SEP home page

  • Table of Contents
  • Random Entry
  • Chronological
  • Editorial Information
  • About the SEP
  • Editorial Board
  • How to Cite the SEP
  • Special Characters
  • Advanced Tools
  • Support the SEP
  • PDFs for SEP Friends
  • Make a Donation
  • SEPIA for Libraries
  • Entry Contents


Academic tools.

  • Friends PDF Preview
  • Author and Citation Info
  • Back to Top

The idea of justice occupies centre stage both in ethics, and in legal and political philosophy. We apply it to individual actions, to laws, and to public policies, and we think in each case that if they are unjust this is a strong, maybe even conclusive, reason to reject them. Classically, justice was counted as one of the four cardinal virtues (and sometimes as the most important of the four); in modern times John Rawls famously described it as ‘the first virtue of social institutions’ (Rawls 1971, p.3; Rawls, 1999, p.3). We might debate which of these realms of practical philosophy has first claim on justice: is it first and foremost a property of the law, for example, and only derivatively a property of individuals and other institutions? But it is probably more enlightening to accept that the idea has over time sunk deep roots in each of these domains, and to try to make sense of such a wide-ranging concept by identifying elements that are present whenever justice is invoked, but also examining the different forms it takes in various practical contexts. This article aims to provide a general map of the ways in which justice has been understood by philosophers, past and present.

We begin by identifying four core features that distinguish justice from other moral and political ideas. We then examine some major conceptual contrasts: between conservative and ideal justice, between corrective and distributive justice, between procedural and substantive justice, and between comparative and non-comparative justice. Next we turn to questions of scope: to who or what do principles of justice apply? We ask whether non-human animals can be subjects of justice, whether justice applies only between people who already stand in a particular kind of relationship to one another, and whether individual people continue to have duties of justice once justice-based institutions have been created. We then examine three overarching theories that might serve to unify the different forms of justice: utilitarianism, contractarianism, and egalitarianism. But it seems, in conclusion, that no such theory is likely be successful.

More detailed discussions of particular forms of justice can be found in other entries: see especially distributive justice , global justice , intergenerational justice , international distributive justice , justice and bad luck , justice as a virtue , and retributive justice .

1.1 Justice and Individual Claims

1.2 justice, charity and enforceable obligation, 1.3 justice and impartiality, 1.4 justice and agency, 2.1 conservative versus ideal justice, 2.2 corrective versus distributive justice, 2.3 procedural versus substantive justice, 2.4 comparative versus non-comparative justice, 3.1 human vs non-human animals, 3.2 relational vs non-relational justice, 3.3 individuals vs institutions, 3.4 recognition vs. redistribution, 4.1 accommodating intuitions about justice, 4.2 utilitarian theories of justice: three problems, 5.1 gauthier, 5.3 scanlon, 6.1 justice as equality, 6.2 responsibility-sensitive egalitarianism, 6.3 relational egalitarianism, 7. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. justice: mapping the concept.

‘Justice’ has sometimes been used in a way that makes it virtually indistinguishable from rightness in general. Aristotle, for example, distinguished between ‘universal’ justice that corresponded to ‘virtue as a whole’ and ‘particular’ justice which had a narrower scope (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , Book V, chs. 1–2). The wide sense may have been more evident in classical Greek than in modern English. But Aristotle also noted that when justice was identified with ‘complete virtue’, this was always ‘in relation to another person’. In other words, if justice is to be identified with morality as such, it must be morality in the sense of ‘what we owe to each other’ (see Scanlon 1998). But it is anyway questionable whether justice should be understood so widely. At the level of individual ethics, justice is often contrasted with charity on the one hand, and mercy on the other, and these too are other-regarding virtues. At the level of public policy, reasons of justice are distinct from, and often compete with, reasons of other kinds, for example economic efficiency or environmental value.

As this article will endeavour to show, justice takes on different meanings in different practical contexts, and to understand it fully we have to grapple with this diversity. But it is nevertheless worth asking whether we find a core concept that runs through all these various uses, or whether it is better regarded as a family resemblance idea according to which different combinations of features are expected to appear on each occasion of use. The most plausible candidate for a core definition comes from the Institutes of Justinian , a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, where justice is defined as ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’. This is of course quite abstract until further specified, but it does throw light upon four important aspects of justice.

First, it shows that justice has to do with how individual people are treated (‘to each his due’). Issues of justice arise in circumstances in which people can advance claims – to freedom, opportunities, resources, and so forth – that are potentially conflicting, and we appeal to justice to resolve such conflicts by determining what each person is properly entitled to have. In contrast, where people’s interests converge, and the decision to be taken is about the best way to pursue some common purpose – think of a government official having to decide how much food to stockpile as insurance against some future emergency – justice gives way to other values. In other cases, there may be no reason to appeal to justice because resources are so plentiful that we do not need to worry about allotting shares to individuals. Hume pointed out that in a hypothetical state of abundance where ‘every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want’, ‘the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of’ (Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals , pp. 183–4). Hume also believed – and philosophical controversy on this point persists until today – that justice has no place in close personal relationships, such as the family, where (it is alleged) each identifies with the others’ interests so strongly that there is no need and no reason for anyone to make claims of personal entitlement. (See Sandel 1982 for a defence of this view; for a critique, see Okin 1989. See also the entry on feminist perspectives on reproduction and the family) .

That justice is a matter of how each separate person is treated appears to create problems for theories such as utilitarianism that judge actions and policies on the basis of their overall consequences aggregated across people – assuming that these theories wish to incorporate rather than discard the idea of justice. In Section 4 below we examine how utilitarians have attempted to respond to this challenge.

Although justice is centrally a matter of how individuals are treated, it is also possible to speak of justice for groups – for example when the state is allocating resources between different categories of citizens. Here each group is being treated as though it were a separate individual for purposes of the allocation.

Second, Justinian’s definition underlines that just treatment is something due to each person, in other words that justice is a matter of claims that can be rightfully made against the agent dispensing justice, whether a person or an institution. Here there is a contrast with other virtues: we demand justice, but we beg for charity or forgiveness. This also means that justice is a matter of obligation for the agent dispensing it, and that the agent wrongs the recipient if the latter is denied what is due to her. It is a characteristic mark of justice that the obligations it creates should be enforceable: we can be made to deliver what is due to others as a matter of justice, either by the recipients themselves or by third parties. However it overstates the position to make the enforceability of its requirements a defining feature of justice (see Buchanan 1987). On the one hand, there are some claims of justice that seem not to be enforceable (by anyone). When we dispense gifts to our children or our friends, we ought to treat each recipient fairly, but neither the beneficiaries themselves nor anyone else can rightfully force the giver to do so. On the other hand, in cases of extreme emergency, it may sometimes be justifiable to force people to do more than justice requires them to do – there may exist enforceable duties of humanity. But these are rare exceptions. The obligatory nature of justice generally goes hand-in-hand with enforceability.

The third aspect of justice to which Justinian’s definition draws our attention is the connection between justice and the impartial and consistent application of rules – that is what the ‘constant and perpetual will’ part of the definition conveys. Justice is the opposite of arbitrariness. It requires that where two cases are relevantly alike, they should be treated in the same way (We discuss below the special case of justice and lotteries). Following a rule that specifies what is due to a person who has features X , Y , Z whenever such a person is encountered ensures this. And although the rule need not be unchangeable – perpetual in the literal sense – it must be relatively stable. This explains why justice is exemplified in the rule of law, where laws are understood as general rules impartially applied over time. Outside of the law itself, individuals and institutions that want to behave justly must mimic the law in certain ways (for instance, gathering reliable information about individual claimants, allowing for appeals against decisions).

Finally, the definition reminds us that justice requires an agent whose will alters the circumstances of its objects. The agent might be an individual person, or it might be a group of people, or an institution such as the state. So we cannot, except metaphorically, describe as unjust states of affairs that no agent has contributed to bringing about – unless we think that there is a Divine Being who has ordered the universe in such a way that every outcome is a manifestation of His will. Admittedly we are tempted to make judgements of what is sometimes called ‘cosmic injustice’ – say when a talented person’s life is cut cruelly short by cancer, or our favourite football team is eliminated from the competition by a freak goal – but this is a temptation we should resist.

This agency condition, however, is less restrictive than it might at first appear. It by no means excludes the possibility that agents can create injustice by omission – for example by failing to create the institutions or to enact the policies that would deliver vital resources to those who need them. Thus it is now common to speak of ‘systemic injustice’ in the case of bad outcomes that no-one intends to occur but that could be prevented by a shift in social norms or institutional practices. The agents in these cases are all those who by acting together to change these things could invert the injustice, but have so far failed to do so.

2. Justice: Four Distinctions

We have so far looked at four elements that are present in every use of the concept of justice. Now it is time to consider some equally important contrasts.

Philosophers writing on justice have observed that it has two different faces, one conservative of existing norms and practices, the other demanding reform of these norms and practices (see Sidgwick 1874/1907, Raphael 2001). Thus on the one hand it is a matter of justice to respect people’s rights under existing law or moral rules, or more generally to fulfil the legitimate expectations they have acquired as a result of past practice, social conventions, and so forth; on the other hand, justice often gives us reason to change laws, practices and conventions quite radically, thereby creating new entitlements and expectations. This exposes an ambiguity in what it means to ‘render each his due’. What is ‘due’ might be what a person can reasonably expect to have given existing law, policy, or social practice, or it might be what the person should get under a regime of ideal justice: this could mean what the person deserves, or needs, or is entitled to on grounds of equality, depending on which ideal principle is being invoked.

Conceptions of justice vary according to the weight they attach to each of these faces. At one extreme, some conceptions interpret justice as wholly concerned with what individuals can claim under existing laws and social conventions: thus for Hume, justice was to be understood as adherence to a set of rules that assign physical objects to individuals (such as being the first possessor of such an object) (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature , Book III, Part II). These rules can be explained by reference to the natural associations that form in people’s minds between persons and external objects, and although the system of justice as a whole can be shown to be socially useful, there are no relevant independent standards by which its principles can be assessed (Hume briskly dismissed equality and merit as principles for allocating property to persons). In similar vein, Hayek argued that justice was a property of individual behaviour, understood as compliance with the ‘rules of just conduct’ that had evolved to enable a market economy to function effectively. For Hayek, to speak of ‘social justice’ as an ideal standard of distribution was as meaningless as to speak of a ‘moral stone’ (Hayek 1976, p. 78)

At the other extreme stand conceptions of justice which posit some ideal principle of distribution such as equality, together with a ‘currency’ specifying the respect in which justice requires people to be made equally well off, and then refuse to acknowledge the justice of any claims that do not arise directly from the application of this principle. Thus claims deriving from existing law or practice are dismissed unless they happen to coincide with what the principle requires. More often, however, ideal justice is seen as proposing principles by which existing institutions and practices can be assessed, with a view to reforming them, or in the extreme case abolishing them entirely, while the claims that people already have under those practices are given some weight. Rawls, for example, whose two principles of justice count as ideal principles for this purpose, is at pains to stress that they are not intended to be applied in a way that disregards people’s existing legitimate expectations. About the ‘difference principle’, which requires social and economic inequalities to be regulated so that they work to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society, he says:

It applies to the announced system of public law and statutes and not to particular transactions or distributions, nor to the decisions of individuals and associations, but rather to the institutional background against which these transactions and decisions take place. There are no unannounced and unpredictable interferences with citizens’ expectations and acquisitions. Entitlements are earned and honored as the public system of rules declares. (Rawls 1993, p. 283)

Here we see Rawls attempting to reconcile the demands of conservative and ideal justice. Yet he does not directly address the question of what should happen when changing circumstances mean that the difference principle requires new laws or policies to be enacted: do those whose prior entitlements or expectations are no longer met have a claim to be compensated for their loss? We could call this the question of transitional justice (though this phrase is often used now in a more specific sense to refer to the process of reconciliation that may occur following civil war or other armed conflicts: see the entry on transitional justice ).

A second important contrast, whose pedigree reaches back at least as far as Aristotle, is between justice as a principle for assigning distributable goods of various kinds to individual people, and justice as a remedial principle that applies when one person wrongly interferes with another’s legitimate holdings. Thus suppose Bill steals Alice’s computer, or sells Alice faulty goods which he claims to be in perfect order: then Alice suffers a loss, which justice demands that Bill should remedy by returning the computer or fulfilling his contract honestly. Corrective justice, then, essentially concerns a bilateral relationship between a wrongdoer and his victim, and demands that the fault be cancelled by restoring the victim to the position she would have been in had the wrongful behaviour not occurred; it may also require that the wrongdoer not benefit from his faulty behaviour. Distributive justice, on the other hand, is multilateral: it assumes a distributing agent, and a number of persons who have claims on what is being distributed. Justice here requires that the resources available to the distributor be shared according to some relevant criterion, such as equality, desert, or need. In Aristotle’s example, if there are fewer flutes available than people who want to play them, they should be given to the best performers (Aristotle, The Politics , p. 128). In modern debates, principles of distributive justice are applied to social institutions such as property and tax systems, which are understood as producing distributive outcomes across large societies, or even the world as a whole.

The conceptual distinction between distributive and corrective justice seems clear, but their normative relationship is more difficult to pin down (see Perry 2000, Ripstein 2004, Coleman 1992, chs. 16–17). Some have claimed that corrective justice is merely instrumental to distributive justice: its aim is to move from a situation of distributive injustice brought about by the faulty behaviour to one that is more nearly (if not perfectly) distributively just. But this view runs into a number of objections. One is that so long as Alice has a legitimate title to her computer, her claim of corrective justice against Bill does not depend on her having had, prior to the theft, the share of resources that distributive justice ideally demands. She might be richer than she deserves to be, yet corrective justice still require that the computer be returned to her. In other words, corrective justice may serve to promote conservative rather than ideal justice, to use the distinction introduced in 2.1. Another objection is that corrective justice requires the wrongdoer himself to restore or compensate the person he has wronged, even if the cause of distributive justice could be better served by transferring resources from a third party – giving Alice one of even-more-undeservedly-rich Charles’s computers, for example. This underlines the bilateral nature of corrective justice, and also the fact that it comes into play in response to faulty behaviour on someone’s part. Its primary demand is that people should not lose out because others have behaved wrongfully or carelessly, but it also encompasses the idea that ‘no man should profit by his own wrong’. If Alice loses her computer in a boating accident, she might, under an insurance scheme, have a claim of distributive justice to a new machine, but she has no claim of corrective justice.

If corrective justice cannot be subsumed normatively under distributive justice, we need to explain its value. What is achieved when we make Bill return the computer to Alice? Aristotle ( Nicomachean Ethics , Book V, ch. 4) suggested that corrective justice aims to restore the two parties to a position of equality; by returning the computer we cancel both Bill’s unjustified gain and Alice’s unjustified loss. But this assumes that the computer can be returned intact. Corrective justice requires that Alice be made no worse off than she was before the theft, even if that means Bill suffering an absolute loss (e.g. by paying for a new computer if he has damaged Alice’s). Aristotle himself recognized that the idea of evening out gain and loss made no literal sense in a case where one person assaults another and has to compensate him for his injury – there is no ‘gain’ to be redistributed. It seems, then, that the value of corrective justice must lie in the principle that each person must take responsibility for his own conduct, and if he fails to respect the legitimate interests of others by causing injury, he must make good the harm. In that way, each person can plan her life secure in the knowledge that she will be protected against certain kinds of external setbacks. Philosophers and lawyers writing on corrective justice disagree about what standard of responsibility should apply – for example whether compensation is required only when one person wilfully or negligently causes another to suffer loss, or whether it can also be demanded when the perpetrator displays no such fault but is nevertheless causally responsible for the injury.

A third distinction that must be drawn is between the justice of the procedures that might be used to determine how benefits and burdens of various kinds are allocated to people, and the justice of the final allocation itself. It might initially seem as though the justice of a procedure can be reduced to the justice of the results produced by applying it, but this is not so. For one thing, there are cases in which the idea of an independently just outcome makes no sense. A coin toss is a fair way of deciding who starts a game, but neither the Blues nor the Reds have a claim of justice to bat first or kick off. But even where a procedure has been shaped by a concern that it should produce substantively just outcomes, it may still have special properties that make it intrinsically just. In that case, using a different procedure to produce the same result might be objectionable. In an influential discussion, John Rawls contrasted perfect procedural justice , where a procedure is such that if it is followed a just outcome is guaranteed (requiring the person who cuts a cake to take the last slice himself is the illustration Rawls provides), imperfect procedural justice , where the procedure is such that following it is likely, but not certain, to produce the just result, and pure procedural justice , such as the coin-tossing example, where there is no independent way to assess the outcome – if we call it just, it is only on the grounds that it has come about by following the relevant procedure (Rawls 1971, 1999, § 14).

Theories of justice can then be distinguished according to the relative weight they attach to procedures and substantive outcomes. Some theories are purely procedural in form. Robert Nozick distinguished between historical theories of justice, end-state theories, and patterned theories in order to defend the first against the second and third (Nozick 1974). An end-state theory defines justice in terms of some overall property of a distribution (of resources, welfare, etc.) – for example whether it is egalitarian, or whether the lowest position in the distribution is as high as it can be, as Rawls’ difference principle requires. A patterned theory looks at whether what each receives as part of a distribution matches some individual feature such as their desert or their need. By contrast, an historical theory asks about the process by which the final outcome has arisen. In Nozick’s particular case, a distribution of resources is said to be just if everyone within its scope is entitled to what they now own, having acquired it by legitimate means – such as voluntary contract or gift – from someone who was also entitled to have it, leading back eventually to a just act of acquisition – such as labouring on a plot of land – that gave the first owner his valid title. The shape of the final distribution is irrelevant: according to Nozick, justice is entirely a matter of the sequence of prior events that created it (for critical assessments of Nozick’s position, see Paul 1982, Wolff 1991, Cohen 1995, chs. 1–2).

For most philosophers, however, the justice of a procedure is to a large extent a function of the justice of the outcomes that it tends to produce when applied. For instance, the procedures that together make up a fair trial are justified on the grounds that for the most part they produce outcomes in which the guilty are punished and the innocent are acquitted. Yet even in these cases, we should be wary of assuming that the procedure itself has no independent value. We can ask of a procedure whether it treats the people to whom it is applied justly, for example by giving them adequate opportunities to advance their claims, not requiring them to provide personal information that they find humiliating to reveal, and so forth. Studies by social psychologists have shown that in many cases people care more about being treated fairly by the institutions they have to deal with than about how they fare when the procedure’s final result is known (Lind and Tyler 1988).

Justice takes a comparative form when to determine what is due to one person we need to look at what others can also claim: to determine how large a slice of pie is rightfully John’s, we have to know how many others have a claim to the pie, and also what the principle for sharing it should be – equality, or something else. Justice takes a non-comparative form when we can determine what is due to a person merely by knowing relevant facts about that particular person: if John has already been promised the whole of the pie, then that is what he can rightfully claim for himself. Some theories of justice seem to imply that justice is always a comparative notion – for example when it is said that justice consists in the absence of arbitrary inequality – whereas others imply that it is always non-comparative. But conceptually, at least, both forms seem admissible; indeed we can find cases in which it appears we have to choose between doing justice comparatively and doing it non-comparatively (see Feinberg 1974; for a critical response, see Montague 1980). For example, we might have several candidates all of whom are roughly equally deserving of an academic honour, but the number of honours we are permitted to award is smaller than the number of candidates. If we honour some but not others, we perpetrate a comparative injustice, but if to avoid doing so we honour no-one at all, then each is treated less well than they deserve, and so unjustly from a non-comparative perspective.

Theories of justice can then be categorised according to whether they are comparative, non-comparative, or neither. Principles of equality – principles requiring the equal distribution of some kind of benefit – are plainly comparative in form, since what is due to each person is simply an equal share of the benefit in question rather than any fixed amount. In the case of principles of desert, the position is less straightforward. These principles take the form ‘ A deserves X by virtue of P ’, where X is a mode of treatment, and P is a personal characteristic possessed by A (Feinberg 1970). In the case of both X and P , we can ask whether they are to be identified comparatively or non-comparatively. Thus what A deserves might either be an entitlement, or an absolute amount of some benefit – ‘a living wage’, say – or it might be a share of some collective benefit, or a multiple or fraction of what others are receiving – ‘twice what B is getting’, say. Turning to P , or what is often called the desert basis, this may be a feature of A that we can identify without reference to anyone else, or it may be a comparative feature, such as being the best student in a graduating class. So desert-based claims of justice might take one of four different forms depending on whether the basis of desert and/or the deserved mode of treatment is comparative or non-comparative (see Olsaretti 2003 for essays that address this question; for a more advanced treatment, see Kagan 2012, Part III).

