Document Type


Publication Date

December 2000


Many theorists claim that justice is a question-begging concept that has no inherent substantive content. They point to disagreements among justice theorists themselves about basic aspects of the justice theory, such as the nature of corrective justice and the distinction between it and distributive justice, as even further reason to dismiss the concept of justice or to fill it with their preferred theoretical content. Yet most persons perceive that the concept of justice is not an empty shell. Since ancient times it has been thought to encompass not merely a formal equality (treating like cases alike), but also a substantive equality grounded in the equal dignity of each human being which requires giving each person his or her "due" - what is his or hers as a matter of right - a requirement that is usually understood to be in direct conflict with the basic principles of aggregate social welfare theories such as utilitarianism or its modern variant, economic efficiency. The elaboration of this substantive equality and its implications for morality, justice, and law form the core of the natural-law or natural-right theories of law. In this article I build upon a summary and critique of John Finnis's natural law theory (1) to delineate the basic assumptions and principles of the natural law theory regarding the foundations of and relationships among morality, justice, and law; (2) to demonstrate the agreement of major natural law theorists, from Aristotle through Aquinas and Kant to Finnis, on these basic assumptions and principles; (3) to distinguish these basic assumptions and principles from those of the competing theories of utilitarianism and economic efficiency; and (4) to clarify the nature of and distinctions between the two basic divisions of substantive justice: distributive justice and interactive justice. I use the term "interactive justice" instead of the usual term, "corrective justice," since the former term is much more informative and precise in conveying the distinct nature and domain of this type of justice, whereas the latter term almost always misleads people into one or both of two related misconceptions: (1) that "corrective" justice is concerned solely with the correction of wrongful injuries and has nothing to say about the nature of the underlying wrongs or the prevention of their occurrence, and (2) that it is merely a remedial corollary of distributive justice which corrects deviations from the distributively just distribution. Distributive justice and interactive justice separately address the two fundamental problems of human existence, and they employ quite different criteria of equality to resolve those problems. Together, they seek to assure the attainment of the common good (the full realization, to the extent practicable, of each person's humanity) by providing each person with her fair share of the social stock of instrumental goods (positive freedom via distributive justice) and by securing her person and her existing stock of instrumental goods from interactions with others that are inconsistent with her status as a rational being with equal, absolute moral worth (negative freedom via interactive justice).

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