Justice is action in accordance with the requirements of some law. Whether these rules be grounded in human consensus or societal norms, they are supposed to ensure that all members of society receive fair treatment. Issues of justice arise in several different spheres and play a significant role in causing, perpetuating, and addressing conflict. Just institutions tend to instill a sense of stability, well-being, and satisfaction among society members, while perceived injustices can lead to dissatisfaction, rebellion, or revolution. Each of the different spheres expresses the principle of justice and fairness in its own way, resulting in different types and concepts of justice: distributive, procedural, retributive, and restorative. These types of justice have important implications for socio-economic, political, civil, and criminal justice at both the national and international level.

Distributive justice, or economic justice, is concerned with giving all members of society a "fair share" of the benefits and resources available. However, while everyone might agree that wealth should be distributed fairly, there is much disagreement about what counts as a "fair share." Some possible criteria of distribution are equity, equality, and need. (Equity means that one's rewards should be equal to one's contributions to a society, while "equality" means that everyone gets the same amount, regardless of their input. Distribution on the basis of need means that people who need more will get more, while people who need less will get less.) Fair allocation of resources, or distributive justice, is crucial to the stability of a society and the well-being of its members. When issues of distributive justice are inadequately addressed and the item to be distributed is highly valued, intractable conflicts frequently result. This is the essence of the conflicts playing out across Europe and in United States politics in 2012-2013--over taxes, deficits, "austerity programs," jobs, rights of labor, etc.

Procedural justice is concerned with making and implementing decisions according to fair processes that ensure "fair treatment." Rules must be impartially followed and consistently applied in order to generate an unbiased decision. Those carrying out the procedures should be neutral, and those directly affected by the decisions should have some voice or representation in the decision-making process. (See the essay on public participation.) If people believe procedures to be fair, they will be more likely to accept outcomes, even ones that they do not like. Implementing fair procedures is central to many dispute resolution procedures, including negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication.

Mark Amstutz, a professor at Wheaton College, finds fault with retributive approaches to justice because they do not pay sufficient attention to how individuals are to reconstruct their lives.

Retributive justice appeals to the notion of "just desert" -- the idea that people deserve to be treated in the same way they treat others. It is a retroactive approach that justifies punishment as a response to past injustice or wrongdoing. The central idea is that the offender has gained unfair advantages through his or her behavior, and that punishment will set this imbalance straight. In other words, those who do not play by the rules should be brought to justice and deserve to suffer penalties for their transgressions. The notion of deterrence also plays in here: the hope is that the punishment for committing a crime is large enough that people will not engage in illegal activities because the risk of punishment is too high.  In addition to local, state, and national justice systems, retributive justice also plays a central role in international legal proceedings, responding to violations of international law, human rights, and war crimes.

However, because there is a tendency to slip from retributive justice to an emphasis on revenge, some suggest that restorative justice processes are more effective. While a retributive justice approach conceives of transgressions as crimes against the state or nation, restorative justice focuses on violations as crimes against individuals. It is concerned with healing victims' wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing harm done to interpersonal relationships and the community. Victims take an active role in directing the exchange that takes place, as well as defining the responsibilities and obligations of offenders. Offenders are encouraged to understand the harm they have caused their victims and take responsibility for it. Restorative justice aims to strengthen the community and prevent similar harms from happening in the future. At the national level, such processes are often carried out through victim-offender mediation programs, while at the international level restorative justice is often a matter of instituting truth and reconciliation and commission.

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.