Among principles of justice that are straightforwardly non-comparative are ‘sufficiency’ principles which hold that what justice requires is that each person should have ‘enough’, on some dimension or other – for instance, have all of their needs fulfilled, or have a specified set of capabilities that they are able to exercise (for a general defence of sufficiency, though not one that links it specifically to justice, see Frankfurt 2015; for a critique, see Casal 2007). Such principles, however, need to be supplemented by other principles, not only to tell us what to do with the surplus (assuming there is one) once everyone has sufficient resources, but also to guide us in situations where there are too few resources to bring everyone up to the sufficiency threshold. Should we, for example, maximise the number of people who achieve sufficiency, or minimise the aggregate shortfall suffered by those in the relevant group? Unless we are prepared to say that these are not matters of justice, a theory of justice that contains only the sufficiency principle and nothing else looks incomplete.

Some theories of justice cannot readily be classified either as comparative or as non-comparative. Consider one part of Rawls’ theory of social justice, the difference principle, which as noted above requires that social and economic inequalities be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (Rawls 1971, 1999, §12–13). Under this principle, ideally just shares are calculated by determining what each person would receive under the set of social institutions whose economic effect is to raise the worst off person to the highest possible level. This is neither a fixed amount, nor one that depends in any direct sense on what other individuals are receiving, or should receive. Applying the difference principle does require making comparisons, but these are comparisons between the effects of different social institutions – say different tax laws, or different ways of defining property rights – not between individual people and the amounts of benefit they are receiving. We might call theories of this kind ‘holistic’ or ‘systemic’.

3. The Scope of Justice

When we raise questions about the scope of justice, we are asking about when principles of justice take effect and among whom . We have already, when discussing Hume, encountered the idea that there might be circumstances in which justice becomes irrelevant – circumstances in which resources are so abundant that it is pointless to allocate individual shares, or, as Hume also believed, in which resources are so scarce that everyone is permitted to grab what he can in the name of self-preservation. But even in circumstances that are less extreme than these, questions about scope arise. Who can make claims of justice, and who might have the corresponding obligation to meet them? Does this depend on the kind of thing that is being claimed? If comparative principles are being applied, who should be counted as part of the comparison group? Do some principles of justice have universal scope – they apply whenever agent A acts towards recipient B , regardless of the relationship between them – while others are contextual in character, applying only within social or political relationships of a certain kind? The present section examines some of these questions in greater detail.

What does a creature have to do, or be like, to be included within the scope of (at least some) principles of justice? Most past philosophers have assumed that the line should be drawn so as to exclude all non-human animals, but more recently some have been prepared to defend ‘justice for animals’ (Nussbaum 2006, ch. 6; Garner 2013). Against this, Rawls asserts that although we have ‘duties of compassion and humanity’ towards animals and should refrain from treating them cruelly, nonetheless they are ‘outside the scope of the theory of justice’ (Rawls 1971, p. 512; Rawls 1999, p. 448). How could this claim be justified?

We can focus our attention either on individual features that humans possess and animals lack, and that might be thought relevant to their inclusion within the scope of justice, or on asymmetries in the relationship between humans and other animals. To begin with the latter, Hume claimed that the domination humans exercised over animals – such that an animal could only possess something by virtue of our permission – meant that we were ‘bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them’ (Hume, Enquiry , p. 190). For Rawls and those influenced by him, principles of distributive justice apply among agents who are related to one another as participants in a ‘cooperative venture for mutual advantage’, and this might seem to exclude animals from the scope of such principles. Critics of this view have pointed to cases of human-animal co-operation (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, Valentini 2014); however these arguments focus mainly or entirely on the special case of dogs , and it seems implausible to generalise from them in an attempt to show that human-animal relationships generally have a co-operative character.

But the claim that justice only applies to participants in co-operative practices is anyway vulnerable to the objection that it risks excluding seriously disabled people, people living in isolated communities, and future generations from the scope of justice, so it does not seem compelling as a claim about justice in general (see further below). Might there be other reasons why animals cannot make claims of justice on us? Another Rawls-inspired suggestion is that animals lack the necessary moral powers, in particular the capacity to act on principles of justice themselves. They cannot distinguish what is justly owed to them from what is not; and they cannot determine what they owe to others – whether to humans or to other non-human animals – as a matter of justice. This suggestion interprets justice as involving a kind of reciprocity: an agent to whom justice is due must also in principle be an agent who could dispense justice to others, by virtue of having the relevant capacity, even if for physical reasons – such as suffering from severe disability – they cannot do so in practice.

If this suggestion is rejected, and we allow that some animals, at least, should be included within the scope of justice, we can then ask about the form that justice should take in their cases. Using the distinction drawn in 2.4 above, it appears that justice for animals must be non-comparative. For example, we might attribute rights to the animals over whom we exercise power – rights against cruel treatment, and rights to food and shelter, for instance. This would involve using a sufficiency principle to determine what animals are owed as a matter of justice. It is much less plausible to think that comparative principles might apply, such that giving special treats to one cat but not another could count as an injustice.

The Rawlsian view introduced in the previous section, which holds that principles of social justice apply among people who are engaged together in a co-operative practice, is a leading example of a relational theory of justice. Other theories offer different accounts of the relevant justice-generating feature: for example, Nagel has argued that principles of distributive justice apply among people who by virtue of being citizens of the same state are required both to comply with, and accept responsibility for, the coercive laws that govern their lives (Nagel 2005). In both cases, the claim being made is that when people stand in a certain relationship to one another, they become subject to principles of justice whose scope is limited to those within the relationship. In particular, comparative principles apply within the relationship, but not beyond it. If A stands in a relationship (of the right kind) to B , then it becomes a matter of justice how A is treated relative to B , but it does not matter in the same way how A is treated relative to C who stands outside of the relationship. Justice may still require that C be given treatment of a certain kind, but that will be justice in its non-comparative guise.

Whether justice is relational in either of the ways that Rawls and Nagel suggest has large implications for its scope. In particular it bears on the question whether there is such a thing as global distributive justice, or, in contrast, whether distributive principles only apply to people who are related together as members of the same society or citizens of the same state. For example, might the global inequalities that exist between rich and poor in today’s world be unjust simply as inequalities, or are they unjust only insofar as they prevent poor people from living lives that we judge to be acceptable? (see entries on international distributive justice and global justice ) So much hangs on the question whether, and if so in virtue of what, distributive justice has a relational character. What reason can be given for thinking that it does?

Suppose we have two people A and B , of whom one is significantly better off than another – has greater opportunities or a higher income, say. Why should this be a concern of justice? It seems it will not be a concern unless it can be shown that the inequality between A and B can be attributed to the behaviour of some agent, individual or collective, whose actions or omissions have resulted in A being better off than B – in which case we can ask whether the inequality between them is justifiable, say on grounds of their respective deserts. This reiterates the claim in 1.4 above that without an agent to whom the outcome can be attributed there can only be justice or injustice in a metaphorical, ‘cosmic’, sense. Relational theorists claim that when people associate with one another in the relevant way, they become agents of justice. On a small scale they can organize informally to ensure that each receives what is due to him relative to the rest. On a larger scale, distributive justice requires the creation of legal and other institutions to achieve that outcome. Moreover failure to co-ordinate their actions in this way is likely to be a source of injustice by omission.

Debates about the scope of justice then become debates about whether different forms of human association are of the right kind to create agency in the relevant sense. Take the question of whether principles of social justice should apply to market transactions. If we see the market as a neutral arena in which many individual people freely pursue their own purposes, then the answer will be No. The only form of justice that arises will be justice in the conduct of each agent, who must avoid inflicting harm on others, must fulfil her contracts, and so forth. Whereas if we see the market as governed by a humanly-constructed system of rules that the participants collectively have the power to change – by legislation, for example – then we cannot avoid asking whether the outcomes it currently produces meet relevant standards of distributive justice, whatever we take these to be. A similar issue arises in the debate about over principles of global justice referred to above: is the current world order such that it makes sense to regard humanity as a whole as a collective agent responsible for the distributive outcomes it allows to occur?

Once institutions are established for the purpose (among other things) of delivering justice on a large scale, we can ask what duties of justice individual people have in consequence. Is their duty simply to support the institutions, and comply with whatever rules of conduct apply to them personally? Or do they have further duties to promote justice by acting directly on the relevant principles in their daily lives? No one doubts that some duties of justice fall directly on individuals, for example duties not to deceive or defraud when engaging in commercial transactions (and duties of corrective justice where behaviour is faulty), or duties to carry out one’s fair share of an informally organized project from which one expects to benefit, such as cleaning up the neighbourhood park. Others fall on them because they are performing a role within a social institution, for example the duty of an employer not to discriminate on grounds of race or gender when hiring workers, or the duty of a local government officer to assign public housing to those in greatest need. But what is much more in dispute is whether individual people have more extensive duties to promote social justice (for contrasting views, see Cohen 2008, ch. 3, Murphy 1998, Rawls 1993, Lecture VII, Young 2011, ch. 2).

Consider two cases: the first concerns parents who confer advantages on their children in ways that undermine fair equality of opportunity. If the latter principle of justice requires, to cite Rawls, that ‘those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin’ (Rawls 2001, p. 44) then there are myriad ways in which some parents can bestow advantages on their children that other parents cannot – financial benefits, educational opportunities, social contacts, and so forth – that are likely to bring greater success in later life. Are parents therefore constrained as a matter of justice to avoid conferring at least some of these advantages, or are they free to benefit their children as they choose, leaving the pursuit of equal opportunities entirely in the hands of the state (for a careful analysis, see Brighouse and Swift 2014)?

The second example concerns wage differentials. Might individuals whose talents can bring them high rewards in the labour market have a duty not to make use of their bargaining power, but instead be willing to work for a fair wage – which if fairness is understood in egalitarian terms might mean the same wage as everyone else (perhaps with extra compensation for those whose labour is unusually burdensome)? Rawls, as we saw above, argued that economic justice meant arranging social and economic inequalities to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and in formulating the principle in this way he assumed that some inequalities might serve as incentives to greater production that would also raise the position of the worst-off group in society. But if individuals were willing to forego incentives, and so economic inequalities served no useful purpose, then the arrangement that worked to the greatest benefit of the (otherwise) least advantaged would be one of strict equality. Cohen (2008) argues that Rawls’ position is internally inconsistent. As citizens designing our institutions we are supposed to be guided by the difference principle, but as private actors in the marketplace, we are permitted to ignore that principle and bargain for higher wages, even though doing so will work to the disadvantage of the worst-off group. Justice, according to Cohen, requires us to embrace an ethos of service that disdains material incentives.

Why might we hesitate before agreeing that in cases such as these, justice requires people to refrain from doing things that they are permitted to do by the public rules of their society (passing on benefits to their children; seeking higher wages)? One reason is that the refraining is only going to have a significant effect if it is practised on a large scale, and individuals have no assurance that others will follow their example; meanwhile they (or their children) will lose out relative to the less scrupulous. A connected reason has to do with publicity: it may be hard to detect whether people are following the required ethos or not (see Williams 1998). Is the person who sends her child to a private school because she claims he has special needs that the local state school cannot meet being sincere, or is she just trying to buy him comparative advantage? How can we tell whether the person who claims more money, but merely, he says, as compensation for the unusual stress that his work involves, is reporting honestly? (for Cohen’s response, see Cohen 2008, ch. 8) It appears, then, that there are principles of justice that apply to what Rawls calls ‘the basic structure of society [as] a public system of rules’ that do not apply in the same way to the personal behaviour of the individuals who live within that structure. Attending to the scope , as well as the content , of justice is important.

Recent philosophical writing on justice has drawn attention to forms of injustice that do not involve the material treatment that people receive, either from other persons or from institutions, but the harms they suffer through failures of recognition. They are impacted by social norms and social practices that diminish their sense of agency and induce them to see themselves as of lesser value than others. Here then justice is understood as being adequately and appropriately recognized, and injustice as involving failures of recognition, or in some cases ‘misrecognition’, when a person is placed in a category or assigned an identity that is not their own. In one influential formulation of this idea, ‘it is unjust that some individuals and groups are denied the status of full partners in social interaction simply as a consequence of institutionalized patterns of cultural value in whose construction they have not equally participated and which disparage their distinctive characteristics or the distinctive characteristics assigned to them’ (Fraser in Fraser and Honneth 2003, p. 29).

What, then, does it mean to be recognized? In general it means to be viewed and treated by others in the way that is appropriate to the features that you possess, but most philosophers regard recognition as multidimensional. In particular, they distinguish between being recognized as an equal, where a person is accorded the kind of standing that gives them an equal status with other members of the relevant group, and being recognized for having characteristics, achievements or an identity that may be uniquely their own. Recognition in this second sense may involve the unequal granting of social esteem. Justice as recognition, therefore, is internally complex. At the social level, Axel Honneth distinguishes ‘three forms of social recognition, based in the sphere-specific principles of love, equal legal treatment, and social esteem’ (Fraser and Honneth 2003 p. 180)

The question that arises is how best to understand the relationship between justice of this kind and distributive justice, involving the allocation of material resources and so forth. For Honneth, justice as recognition is understood expansively so that it can also capture issues of economic justice, the thought being that the harm inflicted when, say, labour is not adequately rewarded can be understood as a failure to offer adequate recognition of the worker’s social contribution. For Nancy Fraser, by contrast, recognition and redistribution are seen as two mutually irreducible but jointly necessary conditions for social justice. Failures of recognition can be experienced by some among the economically privileged – such as ‘the African-American Wall Street banker who cannot get a taxi to pick him up’ (Fraser and Honneth 2003, p. 34). Justice as recognition requires cultural shifts in the way that different forms of identity and different types of achievement are valued that are independent of the institutional changes required to achieve distributive justice.

A particular form of recognitional injustice is epistemic injustice as diagnosed by Miranda Fricker (Fricker 2007). This occurs when someone is wronged in their capacity as a source of knowledge, and it takes two main forms: testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice. As Fricker explains ‘testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone as at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences’ (Fricker 2007, p. 1). She argues that testimonial injustice matters for two reasons. First, the person who suffers from it is less able to protect or advance their interests – for example they are less likely to be believed when having to defend themselves in court. Second, since others are unwilling to regard them as competent sources of knowledge, they may lose trust in their own capacity to know, leading in some cases to ‘prolonged self-doubt and loss of intellectual confidence’.

Hermeneutical injustice arises in the context of unequal relationships in which the subordinated party lacks the concept or concepts needed to make sense of their experience (and thereby to challenge their subordination). Fricker uses the example of a woman who suffered sexual harassment at the time before feminists had developed that concept, and so had no adequate word to describe what she was experiencing. Hermeneutical injustice matters most when it is systematic, brought about by power inequalities that leave certain groups ‘hermeneutically marginalised’. However she treats epistemic justice as a virtue that individual hearers can develop, in contrast to recognition theorists like Fraser and Honneth for whom achieving recognitional justice requires collective action to change social and cultural norms on the part of misrecognized groups.

4. Utilitarianism and Justice

Can justice be understood in utilitarian terms? This may in the first place depend on how we interpret utilitarianism. We treat it here as a normative theory whose aim is to supply a criterion – the greatest happiness principle – that can be used, directly or indirectly, both by individuals and by institutions (such as states) in deciding what to do, rather than simply as a tool for evaluating states of affairs. Utilitarianism cannot plausibly provide a theory of justice unless it is interpreted in this action-guiding way, in light of what was said above about justice and agency. We also assume that the most likely candidate will be a rule-utilitarian view that treats principles of justice as belonging to the set of rules which when followed by the relevant agents will tend to produce the greatest total utility (for different ways of formulating this view, see the entry on rule consequentialism) .

Most utilitarians have regarded it as part of their task in defending utilitarianism to show that it can both accommodate and explain much of what we intuitively believe about justice. This is certainly true of two of the greatest among them, John Stuart Mill and Sidgwick, both of whom went to considerable lengths to show that familiar principles of justice could be given a utilitarian rationale (Mill Utilitarianism , ch. 5; Sidgwick 1874/1907, Book III, ch.5). Bentham, in contrast, was more cavalier: ‘justice, in the only sense in which it has a meaning, is an imaginary personage, feigned for the convenience of discourse, whose dictates are the dictates of utility, applied to certain particular cases’ ( The Principles of Morals and Legislation , pp. 125–6). If we follow the lead of Mill and Sidgwick in wishing to take seriously how justice is commonly understood, the utilitarian has two challenges to face. First he or she must show that the demands of justice as commonly understood correspond roughly to the rules that when followed by persons, or implemented by institutions, are most conducive to the greatest happiness. They need not mirror the latter exactly, because utilitarians will argue, as both Mill and Sidgwick did, that our intuitions about justice are often ambiguous or internally inconsistent, but there must be enough overlap to warrant the claim that what the utilitarian theory can accommodate and explain is indeed justice . (As Sidgwick (1874/1907, p. 264) put it, ‘we may, so to speak, clip the ragged edge of common usage, but we must not make excision of any considerable portion’.) Second, some explanation must be given for the distinctiveness of justice. Why do we have a concept that is used to mark off a particular set of requirements and claims if the normative basis for these requirements and claims is nothing other than general utility? What accounts for our intuitive sense of justice? The task confronting the utilitarian, then, is to systematize our understanding of justice without obliterating it.

By way of illustration, both Mill and Sidgwick recognize that desert , of both reward and punishment, is a key component of common understandings of justice, but they argue that if we remain at the level of common sense when we try to analyse it, we run into irresolvable contradictions. For instance, we are inclined to think that a person’s deserts should depend on what they have actually achieved – say the economic value of what they have produced – but also, because achievement will depend on factors for which the person in question can claim no credit, such as inborn talent, that their deserts should depend only on factors for which they are directly responsible, such as the amount of effort they expend. Each of these conceptions, when put into practice, would lead to a quite different schedule of rewards, and the only means to escape the impasse, these utilitarians claim, is to ask which schedule will generate most utility by directing people’s choices and efforts in the most socially productive way. Similar reasoning applies to the principles of punishment: the rules we should follow are the rules that are most conducive to the ends for which punishment is instituted, such as deterring crime.

To explain the distinctiveness of justice, Mill suggests that it designates moral requirements that, because of their very great importance to human well-being, people have a right to have discharged, and are therefore matters of perfect obligation. A person who commits an injustice is always liable to punishment of some kind, he argues. So he explains our sense of justice in terms of the resentment we feel towards someone who breaches these requirements. Sidgwick, who laid greater stress than Mill on the connection between justice and law, also underlined the relationship between justice and gratitude, on one side, and resentment, on the other, in order to capture the way in which our concern for justice seems to differ from our concern for utility in general.

Yet despite these efforts to reconcile justice and utility, three serious obstacles still remain. The first concerns what we might call the currency of justice: justice has to do with the way that tangible benefits and burdens are assigned, and not with the happiness or unhappiness that the assignees experience. It is a matter of justice, for example, that people should be paid the right amount for the jobs that they do, but, special circumstances aside, it is no concern of justice that John derives more satisfaction from his fairly-earned income than Jane does from hers (but see Cohen 1989 for a different view). There is so to speak, a division of labour, under which rights, opportunities, and material benefits of various kinds are allocated by principles of justice, while the conversion of these into units of utility (or disutility) is the responsibility of each individual recipient (see Dworkin 2000, ch. 1). Utilitarians will therefore find it hard to explain what from their point of view seems to be the fetishistic concern of justice over how the means to happiness are distributed, rather than happiness itself.

