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Friedrich Nietzsche on Justice & Equality

Does Justice Only Exist Between Equals?

By

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Establishing justice is important to any society, but sometimes justice seems to be continually elusive. Just what is 'justice' and what do we need to do in order to ensure that it exists? Some might argue that 'real' justice does not and cannot exist in a society where people have differing levels of power — that the most powerful will always exploit the weakest members.

    Origin of justice. -- Justice (fairness) originates among those who are approximately equally powerful, as Thucydides (in the terrible conversation between the Athenian and Melian ambassadors) comprehended correctly: where there is no clearly recognizable predominance and a fight would mean inconclusive mutual damage, there the idea originates that one might come to an understanding and negotiate one's claims: the initial character of justice is the character of a trade. Each satisfies the other inasmuch as each receives what he esteems more than the other does. One gives another what he wants, so that it becomes his, and in return one receives what one wants. Thus justice is repayment and exchange on the assumption of an approximately equal power position; revenge originally belongs in the domain of justice, being an exchange. Gratitude, too. - Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, #92

What comes to mind for you when you think about the concept of justice? It certainly seems true that, if we conceive of justice as a form of fairness (not many would dispute this), and fairness is only really achievable among those who are equally powerful, then justice as well is only achievable among those who are equally powerful.

This would mean that the least powerful in society must, necessarily, always fall short of getting justice. There is no shortage of examples where the rich and powerful have gotten a better grade of "justice" than the weak and powerless. Is this, though, an unavoidable fate — something that is inherent in the nature of "justice" itself?

Maybe we should dispute the idea that justice is merely a form of fairness. It is surely true that fairness plays an important role in justice — that's not what I am disputing. Instead, maybe that isn't all that justice is. Maybe justice isn't simply a matter of negotiating competing and conflicting interests.

For example, when an accused criminal is on trial, it wouldn't be accurate to say that this is simply a means of balancing the accused's interest in being left alone against the community's interest in punishing him. In cases like this, justice means punishing the guilty in a manner that is appropriate to their crimes — even if it is in the "interest" of the guilty to get away with their crimes.

If justice began as a form of exchange between equally powerful parties, it has surely been expanded in scope to accommodate relationships between more powerful and less powerful parties. At least, in theory it is supposed to have been expanded — reality indicates that the theory doesn't always hold true. Perhaps in order to help the theories of justice become reality we need a more robust conception of justice that helps us move explicitly beyond ideas of exchange.

What else might be part of an accurate conception of justice, though?

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