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  Justice (Latin, ‘theory and practice of just law’) is perhaps the central moral and political value which polities and states are meant to express. Conceptually there are two types of justice: legal justice and social justice. Legal justice mandates procedural fairness in treating people alleged to have broken the law and in arbitrating disputes between aggrieved parties. It also involves debates over what punishments, if any, may be justly imposed on those who break the law (see deterrence theory and law). Social justice, by contrast, refers to the ‘fairness’ or ‘rightness’ of the overall distribution of benefits and burdens in society.

In Western political philosophy, great controversy has always surrounded the interpretation of social justice. There are cynics who argue that social justice is merely a name given to existing distributions of welfare by the powerful (an argument first advanced by Thrasymachus in Plato\'s Republic); and there have been those who argue that only legal justice is possible whereas social justice is, allegedly, a mirage, an impossible ideal with which to burden public officials (an argument made by Friedrich von Hayek).

The mainstream of philosophical debate about social justice has pursued three questions. First, which values, or combination of values, should have primacy in deciding issues of distributive justice? Should ‘right’ (legal or customary entitlement) always prevail, or should merit (or desert, or ‘equality of opportunity’) prevail as a way of enhancing economic efficiency; or should ‘need’ (however defined) ground a substantively egalitarian standard of distributive justice? Or should we combine these criteria and apply them differently in particular circumstances? Second, controversy surrounds the question of whether theories of social justice should be based on conceptions of fairness or conceptions of impartiality (or what rational agents would choose as the most just arrangements in circumstances where they could not use their bargaining power to seek their own advantage)? Third, there remain major controversies about whether states should seek to ensure procedural fairness before human agents engage in economic and other activities, or whether states should seek to regulate and change the outcomes of free decisions by agents. There is an extensive and related debate, among socialists, liberals and conservatives, over the extent to which governments can and should regulate the activities of citizens to ensure social justice, and over the patterns (procedural or substantive) which any justified interventions might follow. BO\'L

See also conservatism; liberalism; socialism and social democracy.Further reading D. Miller, Social Justice.



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