The second obstacle is that utilitarianism judges outcomes by totalling up utility levels, and has no independent concern for how that utility is distributed between persons. So even if we set aside the currency issue, utilitarian theory seems unable to capture justice’s demand that each should receive what is due to her regardless of the total amount of benefit this generates. Defenders of utilitarianism will argue that when the conduct-guiding rules are being formulated, attention will be paid to distributive questions. In particular, when resources are being distributed among people we know little about individually, there are good reasons to favour equality, since in most cases resources have diminishing marginal utility – the more of them you have, the less satisfaction you derive from additional instalments. Yet this is only a contingent matter. If some people are very adept at turning resources into well-being – they are so-called ‘utility monsters’ – then a utilitarian should support a rule that privileges them. This seems repugnant to justice. As Rawls famously put the general point, ‘each member of society is thought to have an inviolability founded on justice which….even the welfare of every one else cannot override’ (Rawls 1971, p. 28; Rawls 1999, pp. 24–25).

The third and final difficulty stems from utilitarianism’s thoroughgoing consequentialism. Rules are assessed strictly in the light of the consequences of adopting then, not in terms of their intrinsic properties. Of course, when agents follow rules, they are meant to do what the rule requires rather than to calculate consequences directly. But for a utilitarian, it is never going to be a good reason for adopting a rule that it will give people what they deserve or what they are entitled to, when desert or entitlement are created by events in the past, such as a person’s having performed a worthwhile action or entered an agreement. Backward-looking reasons have to be transmuted into forward-looking reasons in order to count. If a rule such as pacta sunt servanda (‘agreements must be kept’) is going to be adopted on utilitarian grounds, this is not because there is any inherent wrongness in defaulting on a compact one has made, but because a rule that compacts must be kept is a useful one, since it allows people to co-ordinate their behaviour knowing that their expectations about the future are likely to be met. But justice, although not always backward-looking in the sense explained, often is. What is due to a person is in many cases what they deserve for what they have done, or what they are entitled to by virtue of past transactions. So even if it were possible to construct a forward-looking rationale for having rules that closely tracked desert or entitlement as these are normally understood, the utilitarian still cannot capture the sense of justice – why it matters that people should get what is due to then – that informs our common-sense judgements.

Utilitarians might reply that their reconstruction preserves what is rationally defensible in common sense beliefs while what it discards are elements that cannot survive sustained critical reflection. But this would bring them closer to Bentham’s view that justice, as commonly understood, is nothing but a ‘phantom’.

5. Contractarianism and Justice

The shortcomings of utilitarianism have prompted several recent philosophers to revive the old idea of the social contract as a better way of bringing coherence to our thinking about justice. The idea here is not that people actually have entered a contract to establish justice, or that they should proceed to do so, but that we can understand justice better by asking the question: what principles to govern their institutions, practices and personal behaviour would people choose to adopt if they all had to agree on them in advance? The contract, in other words, is hypothetical; but the search for agreement is meant to ensure that the principles chosen would, when implemented, not lead to outcomes that people could not accept. Thus whereas a utilitarian might, under some circumstances, be prepared to support slavery – if the misery of the slaves were outweighed by the heightened pleasures of the slave-owners – contractarians claims that no-one could accept a principle permitting slavery, lest they themselves were destined to be slaves when the principle was applied.

The problem that contractarians face is to show how such an agreement is possible. If we were to ask people, in the real world, what principles they would prefer to live under, they are likely to start from a position of quite radical disagreement, given their interests and their beliefs. Some might even be willing to endorse slavery, if they were fairly certain that they would not end up as slaves themselves, or if they were sado-masochists who viewed the humiliations inflicted on slaves in a positive light. So in order to show how agreement could be achieved, contractarians have to model the contracting parties in a particular way, either by limiting what they are allowed to know about themselves or about the future, or by attributing to them certain motivations while excluding others. Since the modelling can be done differently, we have a family of contractarian theories of justice, three of whose most important members are the theories of Gauthier, Rawls and Scanlon.

Gauthier (1986) presents the social contract as a bargain between rational individuals who can gain through co-operating with one another, but who are competing over the division of the resulting surplus. He assumes that each is interested only in trying to maximise his own welfare, and he also assumes that there is a non-co-operative baseline from which the bargaining begins – so nobody would accept a solution that left her less well off than in the baseline condition. Each person can identify the outcome under which they fare best – their maximum gain – but they have no reason to expect others to accept that. Gauthier argues that rational bargainers will converge on the principle of Minimax Relative Concession , which requires each to concede the same relative proportion of their maximum possible gain relative to the non-co-operative baseline. Thus suppose there is a feasible arrangement whereby each participant can achieve two-thirds of their maximum gain, but no arrangement under which they all do better than that, then this is the arrangement that the principle recommends. Each person has made the same concession relative to the outcome that is best for them personally – not accepting the same absolute loss of welfare, let it be noted, but the same proportionate loss.

There are some internal difficulties with Gauthier’s theory that need to be recorded briefly (for a full discussion, see Barry 1989, esp. Part III). One is whether Minimax Relative Concession is in fact the correct solution to the bargaining problem that Gauthier introduces, as opposed to the standard Nash solution which (in a simple two-person case) selects the outcome in which the product of the two parties’ utilities is maximised (for discussion of different solutions to the bargaining problem, see the entry on contemporary approaches to the social contract , § 3.2). A second is whether Gauthier is able to justify positing a ‘Lockean’ baseline, under which each is assumed to respect the natural rights of the others, as the starting point for bargaining over the surplus – as opposed to a more conflictual ‘Hobbesian’ baseline in which individuals are permitted to use their natural powers to threaten one another in the process of establishing what each could expect to get in the absence of co-operation. But the larger question is whether a contract modelled in this way is an appropriate device for delivering principles of justice. On the one hand, it captures the idea that the practice of justice should work to everyone’s advantage, while requiring all those involved to moderate the demands they make on one another. On the other hand, it prescribes a final distribution of benefit that appears morally arbitrary, in the sense that A ’s bargaining advantage over B – which stems from the fact that his maximum possible gain is greater than hers – allows him to claim a higher level of benefit as a matter of justice . This seems implausible: there may be prudential reasons to recommend a distribution that reflects the outcome that self-interested and rational bargainers would arrive at, but claims of justice need a different basis.

John Rawls’ theory of justice is the most widely-cited example of a contractarian theory, but before outlining it, two words of caution are necessary. First, the shape of the theory has evolved from its first incarnation in Rawls (1958) through his major work A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) and on to Rawls (1993) and Rawls (2001). Second, although Rawls has consistently claimed that the principles of justice he defends are the principles that would be selected by people in a suitably designed ‘original position’ in which they are asked to choose the social and political institutions they will live under – this is what qualifies his theory as contractarian – it is less clear how important a role the contract itself plays in his thinking. His principles, which are discussed elsewhere (see the entry on John Rawls) , can be defended on their own merits as a theory of social justice for a modern liberal society, even if their contractual grounding proves to be unsound. Rawls presents the contracting parties as seeking to advance their own interests as they decide which principles to favour, but under two informational constraints. First, they are not allowed to know their own ‘conception of the good’ – what ends they personally find it most valuable to pursue – so the principles must be couched in terms of ‘primary goods’, understood as goods that it is better to have more rather than less of whatever conception of the good you favour. Second, they are placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that deprives them of any knowledge of personal characteristics, such as their gender, their place in society, or the talents and skills they possess. This means that they have no basis on which to bargain for advantage, and have to consider themselves as generic persons who might be male or female, talented or untalented, and so forth. In consequence, Rawls argues, all will choose to live under impartial principles that work to no-one’s advantage in particular.

The problem for Rawls, however, is to show that the principles that would be selected in such an original position are in fact recognizable as principles of justice . One might expect the parties to calculate how to weigh the primary goods (which Rawls catalogues as ‘rights and liberties, opportunities and powers, income and wealth’) against each other, and then to choose as their social principle ‘maximise the weighted sum of primary goods, averaged across all persons’. This, however, would bring the theory very close to utilitarianism, since the natural method of weighing primary goods is to ask how much utility having a given quantity of each is likely, on average, to bring (for the claim that utilitarianism would be chosen in a Rawlsian original position, see Harsanyi 1975). Since Rawls wishes to reject utilitarianism, he has to adjust the psychology of the parties in the original position so that they reason differently. Thus he suggests that, at least in developed societies, people have special reason to prioritise liberty over the other goods and to ensure that it is equally distributed: he argues that this is essential to safeguard their self-respect. In later writing his argument is less empirical: now the parties to the contract are endowed with ‘moral powers’ that must be exercised, and it is then fairly easy to show that this requires them to have a set of basic liberties.

When he turns to the distribution of income and wealth, Rawls has to show why his choosers would pick the difference principle, which considers only the position of the worst-off social group, over other principles such as maximising average income across the whole society. In Theory of Justice he does this by attributing special psychological features to the choosers that make it appropriate for them to follow the ‘maximin’ rule for decisions under uncertainty (choose the option whose worst possible outcome is least bad for you). For example, they are said to be much more concerned to achieve the minimum level of income that the difference principle would guarantee them than to enjoy increases above that level. In his later work, he abandons this reliance on maximin reasoning and gives greater prominence to another argument hinted at in Theory . This portrays the contracting parties as starting out from the presumption that income and wealth should be distributed equally, but then recognizing that all can benefit by permitting certain inequalities to arise. When these inequalities are governed by the difference principle, they can be justified to everyone, including the worst off, thus creating the conditions for a more stable society. But we need then to ask why equal distribution should be treated as the benchmark, departures from which require special justification. When Rawls says that it is ‘not reasonable’ for any of the parties initially to expect more than an equal share (Rawls 1971, p. 150; Rawls 1999, p. 130), is this simply a corollary of their position as rational choosers behind a veil of ignorance, or has Rawls in addition endowed them with a substantive sense of justice that includes this presumption of equality?

Although Rawls throughout presents his theory of justice as contractarian, we can now see that the terms of the contract are in part determined by prior normative principles that Rawls engineers the parties to follow. So in contrast to Gauthier, it is no longer simply a case of self-interested contractors negotiating their way to an agreement. Rawls candidly admits that the contractual situation has to be adjusted so that it yields results that match our pre-existing convictions about justice. But then we may ask how much work the contractual apparatus is really doing (see Barry 1989, ch. 9 for a critical appraisal).

Scanlon (1998) does not attempt to deliver a theory of justice in the same sense as Rawls, but his contractarian account of that part of morality that specifies ‘what we owe to each other’ covers much of the same terrain (for an explicit attempt to analyse justice in Scanlonian terms, see Barry 1995). Like Rawls, Scanlon is concerned to develop an alternative to utilitarianism, and he does so by developing a test that any candidate moral principle must pass: it must be such that no-one could reasonably reject it as the basis for informed, unforced general agreement (see the entry on contractualism ). Scanlon’s contractors are not positioned behind a veil of ignorance. They are able to see what effect adopting any proposed principle would have on them personally. If that effect is unacceptable to them, they are permitted to reject it. Each person has, so to speak, a veto on any general principle for regulating conduct. Those that survive this test are defensible as principles of justice – Scanlon concedes that there might be alternative sets of such principles appropriate to different social conditions.

It might seem, however, that giving each person a veto would lead straightforwardly to deadlock, since anyone might reject a principle under which he fared badly relative to some alternative. Here the idea of reasonable rejection becomes important. It would not, Scanlon thinks, be reasonable to reject a principle under which one does badly if the alternatives all involve someone else faring worse still. One needs to take account of other people’s reasons for rejecting these alternatives. It might then appear that Scanlon’s contractualism yields the difference principle, which requires the worst-off group in society to be as well of as they can be. But this is not the conclusion that Scanlon draws (though he acknowledges that there might be special reasons to follow Rawls in requiring basic social institutions to follow the difference principle). The claims of other groups must be considered too. If a policy greatly benefits many others, while slightly worsening the position of a few, though without leaving them very badly off, it may well not be rejectable. Scanlon’s position leaves some room for aggregation – it makes a difference how many people will be benefitted if a principle is followed – though not the simple form of aggregation that utilitarians defend.

Scanlon also says that a person can have a reason for rejecting a principle if it treats them unfairly, say by benefitting some but not others for arbitrary reasons. This presupposes a norm of fairness that the contractarian theory does not itself attempt to explain or justify. So it looks as though the purpose of the theory is to provide a distinctive account of moral reasoning (and moral motivation) but not to defend any substantive principles of distributive justice. In this respect, Scanlon’s contractualism is less ambitious than either Gauthier’s or Rawls’.

6. Egalitarianism and Justice

In the recent past, many philosophers have sought to establish a close connection between justice and equality: they ask the question ‘what kind of equality does justice require?’, and to that several competing answers have been given (see, for example Cohen 1989, Dworkin 2000, Sen 1980). But we should not be too hasty to assume that what justice demands is always equality, whether of treatment or of outcome. Perhaps it does so only in a formal sense. As we saw in sect 1.3, justice requires the impartial and consistent application of rules, from which it follows that when two people are alike in all relevant respects, they must be treated equally. But, as Aristotle among others saw, justice also involves the idea of proportional treatment, which implies recipients getting unequal amounts of whatever good is at issue (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , Book V, ch. 3). If A is twice as deserving or twice as needy as B , justice may require that she receives more than B does. So here formal equality of treatment – the same rule applied to both – leads to an unequal outcome. Again, when justice takes the conservative form of respect for existing entitlements or legitimate expectations (see para 2.1) there is no reason to anticipate that what is due to different people will be substantively the same.

So we need to ask about the circumstances in which justice requires a substantively equal distribution of advantages. One rather obvious case occurs when the members of the group within which the distribution is going to occur have no relevant distinguishing features, so there are no grounds on which some can claim greater shares of benefit than others. Suppose a group experiences a windfall gain for which no-one can claim any credit: a pot of gold somehow appears in their midst. Then unless any member can make a justice-related claim for a larger-than-equal share – say that she has special needs that she lacks sufficient resources to meet – an equal distribution of the gold is what justice demands, since any other distribution would be arbitrary. Equality here is the default principle that applies in the absence of any special claims that can be presented as reasons of justice.

Equality also acts as a default in circumstances where, although people may indeed have unequal claims to whatever good is being distributed, we have no reliable way of identifying and measuring those claims. By sharing the good equally, we can at least ensure that every claim has been partially satisfied. Thus suppose we have limited supplies of a drug that can treat malaria, and a number of patients displaying symptoms of the disease, but lacking specialised medical knowledge we cannot tell whether one person’s condition is more serious than another’s; then by sharing out the drug equally, we can guarantee that each person at least receives the highest fraction of what they really need. Any other distribution must leave at least one person with less (this of course assumes that there is no threshold amount of the drug beneath which it is ineffective; if that assumption is wrong, justice under the stated conditions might require a lottery in which the chosen ones receive threshold-size doses).

If justice requires equality only by default, it might seem to apply only in a narrow range of cases. How could egalitarian justice be made more robust? One approach involves declaring a wider range of factors irrelevant to just distribution. Thus one formulation of the principle holds that no-one should be worse-off than anyone else as a result of their ‘morally arbitrary’ characteristics, where a characteristic is morally arbitrary when its possessor cannot claim credit for having it. This captures a widespread intuition that people should not be advantaged or disadvantaged by virtue of their race or gender, but extends it (more controversially) to all personal features with a genetic basis, such as natural talents and inborn dispositions. In doing so, it discounts most claims of desert, since when people are said to deserve benefits of various kinds, it is usually for performing actions or displaying qualities that depend upon innate characteristics such as strength or intelligence. In the following section, we will see how egalitarian theories of justice have tried to incorporate some desert-like elements by way of response. But otherwise justice as equality and justice as desert appear to be in conflict, and the challenge is to show what can justify equal treatment in the face of inequalities of desert.

A second approach answers this challenge by explaining why it is positively valuable to afford people equal treatment even if they do display features that might appear to justify differential treatment. A prominent advocate of this approach is Dworkin, who argues that fundamental to justice is a principle of equal concern and respect for persons, and what this means in more concrete term is that equal resources should be devoted to the life of each member of society (Dworkin 2000). (The reference to membership here is not redundant, because Dworkin understands egalitarian justice as a principle that must be applied within sovereign states specifically – so in the terms of 3.2, this is a relational view of justice.) The thought is that showing persons equal respect may sometimes require us to afford them equal treatment, even in the face of relevant grounds for discrimination. Thus we insist on political equality – one person, one vote – even though we know that there are quite large differences in people’s competence to make political decisions.

As noted above, justice as simple equality of treatment seems open to the objection that it fails to acknowledge the agency of the recipients, who may have acted in ways that appear to qualify them to receive more (or less) of whatever benefit is being distributed. To answer this objection, several recent philosophers have presented alternative versions of ‘responsibility-sensitive egalitarianism’ – a family of theories of justice that treat equal distribution as a starting point but allow for departures from that baseline when these result from the responsible choices made by individuals (see Knight and Stemplowska 2011 for examples). These theories differ along several dimensions: the ‘currency of justice’ used to define the baseline of equality, the conditions that must be fulfilled for a choice to qualify as responsible, and which among the consequences that follow from a choice should count when the justice of an outcome is being assessed (it may in particular appear unjust to allow people to suffer the full consequences of bad choices that they could not reasonably have anticipated). The label that is often used to describe a sub-class of these theories is ‘luck egalitarianism’. According to luck egalitarians, justice requires that no-one should be disadvantaged relative to others on account of ‘brute’ bad luck, whereas inequalities that arise through the exercise of personal responsibility are permissible (for a full discussion of luck egalitarianism, see the entry on justice and bad luck ). ‘Brute’ luck is interpreted widely to include not only external circumstances such as one person’s initially having access to more resources than another, but also internal factors such as possessing natural abilities or disabilities, or having involuntarily acquired expensive tastes. All such inequalities are to be ironed out by redistribution or compensation, while people’s choices about how to use the assets they are granted should be respected, even if this leads to significant inequality in the long run.

Luck egalitarianism has proved surprisingly influential in recent debates on justice, despite the evident difficulties involved in, for example, quantifying ‘brute luck disadvantage’ in such a way that a compensatory scheme could be established. There are, however, a number of problems it has to face. By giving scope to personal responsibility, it seeks to capture what is perhaps the most attractive part of the conventional idea of desert – that people should be rewarded for making good choices and penalised for making bad ones – while filtering out the effects of having (undeserved) natural talents. But in reality the choices that people make are influenced by the talents and other qualities that they happen to have already. So if we allow someone to reap advantages by, for example, devoting long hours to learning to play the piano at a high level, we must recognize that this is a choice that she would almost certainly not have made unless early experiment showed that she was musically gifted. We cannot say what she would have chosen to do in a counterfactual world in which she was tone deaf. There seems then to be no coherent half-way house between accepting full-blooded desert and denying that people can justly claim relative advantage through the exercise of responsibility and choice (see further Miller 1999, ch. 7) .

A second problem is that one person’s exercise of responsibility may prove advantageous or disadvantageous to others, even though they have done nothing to bring this change about, so from their point of view it must count as ‘brute’ luck. This will be true, for example, in any case in which people are competing to excel in some field, where successful choices made by A will worsen the comparative position of B , C , and D . Or again, if A acts in a way that benefits B , but does nothing comparable to improve the position of C and D , then an inequality is created that counts as ‘brute bad luck’ from the perspective of the latter. One of the most influential exponents of luck egalitarianism seems to have recognized the problem in a late essay: ‘unlike plain egalitarianism, luck egalitarianism is paradoxical, because the use of shares by people is bound to lead to a distribution flecked by luck’ (Cohen 2011, p. 142).

We have seen that equality can sometimes be understood as required by justice; but it can also be valued independently. Indeed there can be circumstances in which the two values collide, because what justice demands is inequality of outcome. The kind of inequality that is independently valuable is social equality, best understood as a property of the relationships that prevail within a society: people regard and treat each other as social equals, and the society’s institutions are designed to foster and reflect such attitudes. A society of equals contrasts with one in which people belong to different ranks in a social hierarchy, and behave towards one another as their relative ranking prescribes. Different reasons can be given for objecting to social inequality, and conversely for valuing social equality (see Scanlon 2003).

Those who find equality valuable for reasons other than reasons of distributive justice are often described as ‘relational egalitarians’ (see Anderson 1999, Wolff 1998, Fourie, Schuppert and Wallimann-Helmer 2015). It is tempting to regard relational egalitarianism as a rival theory of justice to the luck egalitarian theory outlined in §6.2, but it may be more illuminating to see it instead as providing an alternative account of why we should care about limiting material inequality. Thus, faced with a world like the one we currently inhabit in which income differences are very large, justice theorists are likely to criticize these inequalities on grounds that they are not deserved, or arise from brute luck, etc., whereas relational egalitarians will say that they create a divided society in which people are alienated from each other, and cannot interact in a mutually respectful way. Relational equality does not address issues of distribution directly, and so cannot function as a theory of justice itself, but it can provide grounds for preferring one theory of justice to its rivals – namely that implementing that particular theory is more likely to create or sustain a society of equals.

