest in nature rather than in revelation). On this basis, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that racial segregation laws, although certainly laws, were unjust laws. In this way, the concept of "justice" expresses issues related to nature, rationality, and the divine in a way that simple "fairness" does not.

Justice in Plato (see Republic) is also related to something else. Besides "fairness" and "lawfulness," Plato articulates justice in terms of "harmony." A just society, therefore, is one where the various elements of the social order are set in harmonious relations to one another. Harmonious relations will be (like appeals to natural law) rational and based in the nature of things. They will also (like appeals to fairness) involve proper distributions to each member of the society. But saying that a just society is a harmonious society seems to add something to the idea of justice that neither "fairness" nor "lawfulness" quite expresses, doesn't it? Saying that a social order is harmonious seems to say more than simply saying that it accords with nature and reason. Saying that a social order is harmonious also seems to say more than saying that each person gets what's proper to him or her. Harmony focuses more on the relations of members of a society than on the members themselves (what they receive) or the laws that govern them. Curiously, harmony also connects justice to issues of aesthetics in a way that neither fairness nor lawfulness does.

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