Justice and Conflict
by Morton Deutsch
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Justice and Conflict." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 41-64.
Many conflicts rest on a claim or perception of injustice. Destructive conflicts often generate new injustices. Deutsch explores different types of justice, and considers their implications for our understanding of conflict and for training in conflict resolution.
Deutsch distinguishes five aspects of that concept, or types of justice. First is distributive justice, which is concerned primarily with fair outcomes. Different principles of distribution may seem fair for different goods. For instance, justice requires that votes be distributed equally, medical care be distributed according to need, and wages be paid equitably, according to work done. People's sense of whether they are unjustly deprived depends on how they compare with others, and on which others they choose to compare themselves. Conflicts may also arise over which principles of distribution are most appropriate for some good.
Procedural justice focuses on fair treatment. Deutsch says, "fair procedures yield good information for use in decision-making processes as well as a voice in the processes for those affected by them, and considerate treatment as the procedure is being implemented."(p. 45) Fair procedures are often assumed to generate fair outcomes, and thus make it easier to people to accept disappointing outcomes.
Third is the sense of injustice. The psychological need to maintain a positive self-image, and the social power to define justice and injustice, often prevent those who perpetrate injustice from acknowledging it. Typically the victims of injustice are more likely to recognize its existence, given the strong stimulus of its negative effects. Even so, the need to maintain self-esteem may lead some people to deny that they are victims of injustice, and even to identify with their victimizers. The sense of injustice may be activated by challenging social ideologies and stereotypes that rationalize the injustice, and by community -building among the victims.
Retributive and reparative justice concerns determining the appropriate response to moral wrongdoing. Deutsch observes that generally a person's response to wrongdoing will be "influenced by the nature of the transgression, the transgressor, the victim, and the amount of harm suffered by the victim, as well as by the person's relations to the transgressor and victim."(p. 48) Retribution in general serves a number of purposes. It reinforces the violated norm. It may serve as deterrence to others or to reform the transgressor. It may provide emotional release to the wronged community, or restitution to the victim.
A fifth issue concerns the scope of justice. Terrible injustices have occurred when some group considers another to be outside the bounds of their moral community, that is, as beings to whom issues of justice or fairness are not relevant. Nazi excluded Jews in this way, and white slave owners excluded blacks. Exclusion is more likely to occur under conditions of perceived material hardship and political instability, and in the presence of authoritarian social institutions, chauvinist ideologies, and culturally sanctioned violence. Targeted groups are usually socially isolated from the aggressor, and perceived as a threat. The target group may simply be a scapegoat for the aggressor's internal conflicts and dissatisfactions.
A more thorough understanding of justice has implications for understanding conflict. First perceived injustice may itself be a source of conflict. Second, unfair processes undermine peoples' commitment to the associated institutions or policies. Thus a conflict resolution is more likely to be stable if the conflict resolution procedure is perceived as being just. Third, some conflicts may be reasonable disagreements over which principles of justice apply in a given situation. Such conflicts are best managed by reframing them as shared problems. Finally, seeking to portray one's own position as the more just (and implicitly oneself as morally superior) is often used as a negotiating tactic. However this tactics has the negative effects of hardening one's own position, provoking a defensive response from the other side, turning the conflict toward a win-lose orientation, and of escalating the conflict overall.
Deutsch also list several implications for training in conflict resolution. First is that effective training must include knowledge of the role of injustice in conflict, and must educate the practitioner regarding current sources of structural injustices. Second, training should explore the practitioner's own scope of justice, the ways in which that scope can be enlarged, and the dynamics which tend to narrow it. Third, effective training develops the practitioner's empathy. Empathy in turn fosters helpfulness toward and better understanding of others. Finally, Deutsch argues, "it is well for students of conflict to be aware that exposure to severe injustice can have enduring harmful psychological effects unless the posttraumatic conditions are treated effectively."(p. 59) When a conflict involves such injustice, an effective resolution will need to include mechanisms to foster reconciliation and forgiveness, to join the opposing parties in a shared moral community and facilitate cooperative relations between them.