We saw at the beginning of this article that justice can take a number of different forms, depending on the practical context in which it is being applied. Although we found common elements running through this diversity of use – most readily captured in Justinian’s ‘suum cuique ’ formula – these were formal rather than substantive. In these circumstances, it is natural to look for an overarching framework into which the various contextually specific conceptions of justice can all be fitted. Three such frameworks were examined: utilitarianism, contractarianism and egalitarianism. None, however, passed what we might call the ‘Sidgwick/Rawls test’, namely that of incorporating and explaining the majority at least of our considered convictions about justice – beliefs that we feel confident in holding about what justice requires us to do in a wide and varied range of circumstances (for Rawls’ version of the test see the entry on reflective equilibrium ). So unless we are willing to jettison many of these convictions in order to uphold one or other general framework, we will need to accept that no comprehensive theory of justice is available to us; we will have to make do with partial theories – theories about what justice requires in particular domains of human life. Rawls himself, despite the bold title of his first book ( A Theory of Justice ), came to recognize that what he had outlined was at best a theory of social justice applied to the basic institutional structure of a modern liberal state. Other forms of justice – familial, allocative, associational, international – with their associated principles would be applicable in their respective domains (for an even more explicitly pluralist account of justice, see Walzer 1983; for a fuller defence of a contextual approach to justice, see Miller 2013, esp. ch. 2).

One way to loosen up our thinking about justice is by paying greater attention to the history of the concept. We can learn a great deal by reading what Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Hume, has to say about the concept, but as we do so, we also see that elements we would expect to find are missing (there is nothing about rights in Aristotle, for example), while others that we would not anticipate are present. This may in some part be due to the idiosyncrasies of each thinker, but more importantly it reflects differences in the form of social life in which each was embedded – its economic, legal and political structure, especially. Various attempts have been made to write histories of justice that are more than just catalogues of what individual thinkers have said: they aim to trace and explain systematic shifts in the way that justice has been interpreted (for contrasting examples, see MacIntyre 1988, Fleischacker 2004, Johnston 2011). These should not be read as enlightenment stories in which our understanding of justice steadily improves as the centuries roll by. MacIntyre’s view, for example, is that modern liberal societies cannot sustain the practices within which notions of justice find their proper home. We can get a better grasp of what justice means to us by seeing the various conceptions that compete for our attention as tied to aspects of our social world that did not exist in the past, and are equally liable to disappear in the future.

  • Anderson, Elizabeth, 1999, “What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics , 109: 287–337.
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , translated by Roger Crisp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • –––, The Politics , translated by Thomas Sinclair, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.
  • Barry, Brian, 1989, Theories of Justice , Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
  • –––, 1995, Justice as Impartiality , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bentham, Jeremy, The Principles of Morals and Legislation , ed. Laurence Lafleur, New York: Hafner Press, 1948.
  • Brighouse, Harry and Adam Swift, 2014, Family Values: the ethics of parent-child relationships , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Buchanan, Allen, 1987, “Justice and Charity,” Ethics , 97: 558–75.
  • Casal, Paula, 2007, “Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough,” Ethics , 117: 296–326.
  • Cohen, G.A., 1989, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics , 99: 906–44.
  • –––, 1995, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2008, Rescuing Justice and Equality , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 2011, “Fairness and Legitimacy in Justice, and: Does Option Luck ever Preserve Justice?” in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice and Other Essays in Political Philosophy , edited by Michael Otsuka, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Coleman, Jules, 1992, Risks and Wrongs , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka, 2011, Zoopolis: a political theory of animals rights , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dworkin, Ronald, 2000, Sovereign Virtue: the theory and practice of equality , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Feinberg, Joel, 1970, “Justice and Personal Desert,” in Doing and Deserving: essays in the theory of responsibility , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • –––, 1974, “Noncomparative Justice,” Philosophical Review , 83: 297–338.
  • Fleischacker, Samuel, 2004, A Short History of Distributive Justice , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Fourie, Carina, Fabian Schuppert and Ivo Wallimann-Helmer (eds.), 2015, Social Equality: on what it means to be equals , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Frankfurt, Harry, 2015, On Inequality , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth, 2003, Redistribution or Recognition? : a political-philosophical exchange , London: Verso.
  • Fricker, Miranda, 2007, Epistemic Injustice; power and the ethics of knowing , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Garner, Robert, 2013, A Theory of Justice for Animals , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gauthier, David, 1986, Morals by Agreement , Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Harsanyi, John, 1975, “Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls’s Theory,” American Political Science Review , 69: 594–606.
  • Hayek, Friedrich, 1976, Law, Legislation and Liberty (Volume II: The Mirage of Social Justice ), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature , edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
  • –––, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals , edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
  • Johnston, David, 2011, A Brief History of Justice , Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Kagan, Shelly, 2012, The Geometry of Desert , New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Knight, Carl and Zofia Stemplowska (eds.), 2011, Responsibility and Distributive Justice , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lind, E. Allan and Tom Tyler, 1988, The Social Psychology of Procedural Justice , New York and London: Plenum Press.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair, 1988, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? , London: Duckworth.
  • Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Representative Government , ed. A.D. Lindsay, London: Dent, 1964.
  • Miller, David, 1999, Principles of Social Justice , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 2013, Justice for Earthlings: essays in political philosophy , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Montague, Phillip, 1980, “Comparative and Non-Comparative Justice,” Philosophical Quarterly , 30: 131–40.
  • Murphy, Liam, 1998, “Institutions and the Demands of Justice,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 27, 251–91.
  • Nagel, Thomas, 2005, “The Problem of Global Justice,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 33, 113–47.
  • Nozick, Robert, 1974, Anarchy, State and Utopia , Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Nussbaum, Martha, 2006, Frontiers of Justice: disability, nationality, species membership , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Okin, Susan, 1989, Justice, Gender, and the Family , New York: Basic Books.
  • Olsaretti, Serena (ed.), 2003, Justice and Desert , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Paul, Jeffrey (ed.), 1982, Reading Nozick : essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia , Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Perry, Stephen, 2000, “On the Relationship between Corrective and Distributive Justice,” in Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence, Fourth Series , edited by Jeremy Horder, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Raphael, D. D., 2001, Concepts of Justice , Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Rawls, John, 1958, “Justice as Fairness,” Philosophical Review , 67: 164–94.
  • –––, 1971, A Theory of Justice , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 1993, Political Liberalism , New York: Columbia University Press.
  • –––, 1999, A Theory of Justice , revised edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 2001, Justice as Fairness: a restatement , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Ripstein, Arthur, 2004, “The Division of Responsibility and the Law of Tort,” Fordham Law Review , 72: 1811–44.
  • Sandel, Michael, 1982, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scanlon, T. M., 1998, What We Owe to Each Other , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 2003, “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality,” in The Difficulty of Tolerance: essays in political philosophy , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sen, Amartya, 1980, “Equality of What?” in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Volume 1 , ed. S. McMurrin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidgwick, Henry, 1874/1907, The Methods of Ethics , London: Macmillan.
  • Valentini, Laura, 2014, “Canine Justice: An Associative Account,” Political Studies , 62: 37–52.
  • Walzer, Michael, 1983, Spheres of Justice: a defence of pluralism and equality , New York: Basic Books.
  • Williams, Andrew, 1998, “Incentives, Inequality, and Publicity,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 27: 225–47.
  • Wolff, Jonathan, 1991, Robert Nozick : property, justice and the minimal state , Cambridge: Polity.
  • –––, 1998, “Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 27: 97–122.
  • Young, Iris Marion, 2011, Responsibility for Justice , New York: Oxford University Press.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Justice , course lectures by Michael Sandel
  • Justice Everywhere , a group blog about justice in public affairs

Aristotle, General Topics: ethics | consequentialism | consequentialism: rule | contractualism | feminist philosophy, topics: perspectives on reproduction and the family | justice: as a virtue | justice: distributive | justice: global | justice: intergenerational | justice: international distributive | justice: retributive | justice: transitional | luck: justice and bad luck | Rawls, John | reflective equilibrium | social contract: contemporary approaches to

Copyright © 2021 by David Miller < david . miller @ nuffield . ox . ac . uk >

Support SEP

Mirror sites.

View this site from another server:

  • Info about mirror sites

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is copyright © 2023 by The Metaphysics Research Lab , Department of Philosophy, Stanford University

Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

  • Election Integrity
  • Immigration

Political Thought

  • American History
  • Conservatism
  • Progressivism


  • Global Politics
  • Middle East

Government Spending

  • Budget and Spending

Energy & Environment

  • Environment

Legal and Judicial

  • Crime and Justice
  • Second Amendment
  • The Constitution

National Security

  • Cybersecurity

Domestic Policy

  • Government Regulation
  • Health Care Reform
  • Marriage and Family
  • Religious Liberty
  • International Economies
  • Markets and Finance

The Meaning of Justice

definition of justice literature

Select a Section 1 /0

The word "justice" is on everyone's lips nowadays, and may signify almost anything. We hear the cry "Peace and Justice!" from folk who would destroy existing societies with fire and sword. Other folk fancy that perfect justice might readily be obtained by certain financial rearrangements -- as if anything in this world ever could be perfected. One thinks of the observation of William James: "So long as one poor cockroach suffers the pangs of unrequited love, this world will not be a moral world." At the end of the twentieth century, the liberal mentality demands justice for roaches, too.

All confusion about the meaning of the word "justice" notwithstanding, the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica contains no article under the heading "Justice." Yet there is a succinct article about justices of the peace, of whose number I once was one, before the state of Michigan swept away that high office. My lecture today may be regarded as the attempt of a fool, rushing in where the angelic Britannica fears to tread. Yet possibly the nature of justice may be apprehended by a mere quondam justice of the peace: for the fundamental purpose of law is to keep the peace. "Justice is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together," said Daniel Webster at the funeral of Justice Joseph Story, in 1845; and so say I today.

I propose in this series of four lectures to discuss first the signification of this word "justice"; in my second lecture, to examine natural law; in my third, to deal with criminal justice; in my concluding lecture, to quarrel with certain notions of justice that have been much puffed up during recent years. In the twenty-first century of the Christian era, will justice signify anything more than the state's rigorous enforcement of its edicts? Such questions I hope to raise in your minds.

Nowadays, near the close of the twentieth century, moral and political disorders bring grave confusion about the meanings of old words. As T. S. Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton" -- Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still. Shrieking voices Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering, Always assail them.

Conspicuous among such venerable words, in our era often abused and misrepresented, is this necessary word justice. Today I am attempting to purify the dialect of the tribe -- to borrow another phrase from my old friend Eliot, who endeavored lifelong to rescue words from the clutch of the vulgarizer or of the ideologue.

Permit me first to offer preliminary descriptions or definitions of this word justice. Jeremy Taylor, in the middle of the seventeenth century, wrote that there exist two kinds of justice. The one is commutative justice, or reciprocal justice, expressed in Scripture thus: "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, even so do to them." In Taylor's words, "This is the measure... of that justice which supposes exchange of things profitable for things profitable, that as I supply your need, you may supply mine; as I do a benefit to you, I may receive one by you.... "

The other kind is distributive justice, expressed in this passage from Romans: "Render to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor; owe no man anything but to love one another." Upon this Taylor comments, "This justice is distinguished from the first, because the obligation depends not upon contract or express bargain, but passes upon us by some command of God, or of our superior, by nature or by grace, by piety or religion, by trust or by office, according to that commandment, 'As every man hath received the gift, so let him minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.'"

But perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, I proceed too fast; I shall have more to say a little later about the Christian concept of justice. Just now a little about the classical idea of justice. The classical definition, which comes to us through Plato, Aristotle, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine of Hippo, is expressed in a single phrase: suum cuique, or "to each his own." As this is put in Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will." Aristotle instructs us that the prevalence of injustice makes clear the meaning of justice. Also Aristotle remarks that it is unjust to treat unequal things equally -- a principle to which I shall return in my later lectures. Of the virtue called justice, Saint Augustine declares, "Justice is that ordering of the soul by virtue of which it comes to pass that we are no man's servant, but servants of God alone."

Upon such ancient postulates, classical or Christian, rests our whole elaborate edifice of law here in these United States -- even though few Americans know anything about the science of jurisprudence. For public order is founded upon moral order, and moral order arises from religion -- a point upon which I mean to touch later in this talk of mine. If these venerable postulates are flouted or denied -- as they have been denied by the Marxists in the present century, and were denied by sophists in Plato's time -- then arbitrary power thrusts justice aside, and "they shall take who have the power, and they shall keep who can."

All these brief definitions require explanation. But for the moment I pass on to the common understanding, the common sense, of the meaning of justice. All of us here present, I suppose, entertain some notion of what justice signifies. From what source do we obtain such a concept? Why, very commonly, from observation of a just man or a just woman. We begin by admiring someone -- he may be some famous judge, or he may be an obscure neighbor -- who accords to every person he encounters that person's due. Just men, in short, establish the norm of justice. When I began to write my book The conservative Mind, I discovered that the abstraction "conservatism" amounts to a general term descriptive of the beliefs and actions of certain eminent men and women whom we call "conservative" because they have endeavored to protect and nurture the Permanent Things in human existence. So it is with justice: in large part, we learn the meaning of justice by acquaintance with just persons.

In the ancient world, the most just of men was Solon, Athens' lawgiver, poet, and hero. As Solon wrote of his reform of the Athenian constitution --

Such power I gave the people as might do, Abridged not what they had, nor lavished new; Those that were great in wealth and high in place My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace. Before them both I kept my shield of might, And let not either touch the other's right.

To each class, that is, Solon gave its due, and so preserved the peace: that is social justice.

But we need not turn to the pages of Plutarch to discover just men: they are not an extinct species, though perhaps an endangered one. I think of my grandfather, Frank Pierce, a bank-manager in Plymouth, twenty miles north of Detroit. He was the leading man of Lower Town (now called Old Town), near the railroad yards -- not because he was either rich or charismatic, but because he was just. Justice, of course, is one of the cardinal virtues; and like the other virtues, justice is said to be its own reward -- which is well, the virtue of justice seldom earning material rewards. When a member of the town council, my grandfather refused to supply water free of charge to the town's principal industrial plant, on the grounds that if the factory couldn't pay water bills, who could? For that offense, the firm's president swore he would have Pierce discharged by the bank; but the bank's president happening also to be a just man, my grandfather's livelihood was not swept away. My grandfather's counsel was sought by everyone in the Lower Town who needed advice; and his kindliness even moved him, on occasion, to extend interest-free personal loans, from his own pocket, to young married couples who could not meet the requirements for loans from the bank. (His salary was two hundred dollars a month.) I do not mean that he was indiscriminately sentimental; not at all. On the several occasions when robbers invaded his branch bank, he successfully repelled them, at great risk: for the just man defends vigorously whatever is entrusted to his charge, and sets his face against the lawless. He was just to children, too: taking me on long walks, during which we talked of everything under the sun, but rapping sharply on the dining- room table when I waxed impudent at meals -- I immediately abashed and repentant. By watching this kindly paterfamilias, and listening to what he said, I came to apprehend justice quite early. For Frank Pierce gave every man his due, without fear or favor.

In every society, from the most primitive to the most decadent, there are found some persons, like my grandfather, whom everyone recognizes as just. (Even bank-robbers and kidnappers -- for he was kidnapped once by desperados -- remarked that Frank Pierce was a just man.) From what source do such just men and women derive their habits or principles of justice?

Are they familiar with jurisprudential theories? Only rarely: even most judges on the bench nowadays are not well grounded in the philosophy of law. My grandfather, who possessed a substantial library -- perhaps the only library in Plymouth's Lower Town -- read history, but not philosophy or law.

Are their concepts of justice learnt in church? Not so, ordinarily. My grandfather never attended church: he came from a family that began as Pilgrims to Massachusetts and gradually moved through all the American stages of the dissidence of dissent. He never read the Bible at home. He inherited Christian morals, but not Christian faith in the transcendent.

Do they create for themselves a rough-and-ready utilitarian scheme for the administering of justice, founded principally upon their private experience of the human condition? Only infrequently, I think; for most of them would subscribe to the maxim of Benjamin Franklin, "Experience is a hard master, but fools will have no other."

Well, then, how do just men and women apprehend the meaning of justice? From tradition, I maintain: from habits and beliefs that have long persisted within family and within local community. Aristophanes, contradicting Socrates, argued that virtue cannot be taught in schools or by tutors: rather, virtue inheres in old families. I believe that to be especially true of the cardinal virtue called justice. Or this tradition of justice, families and communities aside, may become known through private reading, perhaps: anyone who attentively reads the great Victorian novelists, say, cannot well escape absorbing, even if unaware of his acquisition, principles of personal and social justice. More obvious, if more rare nowadays, is the influence of the Greek and Roman classics toward forming an affection for justice. Until well into the nineteenth century, Cicero was studied in every decent school; and this passage from that statesman-philosopher implanted an apprehension of the nature of justice:

Law is the highest reason, implanted in nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. This reason, when firmly fixed and fully developed in the human mind, is law. And so they believe that law is intelligence, whose natural function it is to command right conduct and forbid wrongdoing. They think that this quality has derived its name in Greek from the idea of granting to every man his own, and in our language I believe it has been named from the idea of choosing.

In short, there exists a literary tradition expounding the idea of justice. The most recent popular example of this tradition is to be found in an appendix to C. S. Lewis's little book The Abolition of Man. Therein Lewis sets side by side, drawn from various cultures, illustrations of the Tao, or Natural Law. He groups these precepts or injunctions under eight headings: the law of general beneficence; the law of special beneficence; duties to parents, elders, ancestors; duties to children and posterity; the law of justice; the law of good faith and veracity; the law of mercy; the law of magnanimity. Everywhere in the world, in every age, Lewis is saying, wise men and women have perceived the nature of justice and expressed that nature in proverb, maxim, and injunction.

At this point one may inquire, "Are you implying that just men and women find in religious doctrines -- Hebraic, Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist -- the fountains of justice?" Yes, I am so reasoning. The sanction for justice will be found, ultimately, in religious insights as to the human condition, and particularly in Revelation. Our so-called "Western" concepts of justice are derived from the Decalogue, Platonic religious philosophy, and the teachings of the Christ. Somewhere there must exist an authority for beliefs about justice; and the authority of merely human, and therefore fallible, courts of law is insufficient to command popular assent and obedience.

It does not follow, however, that all just men and women recognize the ultimate source of ideas about justice, or appeal to that ultimate source. My grandfather never read a line that Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, though his understanding of justice accorded well enough with what Aquinas expresses so convincingly in the Summa. To my grandfather the justice-concepts of the Hebraic and classical and medieval cultures were transmitted through British and American moral, legal, and literary traditions, and through long custom and habit within his family and within the small-town American communities where he had lived. If pressed as to why he held a certain understanding of the word "justice" -- indeed, he once compulsorily engaged in a dialogue on that subject with a rather Nietzschean desperado intent on persuading my grandfather to open his bank's safe -- I suppose that Frank Pierce would have replied, "Because good men always have so believed." Securus judicat orbis terrarum, bonos non esse qui se dividunt ab orbe terrarum in quacunque parte terrarum, Saint Augustine of Hippo instructs us -- "The calm judgment of the world is that those men cannot be good who, in any part of the world, cut themselves off from the rest of the world." The word justice implies obligation to others, or to an Other.

Thus far I have been describing the concept of justice that prevailed in the Western world down to the closing years of the eighteenth century. Behind the phrase "to each his own" lay the beliefs that divine wisdom has conferred upon man a distinct nature; that human nature is constant; that the idea of justice is implanted in the human consciousness by a transcendent power; and that the general rule by which we endeavor to do justice is this: "to each man, the things that are his own."

