Justice: What is Reasonable and Fair

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Justice: What is Reasonable and Fair

Justice is that which is in the interests of the stronger party. (Plato, The Republic, 400 BC)

We should therefore claim, in the name of intolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. (Karl Popper, The Open Society, 1945)

The concept of justice and how justice is meted out in any organization is, nearly always, fundamental to that organization’s corporate culture and mission. The psychological literature tends to be descriptive (focusing on perceptions and reactions), whereas moral philosophy writings are more prescriptive (specifying what should be done). References to questions of justice and fairness occur whenever decisions have to be made about the allocation of resources, whatever they are in a particular business. Most, but by no means all, fairness-at-work issues focus on pay, but also include selection, promotion and the granting of particular privileges.

Organizational justice researchers have, for 40 years, carried out research on the economic and socio-emotional consequences of perceived injustice. In doing so, they have distinguished between various types of justice.


Distributive Justice

The allocation of outcome rewards in accordance with implicit or explicit norms like equality and equity.


Procedural Justice

The consistency, accuracy, lack of bias, correctability and representation in all decision-making processes at work.


Interpersonal Justice

The way people are treated (i.e. with respect, sensitivity, dignity) as justice procedures are enacted.


Informational Justice

The accuracy, timing and comprehensiveness of explanations for all justice procedures and distribution.


Retributive & Retaliative Justice

The attempt to take revenge or retaliate against individuals, groups or organizations who have been perceived as treating one unfairly.


Restorative Justice

The attempt to restore justice to victims and their network.

There are also a number of organizational justice theories, so many in fact that Greenberg (1987) attempted to taxonomize them. He isolated two dimensions (proactive—reactive and process—content) which revealed four types of theory: reactive content (how workers react to inequitable payments), proactive content (how workers attempt to create fair payments), reactive process (how workers react to unfair policies or legal procedures), and proactive process (how workers attempt to create fair policies or procedures).

A : Distributive justice . Concern about the outcomes of justice decisions is called distributive justice. It is argued that rewards should be proportionate to costs, and the net rewards should be proportionate to investments. The question is who does one compare oneself to, on what criterion of one’s job, and for how long? It seems that most employees are able to distinguish between unfavourable outcomes (not as good as one had hoped) and unfair outcomes. Clearly, employees react much more strongly and angrily to unfair, compared to unfavourable, outcomes.

B : Procedural justice . Procedural justice concerns the means rather than the ends of social justice decisions. These are questions about how fair decisions are made and the procedures and processes each organization has in place to make those decisions. The evaluation of procedural justice issues depends on both the environmental context within which the interaction occurs and the treatment of perpetrators and victims.

C: Interpersonal Justice. All employees are concerned with interactional justice, which is the quality of interpersonal treatment they receive at the hands of decision-makers. Two features seem important here: social sensitivity, or the extent to which people believe that they have been treated with dignity and respect, and informational justification, or the extent to which people believe they have adequate information about the procedures affecting them.

The entitled on the other hand believe they have a right to others’ total, continual and unconditional support. The entitled are exploiters and manipulators. They employ charm or temper tantrums, intimidation or attention seeking to achieve their end. They seem to always be worried that they are not getting a better deal. The benevolent tend to produce more and better work. This is particularly true under salaried work conditions. They are consistent and low in their absenteeism and turnover regardless of the level and equity of reward. The entitled are the opposite and will demonstrate high absenteeism and turnover if equity is not ensured. There is also evidence that benevolents and entitleds define work outcomes quite differently. Thus doing ’challenging work’ may be seen as a privilege by benevolents but as a source of stress by entitleds.


Restorative justice has become a familiar concept in the context of rehabilitating prisoners by making them face their victims. It has become fashionable to contrast two very different approaches to crime, delinquency and deviance, be they at school or work. The contrast is between retributive and restorative justice. The former sees ’misbehaviour’ in terms of breaking the law, the rules or the conventions; the latter as adversely affecting many other people. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims and offenders, rather than legal principles or calculating and exacting punishment. It aims at repairing harm and reducing recidivism. It follows a very different set of procedures.

The retributive approach focuses on establishing blame or guilt, often through some adversarial process. It is believed that the evidence argued over by prosecution and defence will (hopefully, usually) establish who did what and when and perhaps why. There may be, as part of this model, a lot of attention to due processes: following carefully and openly the proper procedures that ensure justice. It’s a model that emphasizes head over heart: where argument and conflict of description and explanation are portrayed as abstract, impersonal and logical.

The restorative justice model involves many more people: usually those who were affected by the behaviour — the ’victim’, their friends and family, witnesses even. Their task is twofold — to express their feelings but more importantly to undertake a problem-solving attempt to prevent recurrence. The objective is to fully attend to the victim’s needs; to help re-integrate the offender and to get them to take real responsibility for their actions; to recreate a healthy community and avoid escalating the costs of traditional legal justice.

The retribution model aims to deter by some sort of punishment: pain, exclusion, firing. The restorative model aims for the restoration of property and wellbeing by reconciliation. The latter approach is usually more about relationships, respect and feelings. It is not about the pain that the perpetrator should receive but the pain the victims feel. It is less about meting out the exact and appropriate amount of pain for that inflicted, and more about repairing the damage, hurt or injury to others.


Adams, J. (1965) Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (vol 2 pp. 267—99). New York: Academic Press.

Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world. Personality and Individual Differences, 34, 795—817.

Greenberg, J. (2001) Setting the justice agenda: Seven unanswered questions about ’what, why and how’. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 58, 210—19.