What is meant by this famous phrase? To put the matter very succinctly, the doctrine of suum cuique affirms that every man, minding his own business, should receive the rewards which are appropriate to his work and duties. It takes for granted a society of diversity, with various classes and interests. It implies both responsibility toward others and personal freedom. It has been a strong protection for private property, on a small scale or a great; and a reinforcement, for Jews and Christians, of the Tenth Commandment. Through the Roman law, this doctrine of justice passed into the legal codes of the European continent, and even into English and American law.

Injustice, according to this doctrine, occurs when men try to undertake things for which they are not fitted, and to claim rewards to which they are not entitled, and to deny to other men what really belongs to those other men. As Plato puts it, in The Republic, quite as an unjust man is a being whose reason, will, and appetite are at war one with another, so an unjust society is a state afflicted by "meddlesomeness, and interference, and the rising up of a part of the soul against the whole, an assertion of unlawful authority, which is made by a rebellious subject against a true prince, of whom he is the natural vassal -- what is all this confusion and delusion but injustice, and intemperance and cowardice and ignorance, and every form of vice?"

Edmund Burke re-expressed this doctrine of "to each his own" when, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote of true natural rights: "Men have a right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor."

And yet in Burke's own time, there arose a very different idea of justice, the Utilitarian concept, expounded by Jeremy Bentham. From Bentham's jurisprudence there is descended the powerful present-day school of legal thought that we call legal positivism or legal realism. Positivistic jurisprudence arose in alliance with nineteenth-century nationalism and with scientific mechanism and materialism. To the legal positivist or realist, laws are the commands of human beings merely. There exists, for the positivist, no necessary connections between law and morals, or between law as it is and law as it ought to be. The positivists' legal system is a closed, logical system without need for referring to social aims, policies, or moral standards. So-called "moral judgments," to the positivists, are "value judgments" merely: and value judgments cannot be established or defended by rational argument. This positivistic understanding of justice and law looms large in American courts today.

But in this lecture I do not have time to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of legal positivism. For the present, I do no more than to point out that nineteenth- and twentieth-century positivism stands in harsh opposition to both the classical and the Christian understanding of justice and law. In Catholic universities, at least, some defense still is offered of the Augustinian virtue of justice and the venerable theory of natural law.

It is my purpose in today's remarks to state the classical and the Christian concept of justice, as opposed to the positivists' denial of any source for justice except the commands of the sovereign state. And I will touch glancingly upon the connections among religion, justice, and law. (Justice and law are not identical, though they may be closely related: in a good commonwealth, law is an attempt to maintain standards of justice, so far as that may be achieved in a bent world.)

All law is derived from the religious understanding -- that is, all law in the traditional societies of the West; law in totalist states is another matter entirely. Moses came down from Horeb and did justice upon criminous Israelites: the prophet as lawgiver. Solon reformed the laws of Draco: the religious poet as lawgiver. When law is divorced from the moral sanction of religious convictions, presently the law is corrupted by passion, prejudice, private interest, and misguided sentimentality.

The church is concerned with the inner order: the order of the soul. The state is concerned with the outer order: the order of the commonwealth. Between state and church, nevertheless, relationships are ineluctable. Among these relationships is an understanding of justice.

Such relationships took shape in the West so early as the fifth century of the Christian era. We perceive them in the connections between Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and his friend Boniface, Count of Africa. In theory, all Christians of the West believe in separation of church and state -- though sometimes that principle has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.

The church recognizes the necessary end of the state, and so submits to the state's laws. Because of human sinfulness, the Fathers of the Church taught, the state is ordained of God. As best it can, the state restrains the three chief forms of lust: cupidity, the lust for possessions; the libido dominandi, the lust for power; and sexual lust, the abuse of the gift of procreation. When the state is enfeebled, these lusts work the ruin of the person and the republic.

So it is that the church, even in Roman imperial times, has taught obedience to civil magistrates. Saint Augustine reasoned that the good citizen, the believing Christian, should obey every command of the state, save one: an order to worship false gods and to serve Satan.

Yet church and state have different ends, though both uphold justice. There runs through the history of Christianity the doctrine of the two swords: the church's sword of faith, the state's sword of secular justice.

Knowing that this earthly existence is not the be-all and end- all, the church holds that perfect justice is in the power of God alone, beyond the confines of time and space. In this world here below, we mete out justice as best we may. Sometimes we err in our administering of justice; it cannot well be otherwise; we are not perfect or perfectible creatures.

To apprehend the church's stand on mundane justice, it is desirable to make distinctions between crime and sin. A crime is an act or omission which the law punishes on behalf of the state, whether because that act or omission is expressly forbidden by statute, or because it is so injurious to the public as to require punishment on the ground of public policy.

A sin is a transgression against moral law, with that law's divine sanctions. It is God, not the State, who punishes or forgives sins.

Not all sins are crimes. We have it on the authority of Saint Paul that the greatest of the theological virtues is charity. Therefore uncharitableness is a great sin; yet lack of charity is not an offense at law. A man may be all his life snarling, sneering, contemptuous, envious, abominable in his language toward his wife, his children, and others to whom he owes obligations -- that is, perfectly uncharitable; yet he will run no risk of being haled before the bar of criminal justice. The uncharitable may be dealt with at the Last Judgment. But mundane courts of law do not touch the sinner unless his sins result in violence or fraud or substantial damage to others. The state is unconcerned with sins unless they lead to breaches of the peace, or menace the social order. This separation of function accords with the doctrine of the two swords.

Quite as the state -- that is, the constitutional state -- does not lay down religious dogmata in recent times, so the church does not decree the laws of mundane justice, as expressed through courts of law. When the church has endeavored to impose its doctrines through the operation of the state's criminal law, the church has erred.

I have been speaking of orthodox Christian doctrine, interwoven with principles of law in America, Britain, and many other countries -- interwoven, that is, until recent decades. But great confusion has fallen upon us in these years near the end of the century. Increasingly, the state -- aye, the democratic state, too -- separates itself from the religious understanding of the human condition. And a good many churchmen abandon Christian realism for a sentimental humanitarianism.

Let me remind you of the true signification of this word "humanitarianism." Properly defined -- and this is the definition one still finds in the Oxford English Dictionary -- humanitarianism is the doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth possessed a human nature merely, not being divine; and, by extension, the doctrine that mankind may become perfect without divine aid. A humanitarian is a person totally secularized in his convictions. Yet erroneously many people use "humanitarian" as a term of commendation. "He was a great humanitarian," they say of Albert Schweitzer. That charitable and heroic man, a professing Christian, would have rejected indignantly that label.

Now what has this distinction between humanitarianism and charity to do with justice? The point is this: the humanitarian denies the existence of sin, declaring that what we call "sins" are not moral matters at all, resulting instead from circumstance, faulty rearing, or social oppression. In the view of the humanitarian, sins -- and crimes, too -- are the work of "society"; and sinners and criminals are victims, rather than unjust offenders. Such reasoning is the consequence of holding that man and society may be perfected through mere alteration of social conditions, without the intervention of divine grace.

The humanitarian frequently proclaims his abhorrence of severe punishments -- perhaps of any punishments. Why? First, because of his illusion that no human being possesses the ability to make moral choices. Second, because of his horror of inflicting pain. He leaves no ultimate justice to God, because he fancies that no God exists. The mere preservation of one's comfortable earthly life is his obsession, he fancying that man is not made for eternity.

On the other hand, the humanitarian fulminates against those who disagree with his principles. Thus there occurs the phenomenon called "the humanitarian with the guillotine." (The recent French film called Danton sufficiently illustrates this ferocious love of all humankind.) As Edmund Burke put it, speaking of the humanitarian Jacobins, men who today snatch the worst criminals from the hands of justice tomorrow may approve the slaughter of whole classes. Humanitarian apologies in our own time for butchery by communist revolutionaries sufficiently suggest the persistence of this curious intolerant humanitarianism. The ideologue need merely proclaim that his object is universal happiness here below, and he is approved uncritically by the humanitarian. As Solovyev wrote, the banners of the Anti-Christ will bear the legend, "Feed men, and then ask them of virtue."

In this disordered age, when it seems as if the fountains of the great deep had been broken up, our urgent need is to restore a general understanding of the classical and Christian teaching about justice. Without just men and women, egoism and appetite bring down a civilization. Without strong administration of justice by the state, we all become so many Cains, every man's hand against every other man's. The humanitarian fancies himself zealous for the life impulse; in reality, he would surrender us to the death impulse. The humanitarian's visions issue from between the delusory gates of ivory; justice issues from between the gates of horn.

Public instruction that ignores both our classical patrimony and our religious patrimony may fail to rear up just men and women. Positivist jurisprudence that denies any moral order and any religious sanction for justice may end in a general flouting of all law. We prate of "peace and justice" in a dissolving culture, without apprehending tolerably the words we employ. "Shrieking voices/ Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,/ Always assail them." These are the voices of the ideologue, the neurotic, and the nihilist, pulling down the old understanding of Justice, "to each his own."

"Justice is a certain rectitude of mind, whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him." So Thomas Aquinas instructs us. At every college and university, the doctors of the schools ought to inquire of themselves, "Do we impart such rectitude of mind? And if we do not, will there be tolerable private or public order in the twenty-first century?"

Visiting Fellow

Poverty and Inequality

Today, the U.S. spends 16 times as much on welfare as it spent in the 1960s yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.

COMMENTARY 34 min read

COMMENTARY 6 min read

COMMENTARY 3 min read

Subscribe to email updates

© 2023, The Heritage Foundation

Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, poetic justice, definition of poetic justice.

Poetic justice occurs at the conclusion of a novel or play if and when good characters are rewarded and bad characters are punished. Poetic justice is thus somewhat similar to karma, and can be summed up by the phrases “He got what was coming to him,” or “She got what she deserved.” Note that poetic justice takes both positive and negative forms, depending on how a character has acted through the narrative . In more contemporary tales, poetic justice comes after an ironic twist stems from a character’s own actions and leads to the conclusion.

The definition of poetic justice was created by the English drama critic Thomas Rymer in 1678 in his book The Tragedies of the Last Age Considere’d . He urged authors to set moral examples and show how good overcomes evil. Indeed, Rymer was a critic at a time when it was thought that the role of literature was to provide moral education to the reading populace. Thus, poetic justice was necessary to encourage citizens to be upright in order to reap the rewards.

Common Examples of Poetic Justice

It is easy to think of examples of poetic justice in real life. For example, if a hard-working couple wins the lottery after years of being good citizens, this a positive example of poetic justice. If a corrupt businessman or politician is caught in a scandal and loses his position, this is also a poetic justice example.

There are also countless examples of poetic justice in movies and television shows. Here is a short list:

  • The Shawshank Redemption : A man falsely accused and imprisoned for killing his wife escapes after two decades in prison, gets enough money to live in a beach town in Mexico, and has the police captain of the jail arrested for laundering money.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade : Indiana Jones is in love with a Nazi sympathizer named Elsa, who is after the Holy Grail for greed alone. She takes it and causes an earthquake; instead of taking Indy’s hand and surviving, she reaches for the Grail and dies.
  • Disney’s Aladdin : Aladdin pretends to be a prince to impress Princess Jasmine, but it is his good heart that ultimately wins her over, frees the genie, and overcomes the evil Jafar.

Significance of Poetic Justice in Literature

As stated above, poetic justice has sometimes been named as the reason that literature is important in a society. The genres of fable and parable often contain poetic justice, as a wise and good character is rewarded, and any bad characters are punished. The idea of these stories is to provide a moral foundation for readers.

Some examples of self fulfilling prophecy are also examples of poetic justice. If an evil character hears a prophecy and does cruel things in order to stop that prophecy from coming into being, then the villain’s ultimate defeat or death is attributed to the poetic justice of getting what he deserved.

Historically, it was also important in poetic justice that there was a sense that logic prevailed, and that characters do not suddenly change and warrant different treatment than what they deserve. For example, in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol , it is not poetic justice that greedy Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly became good and therefore would warrant good treatment. Of course, not all authors are interested in poetic justice. More modern authors showed good characters receiving bad fortune and bad characters being rewarded. These authors would probably argue that their role in society was not to provide a moral education for readers, but instead to depict situations that are closer to reality. Indeed, believing too much in poetic justice could be harmful and give rise to questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Indeed, poetic justice is a literary device and not an accurate depiction of real life.

Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature

Below that point we found a painted people, who moved about with lagging steps, in circles, weeping, with features tired and defeated. And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low they fell before their eyes, of that same cut that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled; but inside they were all of lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them. A tiring mantle for eternity!

( Inferno , Canto XXIII by Dante Alighieri)

Dante’s Inferno is basically one long treatise on poetic justice. Dante imagines himself as a character led through the different circles of Hell by the poet Virgil. In each circle they encounter different famous residents of Florence, Italy where Dante lived suffering punishments appropriate to the different sins they committed while alive. In the above example of poetic justice, Dante and Virgil see “the hypocrites” clothed in rich robes on the outside that are lead on the inside, to symbolize the deception of these men. Indeed, the concept of some people going to Heaven while others are sent to Hell has much to do with poetic justice.

HAMLET: There’s letters sealed, and my two schoolfellows, Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged, They bear the mandate. They must sweep my way And marshal me to knavery. Let it work, For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard. And ’t shall go hard, But I will delve one yard below their mines, And blow them at the moon. Oh, ’tis most sweet When in one line two crafts directly meet.

( Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Many of William Shakespeare plays contain poetic justice examples. In this excerpt, Hamlet imagines that “the engineer” of Hamlet’s father’s death will be “hoist with his own petard.” Hamlet thinks of vengeance for his father as a type of poetic justice. However, in this scene he himself has just killed Polonius, and is dealt the poetic justice of his own death at the end of the play.

“I know things you don’t know, Tom Riddle . I know lots of important things that you don’t. Want to hear some, before you make another big mistake?” “Is it love again?” said Voldemort, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?” “Just one thing,” Harry replied quietly. “If it is not love that will save you this time, you must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine?” “I believe both,” Harry said.

( Harry Potter and the Death Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

Many tales of good and evil contain endings with poetic justice, which is certainly the case with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and his friends are exemplars of good, and are awarded accordingly with winning the final battle. Voldemort, the main evil character, believes that violence is stronger than love, and this is the vice and wrong thinking that leads to his death.

Test Your Knowledge of Poetic Justice

1. Which of the following statements is the best poetic justice definition? A. An ironic twist of fate. B. A climax in which bad things happen to good people. C. A conclusion where vice is punished and virtue rewarded.

2. The following passage is from Dante’s Inferno, and talks of the punishment that is dealt to magicians, astrologers, and diviners:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw that each, amazingly, appeared contorted between the chin and where the chest begins; they had their faces twisted towards their haunches and found it necessary to walk backward, because they could not see ahead of them.

Why is this an example of poetic justice? A. In Dante’s view, these people were charlatans and, for the sin of trying to tell the future, in the afterlife they are doomed to only be able to look backwards. B. The magicians, astrologers, and diviners in Dante’s day were the only truth-tellers, and Dante didn’t want them to be rewarded for their knowledge. C. The magicians, astrologers, and diviners had done nothing wrong, and it was cruel retribution on the part of those who were jealous of their gifts that they be sent to Hell.

3. Which of the following scenarios is an example of poetic justice? A. A corrupt businessman dies of natural causes before his pyramid scheme is revealed to be a sham. B. A nerd who was always bullied in childhood but never lashed out creates a computer program and makes millions. C. A figure skater who was trained tirelessly for her entire life breaks her ankle the day before her Olympic trial.

  • Share full article


Supported by

What ‘Justice’ Really Means

The word has taken a beating in the past few weeks. But what role does it truly play in our lives?

The moral principles of justice require us to give proper respect to one another.

By Paul Bloomfield

Mr. Bloomfield is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut.

It’s a staple of common sense that we don’t let judges try their own cases. Yet if we are to gain self-knowledge, we all must do just that: We must judge ourselves to know ourselves. While we typically think of justice as a virtue of social arrangements or political institutions, the United States has recently bore witness to this virtue in its first-person aspect — self-regarding justice — while watching the confirmation hearings of a Supreme Court Justice.

The virtue of justice requires not only that we judge others fairly, but also that we judge ourselves fairly. This is no mean feat. The trouble is that if a person is a poor judge of him or herself, it is hard to imagine that person being a good judge of others. Bias toward the self often leads to bias against others. Justice begins within ourselves.

While justice is important for each of us in our personal lives, it becomes strikingly important when we think of those in positions of power. We need leaders motivated by a love of justice and not merely self-aggrandizement. Leadership without an inner moral compass reliably pointing toward justice inevitably ends in the abuse of power.

Philosophically, all virtues are ideals that we can only approach without fully attaining them. So, we can always aspire to do better. Given this, what role does the virtue of justice play in our personal lives? What role ought it to play?

In fact there are two roles: Justice functions both in our epistemology, or how we form and justify our beliefs, as well as in practical morality, informing our private and public behavior. These ought to be entwined in our lives since we ought not only think in a fair and just manner but also act accordingly.

The apotheosis of justice is the courtroom judge, interpreting the law and ruling on evidence concerning innocence and guilt. Model judges are epistemically just: Their cognitive processes are never biased or unduly swayed, their conclusions are not prejudged, and their verdicts reliably correspond to the facts. Truth is their goal. Not only must there be no thumb on the scale, the evidence must be balanced while wearing a blindfold. The rulings of judges, however, are also undeniably moral, bearing as they do on issues of justice, restitution and the execution of punishment.

Just people are wise in the ways of fairness, equality, desert and mercy. They are normally pacific. Just people mind their own business, except when they see and call out injustice, speaking truth to power, which they’ll do even at a personal cost. Justice questions authority.

Just people also question themselves. This makes them honest and non-self-deceptive. They vigilantly maintain a clear conscience. Just people are cognizant of their own mistakes and faults, and so they are forgiving of others. They respect who they actually are and not whom they merely wish they were, and their authentic self-respect makes them respectful of others. People who are just do as they say and say as they do: their word is their bond. They are capable of great loyalty and fidelity, but not without limit.

The central epistemic principles of justice require like cases to be treated alike, as captured legally by the concepts of the rule of law and precedent . Weak and strong, rich and poor, all are equal before the law (where this must include the Supreme Court justices and presidents of the United States). While applying general principles alone is sufficient for clear, ordinary cases, a fine sensitivity, experience and reflection is necessary for reliably judging unusual or exceptional cases. Well-developed justice requires expertise in making hard “judgment calls.”

The central moral principles of justice require us to give proper respect to one another : Each of us must recognize the other as a person and not merely as an object. Each of us may testify. The least common denominator among us is that we are all human beings. In addition to that, we each have particular features making us all unique. Justice pays proper attention to what we have in common and to what sets us apart.

In discussing justice as a personal virtue, Aristotle said that being just, “ is a mean between committing injustice and suffering it, since the one is having more than one’s share, while the other is having less .” As recklessness and cowardice are opposing vices of courage, arrogance and servility are opposing vices of justice.

From sidewalk sexual harassment to the obstruction of justice, all abuses of power involve an unjust willingness to greedily arrogate more than one’s due. Typically, those who abuse their strength or cheat, and then don’t get caught or punished, self-deceptively think they’ve “beaten the system” and “won.” But fooling others into thinking you have earned a victory is not the same as genuinely being victorious. Cheaters fool themselves when they elide this difference.

The other way to fail justice is by judging ourselves to be less worthy than we truly are. This is sadly common among oppressed people, but it also arises among the affluent and powerful under the guise of the “impostor syndrome.” Humility has its place, but we shouldn’t overdo it, nor let it interfere with the intellectual courage required to call out injustice. Those who unfairly put themselves down or are servile, for whatever reason, are doing themselves an injustice by willfully accepting less than their fair share.

Given all this, the virtue of justice plays an important role in families and friendships, between neighbors and citizens, colleagues and clients, acquaintances and strangers. But it is also central to being a good person and living happily, and not merely deceiving oneself into believing that one is a good person and that one is happy.

Bringing justice fully into our lives, thinking in terms of it, will make us more circumspect. We are all too fallible. But it is often the case that we are much better at spotting the faults of others than we are at spotting faults in ourselves. Our blind spots are conveniently located to keep us from seeing our own weaknesses. What a coincidence!

Life is neither just nor fair: Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. This, however, only increases our obligation to be as just and fair as we can be, to be honest with ourselves as well as others, to try to correct injustice when we see it, and to do as much right in this unfair world as we can.

Paul Bloomfield is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and the author of “ The Virtues of Happiness .”

Now in print : “ Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments ,” and “ The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments ,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter .

Writing Explained

What is Poetic Justice? Definition, Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature

Home » The Writer’s Dictionary » What is Poetic Justice? Definition, Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature

Definition of poetic justice: Poetic justice deals with the idea that good deeds are rewarded while evil ones are punished.

What Does Poetic Justice Mean?

What is poetic justice? In a perfect world, people imagine that the virtuous should be rewarded while those who commit evil or wrongdoings should be punished. This just result of good and bad behavior is known as poetic justice.

Here are some brief examples of this idea:

  • In a situation where a man saves a woman from being robbed, poetic justice would occur if he received a medal for such bravery, and police arrested the robber.
  • Another everyday example of poetic justice would be if a person saved animals from being abused. In this case, the just result may be the animal rescuer appears as a hero in the nightly news while those committing crimes against the animals would receive severe punishment.

Modern Examples of Poetic Justice

poetic justice meaning

In Disney’s Frozen , poetic justice occurs when the main character, Elsa, is praised as queen and restores happiness to her kingdom while the men trying to take control are punished through banishment from the island.

Poetic justice can also be found in J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter . At the conclusion of this series, Harry Potter is praised for defeating the evil Lord Voldermort. Good has triumphed over evil, and Hogwarts is again able to safely continue educating young wizards and witches.

The Function of Poetic Justice

The purpose of poetic justice is to celebrate morality. Literature is often used to present messages, themes, regarding how society should behave. Therefore, poetic justice serves as a reminder that good deeds are rewarded while evil ones are punished. This serves as further convincing that behaving morally is a positive choice for society.

How Poetic Justice is Used in Literature

poetic justice examples

In Homer’s The Odyssey , the protagonist, Odysseus, regains control of his kingdom and slaughters all of the suitors who violated his home. Here, poetic justice can be seen when Odysseus is celebrated and the suitors receive the ultimate punishment, death, for their evil doings.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help , contains humorous examples of poetic justice. In this book, a white woman unjustly fires a young African American maid. However, the maid receives her poetic justice when she bakes a special “chocolate” pie for the former employer. The eating of this pies results in humiliation for the white woman and praise from the maid’s community.

Define poetic justice in literature : Poetic justice refers to rewarding for the virtuous and punishment for the evil.

Final example of poetic justice:

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid , poetic justice occurs when the evil witch, Ursula, is killed for her wrongdoings against the mermaid community while Ariel is rewarded by receiving her legs and being able to marry the prince, Erik.

  • More from M-W
  • To save this word, you'll need to log in. Log In

Definition of justice

Examples of justice in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'justice.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Middle English, from Anglo-French justise , from Latin justitia , from justus — see just entry 1

12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Phrases Containing justice

  • do justice to
  • chief justice
  • pervert justice
  • justice of the peace
  • justice is served / done
  • miscarriage of justice
  • fugitive from justice
  • pervert the course of justice
  • poetic justice

Articles Related to justice


Words of the Year: A Decade in Review

Let’s take a look at a decade in words.

2018 word of the year justice

Merriam-Webster's Words of the Year 2018

Our Word of the Year justice, plus 10 more

justice eric garner police officer choke hold

Trending: Justice

Protests following two recent grand jury decisions ...

Dictionary Entries Near justice

just for fun

justice's warrant

Cite this Entry

“Justice.” Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of justice, legal definition, legal definition of justice.

Old French, from Latin justitia , from justus just

More from Merriam-Webster on justice

Nglish: Translation of justice for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of justice for Arabic Speakers

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!

Play Quordle: Guess all four words in a limited number of tries.  Each of your guesses must be a real 5-letter word.

Can you solve 4 words at once?

Word of the day.

See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Games & Quizzes

Play Blossom: Solve today's spelling word game by finding as many words as you can using just 7 letters. Longer words score more points.

Cambridge Dictionary

  • Cambridge Dictionary +Plus

Meaning of poetic justice in English

Your browser doesn't support HTML5 audio

  • all's fair in love and war idiom
  • anti-discrimination
  • anti-egalitarian
  • anti-nepotism
  • due process
  • egalitarian
  • egalitarianism
  • it's a fair cop idiom
  • sportsmanship

poetic justice | American Dictionary

Examples of poetic justice, translations of poetic justice.

Get a quick, free translation!


Word of the Day


examining and considering your own ideas, thoughts, and feelings, instead of talking to other people about them

Understanding AI jargon: Artificial intelligence vocabulary

Understanding AI jargon: Artificial intelligence vocabulary

definition of justice literature

Learn more with +Plus

  • Recent and Recommended {{#preferredDictionaries}} {{name}} {{/preferredDictionaries}}
  • Definitions Clear explanations of natural written and spoken English English Learner’s Dictionary Essential British English Essential American English
  • Grammar and thesaurus Usage explanations of natural written and spoken English Grammar Thesaurus
  • Pronunciation British and American pronunciations with audio English Pronunciation
  • English–Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Simplified)–English
  • English–Chinese (Traditional) Chinese (Traditional)–English
  • English–Dutch Dutch–English
  • English–French French–English
  • English–German German–English
  • English–Indonesian Indonesian–English
  • English–Italian Italian–English
  • English–Japanese Japanese–English
  • English–Norwegian Norwegian–English
  • English–Polish Polish–English
  • English–Portuguese Portuguese–English
  • English–Spanish Spanish–English
  • Dictionary +Plus Word Lists
  • English    Noun
  • American    Noun
  • Translations
  • All translations

Add poetic justice to one of your lists below, or create a new one.


Something went wrong.

There was a problem sending your report.

By Rita Joe

Justice Seems to have many faces, It does not want to play if my skin is not the right hue, or correct the wrong we long for, Action hanging off-balance Justice is like an open field We observe, but are afraid to approach We have been burned before Hence the broken stride And the lingering doubt We often hide Justice may want to play if we have an open smile And offer the hand of communication To make it worthwhile Justice has to make me see Hear, feel. Then i will know the truth is like a toy To be enjoyed or broken.

Summary of Justice

  • Popularity of “Justice”: Justice is written by Rita Joe, a respected poet and songwriter. It is a remarkable poetic piece. The poem mocks the way justice is accomplished in the world. She brilliantly highlights the multiple faces of justice and the way it is served to people. The sarcastic tone of the poem and depiction of reality with a clever touch of humor make this poem readable for the audience .
  • “Justice” A comment on the implementation of Justice: The poem focuses on the crippling system of justice present in the world. It begins with a sarcastic note about the different approaches for people. She further says that it does not appear pretty if our skin does not meet its criteria to support this argument . She further compares justice to an open field that we all observe but hesitate to approach. Implying that we all believe in the existence of justice, but at the same time, we become reluctant to follow its path. The choice of words suggests that the speaker might have endured pain while seeking justice. That awful experience has made her question the credibility of justice. As the poem continues, she argues that justice may approach you if you change your stance toward it. It may come to us if we welcome it with a fake smile. The speaker ends this beautiful piece with a thought-provoking note where she compares truth with a toy one can easily play with it.
  • Major Themes in “Justice”: False standards of justice and man versus world are the major themes of the poem. This meaningful poem sheds light on the justice that surrounds us. At times, it may not appear on our side, but it still exists. Sometimes it makes us question its practical approach, while another time, it favors us. We should be ready for everything in life that justice leads us to. The speaker tries to explain how people use justice as a sport. It appears to her as a toy that can be broken or destroyed quite easily.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in Justice

Literary devices are techniques that writers use to convey their ideas, feelings, and message to the readers. Rita Joe used various  literary devices  to enhance the intended impacts of his poem. Some of the major literary devices have been analyzed below.

  • Assonance : Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /ee/ in “We have been burned before” and the sound of /o/ in “And offer the hand of communication.”
  • Alliteration : Alliteration means the use of successive consonant sounds in the initials of the successive words. For example, /b/ in “We have been burned before”.
  • Consonance : Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /n/ in “And offer the hand of communication” and the sound of /t/ in “It does not want to play if my skin is not the right hue.”
  • Enjambment : It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break . Instead, it rolls over to the next line. For example,
“Justice has to make me see Hear, feel.Then i will know the truth is like a toy To be enjoyed or broken.”
  • Imagery : Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “Then i will know the truth is like a toy”, “To be enjoyed or broken” and “Justice is like an open field.
  • Irony : Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. The poet uses this device in the last line of the poem, where she compares truth with a toy, such as,
“Then i will know the truth is like a toy To be enjoyed or broken.”
  • Symbolism : Symbolism means using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings that are different from the literal meanings. Here “off-balance” stands for the doubtful position of justice in the world.
  • Simile : It is a device used to compare something with something else to make the meanings clear to the readers. For example, “Justice is like an open field” and “Then i will know the truth is like a toy.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “Justice”

Poetic devices allow the writers to create more meanings in their seemingly simple poems. The analysis of the devices sued in the poem has been given below.

  • Free Verse : Free verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter . This is a free-verse poem with no strict rhyme or meter.
  • Quatrain : A quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian poetry. Here first, third and fourth stanzas are quatrains.
  • Stanza : A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are four stanzas in this poem, each comprising different lines.

Quotes to be Used

These lines are useful to use in a speech while talking about the wrong standards of justice that prevailed in the world.

“Justice has to make me see Hear, feel. Then i will know the truth is like a toy To be enjoyed or broken.”

Related posts:

  • Poetic Justice
  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
  • Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
  • Phenomenal Woman
  • We Wear the Mask
  • The World is Too Much With Us
  • In Flanders Fields
  • Acquainted with the Night
  • Old Ironsides
  • Auguries of Innocence
  • Dover Beach
  • Those Winter Sundays
  • Fire and Ice
  • How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways
  • Jabberwocky
  • This Little Piggy
  • The Bridge Builder
  • The Conqueror Worm
  • There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
  • Bright Star, Would I Were Stedfast as Thou Art
  • A Noiseless Patient Spider
  • La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad
  • When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
  • Little Jack Horner
  • Wild Nights – Wild Nights
  • I Remember, I Remember
  • Abandoned Farmhouse
  • The Little Black Boy
  • Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
  • Halloween Party
  • The Sick Rose
  • Eloisa to Abelard
  • Winter Morning
  • The United Fruit Company
  • Winter Night: Edinburgh
  • Love without Love
  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • A Blackbird Singing
  • The Patriot
  • Possibilities
  • We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
  • Stolen Rivers
  • The Panic Bird
  • The Shepherd and His Flock
  • No Loser, No Weeper
  • Peace of Wild Things
  • Refugee in America
  • Sir Patrick Spens
  • Cherokee Rose
  • Children in Wartime
  • Messy Room 
  • Disembarking at Quebec
  • Edward, Edward
  • Five O’Clock Shadow
  • Kicking the Habit
  • I Do Not Love Thee
  • Munition Wages
  • Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
  • The Albuquerque Graveyard
  • The Runaway
  • Madam and the Rent Man
  • What He Thought
  • The Table And The Chair
  • The Habit of Perfection
  • The Last Laugh
  • The Tom Cat
  • The Wound in Time
  • Africa My Africa
  • Against Love
  • Sonnet 11: As Fast As Thou Shalt Wane, So Fast Thou Grow’st

Post navigation

  • Poetic Justice

Poetic Justice Definition In literature, poetic justice is an ideal shape of justice, in which the best characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished, via an ironic twist of fate. It is a robust literary view that all kinds of literature need to convey ethical lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to comply to moral standards. For instance, if a man or woman in a novel is malicious and with out compassion in the novel, he is seen to have gone past improvement. Then, the concepts of morality demand his character to revel in a twist in his fate and be punished. Similarly, the characters who've suffered at his hand ought to be rewarded at the same time. Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature Let us examine a few examples of poetic justice in Literature: Example #1: King Lear (By William Shakespeare) In Shakespeare’s King Lear we see the evil characters – Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Edmund – thrive at some stage in the play. The appropriate characters – Lear, Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar – go through lengthy and hard. We see the coolest characters turn to gods, however they may be rarely answered. Lear, in Act 2, Scene 4 calls upon heaven in a most pitiful manner: “… O heavens! If you do love vintage men, if your candy sway Show obedience, if you yourselves are vintage, Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part!” Lear loses his kingdom via the conspiracies of his daughters Goneril and Regan, who are supported through Edmund. At Dover, Edmund-led English troops defeat the Cordelia-led French troops, and Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned. Cordelia is executed in the prison, and Lear dies of grief at his daughter’s death. Despite all the suffering that good undergoes, the evil is punished. Goneril poisons her sister Regan because of jealousy over Edmund. Later, she kills herself while her disloyalty is exposed to Albany. In a climactic scene, Edgar kills Edmund. In Act 5, Scene 3 he says: “My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son. The gods are just, and of our first-rate vices Make devices to plague us. The darkish and vicious vicinity in which thee he got Cost him his eyes.” Here, “The gods are just” due to the fact they punish the evil for their evil actions. Example #2: Oliver Twist (By Charles Dickens) We see the role of poetic justice inside the cruel individual Mr. Bumble, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Mr. Bumble changed into a beadle in the metropolis wherein Oliver changed into born – in fee of the orphanage and different charitable institutions within the metropolis. He is a sadist and enjoys torturing the bad orphans. Bumble marries Mrs. Corney for money, and will become master of her workhouse. Her,e his destiny takes a twist as he loses his publish as a beadle, and his new wife does now not permit him to grow to be a master of her workhouse. She beats him and humiliates him, as he himself had performed to the poor orphans. Right at the quit of the novel, we come to realize that each Mr. And Mrs. Bumble grow to be being so bad that they live inside the identical workhouse that they as soon as owned. Example #three: Oedipus Rex (By Sophocles) A classic example of poetic justice is found within the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, by using Sophocles. In the play, Oedipus has dedicated the crime of defying gods through looking to get away his destiny. Therefore, he left the dominion he lived in, and went to the brand new country of Thebes. He killed the king of the metropolis after a quarrel, and married the queen. Later, we examine that the prophecy grew to become out true, as the person he killed grew to become out to be his father, and the queen his own mother. The Greek believed their destinies were predetermined – shaped by means of the gods and goddesses. Whosoever tried to defy them, committed a sin and deserved punishment. Function of Poetic Justice Generally, the reason of poetic justice in literature is to adhere by the conventional code of morality, in that virtue triumphs vice. The concept of justice in literary texts manifests the moral principle that virtue merits a reward, and vices earn punishment. In addition, readers frequently perceive with the coolest characters. They experience emotionally attached to them, and experience for them when they suffer on the arms of the wicked characters. Naturally, readers need the coolest characters to triumph and be rewarded; however they equally wish the terrible characters to be penalized for their evilness. Thus, poetic justice offers contentment and resolution.

  • Alliteration
  • Anachronism
  • Antimetabole
  • Aposiopesis
  • Characterization
  • Colloquialism
  • Connotation
  • Deus Ex Machina
  • Didacticism
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Flash Forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Internal Rhyme
  • Juxtaposition
  • Non Sequitur
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Personification
  • Point of View
  • Portmanteau
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Superlative
  • Synesthesia
  • Tragicomedy
  • Tragic Flaw
  • Verisimilitude


definition of justice literature

The Meaning of Poetic Justice: What It Is and How To Use It


Do you know the definition of poetic justice? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word poetic justice, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

definition of justice literature

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What does the word poetic justice mean?

According to Literary Devices, the term poetic justice is used in literature to refer to an ideal form of justice in which good characters are rewarded and bad characters are punished by an ironic twist of fate. This is used in many different works, from King Lear by William Shakespare, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist with My Bumble the beadle who was in charge of the orphanage, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, to Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished by the subsequent events of the story. Modern examples of poetic justice could be in The Little Mermaid with Ariel and Ursula, or Frozen with Elsa and Prince Hans. Characteristics of poetic justice include punishment for bad behavior and the main character – the protagonist – winning in the end, like you see in many Disney movies.

definition of justice literature

“Poetic Justice” is also a song by Kendrick Lamar featuring Drake from the album good kid, m.A.A.d city , produced by Scoop DeVille and Sounwave. The lyrics are below, from Genius .

[Intro: Kendrick Lamar]

Every second, every minute

Man, I swear that she can get it

Say if you a bad bitch, put your hands up high

Hands up high, hands up high

Tell ’em dim the lights down right now

Put me in the mood

I’m talkin’ about dark room, perfume, go, go

[Verse 1: Kendrick Lamar]

I recognize your fragrance

Hold up, you ain’t never gotta say shit

Uh, and I know your taste is

A little bit, hmm, high maintenance

Uh, everybody else basic

You live life on an everyday basis

With poetic justice, poetic justice

If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room

Would you trust it?

I mean, I write poems in these songs dedicated to you when

You’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen

Better yet, where your friends and ’em?

I really wanna know you all

I really wanna show you off

Fuck that, pour up plenty of champagne

Cold nights when you curse this name

You called up your girlfriends

And y’all curled in that little bitty Range

I heard that she wanna go and party, she wanna go and party

Nigga, don’t approach her with that Atari

Nigga, that ain’t good game, homie, sorry

They say conversation rule a nation, I can tell

But I could never right my wrongs

‘Less I write it down for real, P.S

[Chorus: Kendrick Lamar]

You can get it, you can get it

And I know just, know just, know just

Know just, know just what you want

Poetic justice, put it in a song, alright

[Verse 2: Drake ]

I really hope you play this, ’cause ol’ girl, you test my patience

With all these seductive photographs

And all these one-off vacations you’ve been takin’

Clearly a lot for me to take in, it don’t make sense

Young East African girl, you too busy fuckin’ with your other man

I was tryna put you on game, put you on a plane

Take you and your momma to the motherland

I could do it, maybe one day

When you figure out you’re gonna need someone

When you figure out it’s alright here in the city

And you don’t run from where we come from

That sound like poetic justice , poetic justice

You were so new to this life, but goddamn, you got adjusted

I mean, I write poems in these songs, dedicated to the fun sex

Your natural hair and your soft skin

And your big ass in that sundress, ooh

Good God, what you doin’ that walk for?

When I see that thing move

I just wish we would fight less and we would talk more

They say communication save relations, I can tell

But I can never right my wrongs

Unless I write ’em down for real, P.S

[Verse 3: Kendrick Lamar]

Every time I write these words they become a taboo

Makin’ sure my punctuation curve, every letter here’s true

Livin’ my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof

I’m talkin’ poetic justice, poetic justice

Would you trust it? I mean, you need to hear this

Love is not just a verb, it’s you lookin’ in the mirror

Love is not just a verb, it’s you lookin’ for it, maybe

Call me crazy, we can both be insane

A fatal attraction is common, and what we have common is pain

I mean, you need to hear this, love is not just a verb

And I can see power steerin’, sex drive when you swerve

I want that interference, it’s coherent, I can hear it

Uh-huh, that’s your heartbeat

It either caught me or it called me, uh-huh

Read slow and you’ll find gold mines in these lines

Sincerely, yours truly, and right before you go blind, P.S

Poetic justice, put it in a song

[Outro Skit]

“I’m gon’ ask you one more time, homie

Where is you from? Or it is a problem.”

“Ayy, you over here for Sherane, homie?”

“Yo, I don’t care who this nigga over here for

If he don’t tell me where he from, it’s a wrap! I’m sorry.”

“Hol’ up, hol’ up, hol’ up, we gon’ do it like this, okay?

I’ma tell you where I’m from, okay?

You gon’ tell me where you from, okay?

Or where your grandma stay, where your mama stay, or where your daddy stay, okay?”

“Enough with all this talkin’.”

“Matter of fact, get out the van, homie! Get out the car before I snatch you out that motherfucker, homie!”

Overall, the term poetic justice means a literary device in which the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

  • Kendrick Lamar – Poetic Justice Lyrics | Genius 
  • Poetic Justice – Examples and Definition of Poetic Justice | Literary Devices 


Kevin Miller is a growth marketer with an extensive background in Search Engine Optimization, paid acquisition and email marketing. He is also an online editor and writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He studied at Georgetown University, worked at Google and became infatuated with English Grammar and for years has been diving into the language, demystifying the do's and don'ts for all who share the same passion! He can be found online here.

Recent Posts

Boo Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Boo Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Nadir Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Nadir Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Deductible Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Deductible Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Perennial Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Perennial Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Poetic Justice

Poetic justice definition.

In literature, poetic justice is an ideal form of justice, in which the good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished, by an ironic twist of fate. It is a strong literary view that all forms of literature must convey moral lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to conform to moral principles.

For instance, if a character in a novel is malicious and without compassion in the novel, he is seen to have gone beyond improvement. Then, the principles of morality demand his character to experience a twist in his fate and be punished. Similarly, the characters who have suffered at his hand must be rewarded at the same time.

Examples of Poetic Justice in Literature

Let us analyze a few examples of poetic justice in Literature:

Example #1: King Lear (By William Shakespeare)

In Shakespeare’s King Lear  we see the evil characters – Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Edmund – thrive throughout the play. The good characters – Lear, Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar – suffer long and hard. We see the good characters turn to gods, but they are rarely answered. Lear, in Act 2, Scene 4 calls upon heaven in a most pitiful manner:

 “… O heavens! If you do love old men, if your sweet sway Show obedience, if you yourselves are old, Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part!”

Lear loses his kingdom by the conspiracies of his daughters Goneril and Regan, who are supported by Edmund. At Dover, Edmund-led English troops defeat the Cordelia-led French troops, and Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned.

Cordelia is executed in the prison, and Lear dies of grief at his daughter’s death. Despite all the suffering that good undergoes, the evil is punished. Goneril poisons her sister Regan due to jealousy over Edmund. Later, she kills herself when her disloyalty is exposed to Albany. In a climactic scene, Edgar kills Edmund. In Act 5, Scene 3 he says:

“My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son. The gods are just , and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to plague us. The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes.”

Here, “The gods are just” because they punish the evil for their evil actions.

Example #2: Oliver Twist (By Charles Dickens)

We see the role of poetic justice in the cruel character Mr. Bumble, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist . Mr. Bumble was a beadle in the town where Oliver was born – in charge of the orphanage and other charitable institutions in the town. He is a sadist and enjoys torturing the poor orphans.

Bumble marries Mrs. Corney for money, and becomes master of her workhouse. Her,e his fate takes a twist as he loses his post as a beadle, and his new wife does not allow him to become a master of her workhouse. She beats him and humiliates him, as he himself had done to the poor orphans. Right at the end of the novel, we come to know that both Mr. and Mrs. Bumble end up being so poor that they live in the same workhouse that they once owned.

Example #3: Oedipus Rex (By Sophocles)

A classic example of poetic justice is found in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex , by Sophocles. In the play, Oedipus has committed the crime of defying gods by trying to escape his fate. Therefore, he left the kingdom he lived in, and went to the new kingdom of Thebes. He killed the king of the city after a quarrel, and married the queen.

Later, we learn that the prophecy turned out true, as the man he killed turned out to be his father, and the queen his own mother. The Greek believed their destinies were predetermined – shaped by the gods and goddesses. Whosoever tried to defy them, committed a sin and deserved punishment.

Function of Poetic Justice

Generally, the purpose of poetic justice in literature is to adhere by the universal code of morality, in that virtue triumphs vice. The idea of justice in literary texts manifests the moral principle that virtue deserves a reward, and vices earn punishment.

In addition, readers often identify with the good characters. They feel emotionally attached to them, and feel for them when they suffer at the hands of the wicked characters. Naturally, readers want the good characters to triumph and be rewarded; but they equally wish the bad characters to be penalized for their evilness. Thus, poetic justice offers contentment and resolution .

  • Dictionaries home
  • American English
  • Collocations
  • German-English
  • Grammar home
  • Practical English Usage
  • Learn & Practise Grammar (Beta)
  • Word Lists home
  • My Word Lists
  • Recent additions
  • Resources home
  • Text Checker

Definition of justice noun from the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

Take your English to the next level

The Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus explains the difference between groups of similar words. Try it for free as part of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary app

definition of justice literature

What Is Poetic Justice? Examples & Definition

definition of justice literature

Poetic justice is when a person receives the same punishment they inflicted on someone else. It is a phrase that means “a just or deserved outcome.”

This meaning can be applied to many aspects of life, including relationships and personal growth. The concept of poetic justice is often referenced, but not always fully understood.

What exactly does it mean?

Poetic justice is the idea that one’s actions will ultimately lead to a punishment or reward.

Often this can be seen as an eye for an eye type scenario where if someone wrongs another person and then they are punished in some way for their action.


What is poetic justice.

Poetic justice is not a term that was coined by Shakespeare, but it has been used in his plays.

It is the idea of what’s happening to someone as being just or fair because of something they have done. In other words, poetic justice means getting what you deserve.

What exactly does this mean? Well, for example: if you are rude to somebody and then are hit with a bad consequence, like having your car stolen; this may be seen as poetic justice.

There are many ways this could manifest itself like when somebody steals from a store and gets caught by the police, or when someone lies about something and then has all of their friends know that they lied because everyone found out.

In these scenarios both people have been punished in some way for what happened, the thief was apprehended by law enforcement while the liar had to face his/her peers.

Definition Of Poetic Justice

Poetic justice is often used to describe a situation that is the result of karma, maybe more than just an expression. It’s also been studied by psychologists and brain scientists for decades.

The concept was first introduced in 1819 in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

In this poem, Coleridge describes how someone who has killed an albatross will have bad luck as punishment for their actions.

As time progressed, people began to see poetic justice as only something related to fate or destiny until it was reintroduced into psychological literature in 1942 by Kurt Lewin and Hans Jürgen Eysenck with their description of what they coined “a psychoanalytic interpretation”.

Common Examples Of Poetic Justice

In today’s world, there are many examples of poetic justice.

definition of justice literature

This is when something bad happens to someone who deserves it and they get what they deserve.

Like in the movie “Pretty Woman” where the protagonist Vivian doesn’t want to be a prostitute anymore so she has her friend pretend to be a customer and pay for sex with her. When he discovers this, he starts beating on Vivian and she takes out his gun and shoots him in self-defense.

This article will explore some common examples of poetic justice that you may have seen or experienced yourself!

It is a common occurrence in life to see poetic justice as something that can be found in small, everyday occurrences.

These are usually moments when we can find humor and laugh at the irony of an event happening so quickly after the previous one.

Poetic justice is typically seen as a form of karma where someone who has done bad things in their lives will eventually see these events come back around on them.

There are many different examples of this pop culture phenomenon, but some notable ones include:

1. The first time Peter Griffin tells Lois to “Shut up!” she proceeds to scream at him for hours.

2. In The Office episode titled ‘Lecture Circuit Part 2’ Michael Scott falls victim to his own prank by being forced into giving.

The phrase “poetic justice” is used to describe a situation in which someone who has committed a wrong receives a punishment that fits the crime.

The term originates from William Shakespeare’s 1603 play, “The Merchant of Venice,” where it is spoken by Portia, the young daughter of Shylock after her father agrees to take his revenge on Antonio for not honoring their contract:

“The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest-It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

This means people are more likely to be merciful when they have been shown mercy themselves.

Poetic justice is an example of how the universe balances out. If you do something bad, then it will come back to bite you in the end.

I am going to go over the most common examples of poetic justice that we see in our daily life and around us all the time.

A very well-known type of poetic justice is karma, which means “action” or “deed.” This refers to what goes around comes around.

What happens if someone does a good deed for another person? They’ll likely be rewarded with a similar kindness later on down the line.

Significance Of Poetic Justice In Literature

Poetic justice is the literary concept of balancing out injustice with a corresponding act.

definition of justice literature

The idea can be found in many texts including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare and “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

Poetic justice is used to make readers feel satisfied as if they have been rewarded for following along with the narrative. It also helps reinforce moral lessons that are being taught throughout the story.

The form of poetic justice often varies from text to text, but it usually involves a sort of balance between good and bad deeds or events to restore equilibrium in some way.

Poetic justice is a literary device that can be seen in many works of literature, such as Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

It is defined by a sense of the appropriateness and symmetry of its outcome. Poetic justice implies that there will be some sort of retribution for actions taken or words spoken, if not immediately then later on in the story.

Everyone loves a happy ending. We all crave justice, and when we don’t get it, we feel cheated.

Poetic justice is the process of how society reacts to an individual who has committed a crime or wrong against another person. It can be seen in literature as well as everyday life because it’s an important part of being human.

As humans, we are always looking for ways to right our wrongs and maintain order in society through punishments that fit crimes appropriately because this way people will not commit more crimes out of fear of getting caught again and punished by poetic justice.

Poetic justice is the idea that what one deserves will be delivered to them. It can best be illustrated in literature with an example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The play contains many instances where characters are punished for their crimes and avenge themselves on their enemies.

For instance, Claudius poisons King Hamlet while he sleeps and later dies by drinking poisoned wine from his daughter Gertrude’s hand when she thinks it is medicine for him. Gertrude drinks the poison after being tricked by her son who is trying to kill her too but she does not die because she did not drink as much as Claudius.

These events illustrate poetic justice in literature well because they show how what people deserve happens to them even if it takes time.

Examples Of Poetic Justice In Literature

Literature is full of examples of poetic justice. Some are overt, while some are subtle.

The list below includes just a few examples from the literature that you may enjoy:

– In “Le Morte D’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory, King Arthur’s wife Guinevere and his most trusted knight Lancelot fall in love with one another, which leads to the destruction of Camelot.

– In “Othello” by William Shakespeare, Othello falls prey to Iago’s cunning plots and murders his trusting wife Desdemona before he realizes what has happened to him.

– In “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov kills an old woman.

If you’re someone who loves a good story or is just looking for some light reading to pass the time on a rainy day, then this content is for you!

Poetic justice can be defined as “a moral and ethical concept that our actions should come back to us or have consequences.”

The idea of poetic justice has been around since ancient times and it’s still used today in literature.

We’ll explore these examples with the help of texts such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Crime, and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Beloved by Toni Morrison.

The idea is that Poetic justice is a person’s fate in life mirrors his or her actions. It can also refer to an event occurring at a time when it seems justified by some past action on the part of the individual concerned.

The term “poetic” refers to how well-crafted these instances are in literature.

Examples Of Poetic Justice In Literature:

1. Macbeth – Macbeth murders Duncan and commits other crimes, which eventually lead him to his own death.

2. Romeo And Juliet – Romeo kills Tybalt and wounds Mercutio with poison arrows, but he dies from their effects as well as from drinking poison.

The term poetic justice, also known as karmic justice, is used to describe a situation where the person who does wrong experiences misfortune. This can be in the form of being punished or experiencing bad luck.

Examples of this are seen in many different literary works including William Shakespeare’s “Othello”.

In this play, Iago convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful with another man and kills her. He then kills himself when he realizes what he’s done.

There are also examples such as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and is punished by having his liver eaten every day for eternity.

Poetic Justice is not only found in novels but it can be seen throughout history.

Poetic justice is a literary term that refers to the principle of “what goes around comes around.”

It can be seen in literature as an ironic twist at the end, or simply as poetic justice being served.

The most famous example of this concept is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Claudius drinks poisoned wine and dies, just like he did to Hamlet’s father.

It’s always satisfying to see poetic justice in literature. Whether it be a character finally getting their comeuppance or the protagonist flawlessly executing their plan, there is something about watching someone else get what they deserve that makes us feel good inside.

That being said, these literary examples of poetic justice are not always happy endings because some people may never know when their time has come and others will suffer for so long before they get what they deserve.

However, we can all agree that there is nothing more satisfying than seeing an antagonist receive his just desserts.

Poetic justice is the idea that a person who does bad things will eventually get what they deserve. This can be as simple as a villain getting caught in his or her own trap, but it also encompasses more complex concepts like karma.

In literature, there are many examples of poetic justice.

One example would be from “The Wizard Of Oz” when Dorothy gets back to Kansas and all those people who had treated her badly were afraid of her because she now had power over them.”

Another good example from literature is from “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean steals bread for his family and ends up spending years in jail for this crime, he finally escapes and becomes mayor.

Have you ever wondered why it seems like some people always get what they deserve, no matter how hard they try to avoid it? This is because of poetic justice.

Poetic justice is when the bad guy suffers for his or her actions in a way that fits the crime. It’s not just about punishment, but also being rewarded for good deeds.

Origin Of Poetic Justice

In the poem “Origin of Poetic Justice,” by R.S. Gwynn, the author discusses how poetic justice is a theme in literature and argues that it’s not just a coincidence but an inevitability stemming from humans’ inherent flaws.

It follows that all people are capable of committing crimes, and as such, they will inevitably pay for their transgressions with negative outcomes of equal or greater magnitude to what they have committed.

This concept can be seen throughout history across many cultures and has been explored through various mediums ranging from drama to poetry.

In the poem, “Origin of Poetic Justice,” Robert Frost, describes a situation where a man is about to die and his thoughts are on how poetic justice will be served.

Readers who enjoy reading poems or have an interest in poetry. Poetic justice is a term that can be used to describe poetic devices.

The meaning of the word “poetic” refers to literature, and the term itself is often associated with justice in speech or writing.

This form of justice has been around for centuries and was first seen in ancient Greece where it was said that those who got what they deserved would also get their just desserts.

Poetic Justice can be seen as an exaggeration, but it’s not always guaranteed to happen because there are many factors at play when determining whether someone will receive poetic justice or not. It’s is a phrase that describes how someone is punished for an offense they committed.

The term was first used by the Roman poet Horace (65BC-8BC) and was believed to have been derived from Alexandrian poet Callimachus, who wrote: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

This concept has been adopted in many cultures around the world with different variations of it.

In today’s society, poetic justice can be seen through social media channels and other forms of online communication as well as being present in our everyday lives.

What Does Poetic Justice Mean?

Poetic justice is a term that means the punishment fits the crime. It’s been used in literature, theater, and even movies to illustrate this principle of poetic justice.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet seeks revenge on his uncle Claudius for killing King Hamlet by poisoning him during a performance of “The Mousetrap” which was written by Claudius himself.

Poetic justice is a term that refers to the idea of karma or “what goes around comes around.” This means that someone who does bad things will eventually get their comeuppance.

In some cases, poetic justice can be seen as revenge. When someone has been wronged in life and seeks to right this by inflicting pain on those who did them wrong, it’s considered poetic justice.

Poetic justice is a term used to describe the occurrence of good or bad luck that seems appropriate, given someone’s deservedness. The phrase can be traced back to ancient Greece and it has evolved from an expression of divine judgment in mythology to a literary trope in Western literature .

In modern times, poets use the concept as a means of exploring our connection with nature and our place within it.

For example, Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” explores how people who are good-natured but mischievous may find themselves punished for their actions by harmful spirits called goblins who take advantage of them when they’re at their weakest points whereas those who are cruel will eventually reap what they sow because poetic justice is always served up

Justice is a central theme in many of history’s most famous works of literature.

In books like Oedipus Rex, Crime and Punishment, and To Kill A Mockingbird, justice often means something more than just the punishment for committing a crime.

What does poetic justice mean?

This term refers to the idea that sometimes people who commit crimes are punished in ways that seem fitting or appropriate to those around them rather than by what they deserve legally.

For example, if someone commits a robbery but ends up dying when he tries to escape from the police, this may be viewed as poetic justice because it appears that his own actions led him to his death.

What Is A Good Example Of Poetic Justice?

Poetic justice can be defined as a poetic device, often used in ancient Greek and Roman literature, that is based on the idea of moral retribution. It is what occurs when events are exactly what they deserve to be.

For example, if somebody commits an act of cruelty or injustice against another person then their own actions will come back to haunt them later on.

This need not always mean that it has to happen immediately after the event itself but may be delayed until a more appropriate time – for instance at the end of one’s life when one is about to face judgment from The Fates themselves.

What we should take away from this expression though is that there will always be consequences for our actions and we cannot escape these by doing anything; something bad.

Poetic justice, also known as karma, is the idea that one’s actions in life will be rewarded or punished in kind. The concept originates from ancient Greek literature and has been around for centuries.

One of the most famous examples of this was when Oedipus killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, which led to a plague on Thebes killing all but him and his four siblings.

This story can be seen as an example of how your past may come back to haunt you if you do not take responsibility for it.

Poetic justice is a term that means the punishment fits the crime. For example, if someone murders someone, then they should be punished by death or life in prison without parole.

It is also a term that refers to the notion that people’s deeds will meet appropriate rewards or punishments in due course. The concept of this can exist in many different forms, but it is often used as a literary device or allegory in fictional works.

A good example of poetic justice would be when someone who has committed an injustice receives just punishment for their actions.

One such instance of this could be found within Shakespeare’s “Othello” where Iago manipulates Othello into murdering his wife Desdemona and then kills him out of jealousy after he realizes how much love she had for her husband.

Another example could be found within Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” where souls are punished according to their sins.

Who Used The Word Poetic Justice?

Poetic justice is a literary device that takes the form of “a punishment or reward that is either very fitting for or completely unrelated to, the crime committed.” The phrase has been used as early as 1609.

Poetic justice can be seen in many different forms across literature and film. It’s important to remember that not all instances of poetic justice will have a happy ending.

The word “poetic justice” is often used to describe a situation in which someone deserves what they get. The term derives from the ancient Greek poet, Aeschylus, who wrote that “a just recompense awaits the sinner.”

Despite its origins, it’s now more broadly applied to any incident where someone gets their just desserts. Many people have been wondering about the origins of the phrase “poetic justice” and how it became a popular saying.

One theory is that Shakespeare coined this term in his play Hamlet, where he speaks of “the whirligig of time.”

The word poetic means beautiful or artistic, which is ironic considering what this expression implies – that events happen to someone just as they deserve.

Although often used in a negative context, poetic justice is actually the idea that life will eventually deal out what you deserve.

The phrase can be found in literature and popular culture, but where did it originate?

When William Shakespeare penned his play “The Merchant of Venice” he included the line: “It’s just as well; for if your daughter had been so wise as to give him her love, she might have undone herself, marrying without our leave who we had made no match for.”

This was written in 1603.

Poetic justice has also been referenced by Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Is Poetic Justice Irony?

Justice is defined as the moral principle that people should be rewarded or punished for their actions.

It’s a concept that has been around for centuries and many believe it to be essential for any society.

But what does justice look like when someone’s punishment comes at the hands of something outside of their control? Is poetic justice irony?

I believe that justice is poetic. I don’t think it’s irony, but there may be some correlation.

Poetic justice can be defined as the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people in a way that balances out over time.

Justice is not necessarily equal or fair, but those who are deserving will eventually get what they deserve at some point in their life, maybe not when they want it, but sometime soon after.

Justice is also poetic because we all have our own unique sense of justice which may differ from others’ expectations for us and lead to different conclusions about what should happen to someone who has done something wrong.

Furthermore, when you look back on your past mistakes you can see how everything happens. Poetic justice is a term that has been used to describe the tendency for good people to get good things in life, while bad people suffer.

It’s also known as ‘the wages of karma.

It can be defined as “a poetic device whereby characters who are responsible for bringing about suffering or misfortune at some point in their lives experience it themselves.”

Irony can be defined as “a contrast between what might have been expected and what actually occurs.”

On the other hand, is an adjective with two meanings: first, “unintentional” or “coincidental,” but second, if you say something is ironic then you mean that it’s true and unfortunate because it would seem funny if someone said it was.

Ironically, poetic justice is often seen as a positive thing when it can be seen as equally negative.

Is the sugar coating on a bitter pill worth it?

The idea of poetic justice was developed from a play by William Shakespeare called Hamlet. In this play, the villain Claudius kills King Hamlet and gets away with it because he convinces people that his brother (Hamlet) killed him to take over the throne.

But at the end of the story, Claudius dies by drinking poisoned wine while Hamlet watches him die and says “this must not yet be known.”

The irony here is that he doesn’t want anyone to know how he died even though they were all there.

Poetic Justice – Wrapping Up

Poetic justice is a term that refers to the concept of one’s deeds being met with an appropriate reward or punishment.

It’s not just about poetic justice, but also things like karma and fate. What goes around comes around, right?

It can be difficult to find examples in everyday life because there are no clear-cut cases.

But I found some interesting ones:

The Lincoln Memorial statue has Abraham Lincoln sitting on a throne looking over his shoulder at Stonewall Jackson who is portrayed as using his saber to defend against an attack from General Grant.

The statues were created by Daniel French and unveiled in 1922 after the Civil War had ended – a symbolic representation of what happened during the war when both Union and Confederate soldiers fought side by side.

The English language has evolved, and the meaning of words can be unclear to a modern audience. These are some examples of phrases that might not mean what you think they do.

Poetic justice is an idea in which someone who commits evil will get it back in return from fate or the gods. This is similar to karma but usually means poetic justice is more personal and specific than karma.

It’s a term used to describe the idea that people should not be allowed to get away with committing crimes against others, especially if they are of no consequence.

The term was coined by John Buchan in his 1915 novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and was popularized in the song “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

It’s important to understand that it’s not always in our control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.

The first step is realizing that there are two things at play here: the external event (the situation) and your internal reaction to said event.

You cannot change the external event without changing yourself internally, but if you change yourself internally, then you will be able to deal with an external situation better than before.

How To Write TV Show Loglines: The Definitive Guide

What Is Overexposure? Definition & Examples In Photography & Film

definition of justice literature

Matt Crawford

Related posts, how to format a screenplay in google docs: essential guide, what is structural irony definition, examples & how to use it, what is historical irony definition, examples & how to use it the right way, what is a tragic hero definition, history & examples, who is robert mckee: background & bio of the screenwriting guru, what is satire satire examples in literature and movies: our ultimate guide, leave a reply cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed .

Username or Email Address

Remember Me

Registration is closed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Understanding the true meaning of justice

The Prophet Amos calls out to the people of God to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” These words often quoted by preachers and referenced in heartfelt prayer are, perhaps, some of the most powerful proclamations in scripture. Yet, for many, it is a call that is not fully understood.

Justice in scripture is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. In American culture, we tend to think of justice in legal terms and in the context of personal vindication after a perceived wrong. For example, when an accused criminal receives a verdict of “guilty” in a court of law and the judge accordingly sentences the accused, those who were wronged by the individual may feel that justice has been done. Conversely, in this hypothetical case, the accused may reasonably believe that justice has not been done. In each case, the definition of justice centers on the actions of the court.

For God, justice is notably different. Rather than simply focusing on legal systems and human judgment as manifest in a court of law, God’s justice centers on setting things right according to God. It has little to do with individuals getting their way, receiving the perceived consequences of actions, or getting sentenced to some form of punishment. God’s justice is a world in line with God’s ways.

Righteousness closely relates to justice throughout scripture. Once justice sets things right with the world, righteousness is the ongoing right living which maintains the order of justice according to God. Righteousness is attributed to a moral, spiritual, and ethical alignment with the Divine in ways that structure a life dedicated to God.

In Amos 5:24 the prophetic call for justice and righteousness is particularly striking because of the vivid illustrations associated with the Divine characteristics. Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters and for righteousness to continue as an everflowing stream. The illustration of waters flowing can be compared to the torrent of a flash flood that rushes down, taking out everything in its path. Imagine God setting things right with the powerful sweep of the Divine hand, setting things right and restoring all that is out of balance. Then, once restored, the ongoing righteousness displayed in the character of those living in God’s justice continues to bring forth right living and a beautiful connection with God. The everflowing stream illustrates an unending source of life and strength for the one who chooses to live in God.

For people of faith, the call for right living and quest for God’s justice is best defined relationship with God. It is not necessarily characterized by regular attendance in a place of worship, the memorization of favorite scriptures, recitation of particular prayers, or adherence to distinctive doctrines. Rather, it is embracing a relationship with God that manifests in genuine justice and righteousness.

  • Open access
  • Published: 20 May 2023

Measurement of student engagement in health professions education: a review of literature

  • Salah Eldin Kassab   ORCID: 1 , 2 ,
  • Mohamed Al-Eraky   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Walid El-Sayed   ORCID: 1 , 3 ,
  • Hossam Hamdy   ORCID: 1 &
  • Henk Schmidt   ORCID: 1 , 4  

BMC Medical Education volume  23 , Article number:  354 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

2824 Accesses

1 Altmetric

Metrics details

Student engagement is a complex multidimensional construct that has attained great interest in health professions education (HPE). Definition and conceptualization of student engagement is an important step that should drive the development of the instruments for its measurement. We have recently proposed a comprehensive framework for student engagement in HPE with a definition of engagement as student investment of time and energy in academic and non-academic experiences that include learning, teaching, research, governance, and community activities. The dimensions of student engagement in this framework included the cognitive, affective, behavioral, agentic, and socio-cultural. Guided by the student engagement framework, this non-systematic review aims to identify, critically appraise, and summarize the existing methods for measuring student engagement in HPE. Extrapolating from higher education literature, we attempted to link the theoretical perspectives of student engagement with the published methods of its measurement in HPE context. In addition, we have described the different methods of measuring student engagement including self-report surveys, real time measures, direct observation, interviews/focus groups, and the use of multiple instruments. The span of engagement dimensions measured by self-report surveys ranges from one to five dimensions. However, measurement of agentic and sociocultural dimensions of engagement in HPE is still limited and further research is required. We have also reflected on the existing methods of measuring engagement of students as active partners in HPE. The review also describes the advantages, limitations, and psychometric properties of each method for measuring student engagement. We ended the review with a guiding conclusion on how to develop and select an instrument for measuring student engagement in HPE. Finally, we addressed the gaps in the literature about measuring engagement of HPE students and future research plans.

Peer Review reports

The research agenda on student engagement in education has witnessed a progressive rise during the past three decades. The main drive for this rise is the significance of student engagement as a predictor of academic success, well-being, satisfaction, increased retention, decreased burnout, and enhanced self-directed learning [ 1 ]. Furthermore, engagement of students in learning enhances teacher motivation [ 2 ]. Accordingly, engagement of students has been used as an indicator for the quality of medical programs [ 3 ] and a measure of institutional excellence in medical education [ 4 ]. We have also recently reviewed the different aspects related to this important construct and its implications on health professions education [ 1 , 5 ]. Despite the presence of several instruments in the literature for measuring engagement of HPE students, there are no currently existing comprehensive reviews that describe these methods. There are also no guiding principles on how to develop and select an instrument for measuring student engagement in HPE.

Definition of student engagement

Previous literature in higher education has included several definitions of student engagement according to the underlying theoretical perspectives. The prevailing three theoretical underpinnings that explain student engagement include the psychological, behavioral, and psychosocial perspectives [ 1 , 6 ]. The psychological perspective considers engagement as an internal psychological state of students. According to this perspective, student engagement is defined as the students’ psychological state of activity that makes them feel activated, exert effort, and be absorbed during learning activities and students’ state of connection with the school community [ 7 ]. The behavioral perspective explains engagement as both the student behavior and the institutional factors that drive the student engagement. Accordingly, student engagement from this perspective is defined as the time and effort students dedicate to educationally purposeful activities and the practices that institutions apply to motivate students to participate in these activities [ 8 ]. The sociocultural perspective addresses the role of social, cultural, and political factors in student engagement. Accordingly, sociocultural engagement is defined as the student ability of expanding viewpoints and providing awareness of, and appreciation for, others from diverse social and cultural backgrounds [ 9 ].

Student engagement is multidimensional and multi-level

The multidimensional nature of student engagement as a construct poses a practical difficulty to its measurement. Student engagement is conceptualized into behavioral, cognitive, emotional, agentic, and sociocultural dimensions that are measured by relevant indicators. Behavioral engagement can be measured by indicators such as student attendance, participation in curricular or extracurricular activities, effort, and ability to persevere in academic pursuits despite challenges. Indicators of emotional engagement include the emotions students experience towards their learning, peers, faculty, and school. These emotions include happiness, enthusiasm, pride, enjoyment, and feeling of bonding. Cognitive engagement includes absorption in learning, metacognition, perceived value of academic tasks and use of high-order cognitive skills. Agentic engagement indicates the student power to influence to their education, their future lives, and their social environment [ 10 ]. Indicators of agentic engagement inside the classroom include the active contribution of students to their learning process [ 11 ]. Agentic engagement outside the classroom can be measured by the student involvement in teaching of their peers, active participation in school governance, and involvement in community activities. Sociocultural engagement refers to the extent of students’ awareness of, and appreciation for, the diverse perspectives and experiences represented in their learning community. Indicators of sociocultural engagement include appreciation for different cultural backgrounds, willingness to engage in cross-cultural dialogue, and accepting to learn from others from different perspectives [ 9 ].

Student engagement can be molded according to the changes in the surrounding environment. These changes will have direct implications on the methods used for its measurement. For example, student engagement varies according to the type of learning activity (e.g., large classroom, small group learning, self-learning). Similarly, engagement of students differs according to the time scale, which can range from an engagement in a short learning activity to engagement along the duration of a course or a program.

Spheres of student engagement

The spheres of students’ engagement include either engagement in their own learning or engagement as partners in education. The areas of engagement as partners include provision of education, scholarly research, governance, and community activities [ 4 ]. Accordingly, student engagement has been defined as academic experiences of students in learning, teaching, and research, at the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional levels through interactions with peers, faculty, and college community [ 12 ]. We have recently provided a comprehensive definition of student engagement in HPE as the student investment of time and energy in academic and non-academic experiences that include learning, teaching, research, governance, and community activities. Students are involved in these aspects at the cognitive, affective, behavioral, agentic, and socio-cultural dimensions [ 1 ].

Student engagement in technology-enhanced learning (TEL) environments

Technology-enhanced learning (TEL) environments are essentially conducted online and offer both opportunities and challenges for student engagement. These environments offer more flexibility and autonomy for students to customize their learning experience according to the most suitable time, method, and place. However, TEL requires students to possess the technology literacy that allows them to navigate online platforms, manage multimedia resources, and manage digital information. Furthermore, students require adaptation to different methods of communication and social skills compared with face-to-face settings to get engaged in online learning activities. Therefore, methods of measuring student engagement in face-to-face learning environments may not be suitable for use in online environments. For example, direct observation is suitable for measuring behavioral engagement of students through direct interactions in face-to-face classrooms. However, measuring behavioral engagement of students in an online environment may need to rely on other measures such as self-report surveys, data analytics and log files.

This review aims to provide an overview of the methods of measuring student engagement in HPE. We linked each method with the underpinning theoretical perspectives, and described the measured engagement dimensions, advantages and limitations, and the psychometric properties of each method. In addition, we addressed the current gaps in the literature about measuring student engagement in HPE and directions for future research.


This manuscript represents a non-systematic literature review employing an explicit search strategy to reduce the biases in selection of included articles. The review included articles published in English with the focus of research on conceptualization and measurement of student engagement, and the main subjects are HPE students. We conducted literature search using the following databases: MEDLINE, PubMed, ProQuest, SCOPUS, Education Resources Information Centre (ERIC), Science Direct, and EBESCO. We searched for peer-reviewed research articles in the databases by title and abstract using key terms such as student engagement, engagement, learner engagement, students as partners, and partnership. We combined the previous terms with other words such as health professions, medical, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, allied health professions, clinical psychology, physical therapy, nutrition, and occupational therapy. In addition, we selected relevant articles from the references list of identified key publications in student engagement. The literature search was limited to articles between 1990 and November 2022. Searching the databases yielded 3019 articles, while an additional 617 articles were identified through searching the listed references and hand-searching of HPE journals. Following deduplication and excluding irrelevant articles through screening of titles and abstracts, 144 articles were selected. Individual screening of full text articles by the two authors (SK and WE) led to the selection of 71 articles to be included in the review with a date of publication ranging from 2003 to 2022. Although the main emphasis of the review is on studies relevant to HPE context, authors agreed to include additional relevant articles ( n  = 19) related to non-HPE contexts. Articles that used self-reports with only one statement for measuring student engagement were excluded from the review. We used EndNote (version 7, Clarivate Analytics, Philadelphia, United States) as the reference manager software for the bibliography of the identified articles.

Methods of measuring student engagement in HPE

The outcome of the literature search resulted in different measures of student engagement in HPE. The common methods of measuring student engagement are self-report surveys, real-time measures, direct observation, interviews, or a combination of more than one method (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

Frequency of the methods for measuring student engagement in health professions education

Self-report surveys

Self-report surveys are the most used methods for measuring student engagement in HPE, representing approximately two thirds of the reported methods. These surveys are easy to administer, cheap, and can sample many students in a brief period. Furthermore, self-reports can measure unobservable aspects of engagement such as cognitive and emotional dimensions [ 13 ]. The number of dimensions measured by the self-reports varies from one to five dimensions. However, the problem with self-reports is the inability to measure the dynamic nature of student engagement in certain learning situations. One attempt to overcome this shortcoming is the experience sampling using short questionnaires that are distributed several times during a learning activity [ 14 ]. Most surveys are not able to capture the complex nature of the student engagement construct. Even some of the questionnaires that cover the multiple dimensions of engagement lack the alignment between conceptualization and the method of measurement. Below is a detailed description of the common self-report measures in HPE literature and a summary of these instruments in provided in Table 1 .

Self-reports measuring one engagement dimension

Situational cognitive engagement questionnaire

This questionnaire measures cognitive engagement defined as a psychological state in which students exert a significant amount of effort to understand the topic at hand and in which they persist studying over a prolonged period [ 15 ]. Items are scored on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (not true at all) to 5 (very true for me). The validity of the questionnaire has been tested in a large sample of applied science students with model fit statistics supporting the model [ 15 ]. Furthermore, coefficient H was 0.93 and 0.88 when evaluated on students in applied sciences and medicine [ 14 , 15 ], respectively. Because of the short nature of this questionnaire, it allows multiple measurements of cognitive engagement in response to contextual changes. However, the limited scope of this questionnaire to the cognitive dimension does not allow measurement of other relevant engagement dimensions during collaborative learning in PBL tutorials such as emotional, behavioral, and social dimensions. Another limitation of the questionnaire is the use of behavioral engagement indicators such as effort and persistence as measures of cognitive engagement.

Learners' engagement and motivation questionnaire

This questionnaire has been used for measuring cognitive engagement of health professions education students in multimedia learning [ 16 ]. The questionnaire is based on conceptualizing student engagement as a state of flow (absorption, full concentration, intense enjoyment, and distortion of time awareness). The instrument consists of six items measured on a 7-point Likert scale where 1= not at all true of me to 7=very true of me. Cognitive engagement is conceptualized into three subconstructs: 1) Attention focus (2 items), 2) Intrinsic interest (2 items), and 3) Curiosity (2 items). Although the instrument is declared for measuring cognitive engagement, indicators were a mix of behavioral (attention) and emotional (interest and curiosity) engagement. However, the scale has been pre-validated for internal structure and exploratory factor analysis demonstrated a unidimensional factor structure. Internal consistency reliability using Cronbach alpha was 0.93 to 0.95.

Self-reports measuring two engagement dimensions

Classroom engagement survey (CES)

The CES was initially designed in general education settings and imported for use in nursing education [ 33 ]. The CES consists of 8 items designed to measure behavioral and emotional engagement of students [ 33 ]. Behavioral engagement is measured by student participation in the classroom (five items) and emotional engagement measures their enjoyment (three items) . Another version of the CES consists of 8 items representing the behavioral (3 items), emotional (3 items), and cognitive (2 items) dimensions [ 34 , 35 ]. However, a major limitation of this version is the lack of validity support for the multidimensionality of the construct. In addition, two items are measuring behavioral and cognitive engagement at the group level rather than individual students. Items are scored on a five-point Likert scale (1, strongly disagree; 2, disagree; 3, neither agree nor disagree; 4, agree; 5, strongly agree). The summed scores range from 5 to 40. A higher score indicates greater engagement of students with a score of 24 considered as a neutral score. The use of CES in HPE demonstrated an internal consistency reliability of the questionnaire ranged from Cronbach’s alpha coefficient range from 0.83 [ 34 ] to 0.88 [ 33 , 35 ].

User Experience Questionnaire (UEQ)

The long version of the UEQ (68 items) has been developed and validated for measuring the experience in immersive virtual environments using participants mainly from information and communication technology or computer sciences [ 49 ]. The shorter version of the questionnaire has been adapted for use for measuring engagement of medical students during the use of 360 O videos in Anatomy education [ 18 ]. This version consists of 8 items that measure student engagement as a state of flow characterized by immersion (2 items), enjoyment (2 items), loss of time awareness (2 items), and overall involvement (2 items). Students are asked to score their degree of agreement with each statement on a scale of 0–100, and the average score represents the degree of student engagement. The main limitation of the UEQ is the lack of evidence for the construct validity either for its internal structure using factor analysis or criterion-related evidence by testing relationships to other variables.

User Engagement Scale-20 (UES-20)

The UES-20 has been developed for measuring engagement of commercial users with the learning resources to which they are exposed in online environments [ 50 ]. The scale was then imported for measuring engagement of medical students during their e-learning for diagnostic imaging using adaptive tutorials [ 17 ]. Adaptive tutorials are intelligent online tutoring systems, which provide a personalized learning experience of students through immediate feedback that is modified according to individual student responses [ 17 ]. The instrument measures the cognitive and emotional dimensions of engagement with e-learning resources. The scale consists of 20 items scored on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree) clustered under four subscales. The subscales include focused attention (ability to concentrate and absorb information), perceived usability (affective and cognitive responses to the resource), novelty and involvement (level of triggered interest, feeling of immersion and having fun), and aesthetic appeal (impression made by the visual appearance of the user interface). Factor analysis demonstrated a four-factor structure, which supports the multidimensionality of the questionnaire [ 50 ] [ 17 ].

Self-reports measuring three engagement dimensions

Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES)

This scale is one of the most used self-reports in HPE and has an established theoretical basis on the psychological perspective of engagement and the schoolwork engagement model. According to this model, engagement is conceptualized as a positive state of study-related fulfillment characterized by vigor (emotional), dedication (cognitive), and absorption (behavioral) [ 51 ]. Different versions of the scale have been used in the HPE literature with larger versions consisting of 17 items [ 19 , 20 ], 15 items [ 21 , 22 ], and 14 items [ 23 , 24 , 25 ]. Shorter versions that consist of 9 items [ 26 , 27 , 28 ] and even 3 items [ 29 ] are also used. For each of the items, students are asked to identify their level of engagement using a seven-point Likert scale (1 = never to 7 = always). The sum scores of items are divided by the number of items in the scale to represent total engagement score. The different versions of the scale have demonstrated good psychometric properties in various contexts as evidenced by good to excellent internal consistency reliability and factor analysis findings that support the theoretical model [ 19 , 23 , 25 ]. Other sources of validity evidence for the questionnaire are the negative correlations between student engagement scores using UWES and perceived stress [ 21 , 25 ] and burnout [ 21 , 24 , 28 ]. In addition, there is significant positive association between perceived satisfaction of basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) and student engagement [ 28 ]. Furthermore, student engagement is promoted by students’ academic self-efficacy beliefs, students’ active self-care, and resilience [ 27 ].

University Student Engagement Inventory (USEI)

The earlier version of the USEI was originally developed in Portuguese to measure student engagement [ 52 ]. This version is composed of 32 items distributed in three dimensions covering behavioral (11 items), emotional (10 items), and cognitive (11 items) engagement. However, a reduced version that consists of 15 items has demonstrated better psychometric properties [ 30 ]. The short version has been used for measuring engagement of medical [ 31 ], dental [ 30 ], and pharmacy [ 32 ] students. Questionnaire items are distributed in a three-factor structure covering the three dimensions of engagement: behavioral (5 items), emotional (5 items), and cognitive (5 items). Items are assessed on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 5 (always). An evidence of construct validity of the scores from the reduced version has been demonstrated by confirmatory factor analysis, which supported the three-factor model with significant correlations between the subscales [ 30 , 31 ]. In addition, emotional and behavioral engagement scores correlated negatively with perceived burnout [ 32 ]. The questionnaire has also demonstrated an acceptable reliability (≥ 0.7) using composite reliability (CR) and Cronbach’s alpha [ 30 ].

Technology-enhanced Learning (TEL) engagement scale

This scale intends to measure the engagement of students in TEL resources, with an example of its application in Anatomy education [ 36 ]. The instrument consists of 19 items scored on a five-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree). Exploratory factor analysis yielded a three-factor structure as follows: satisfaction (8 items), goal setting and planning (7 items), and physical interaction (4 items). These emerging factors generally conform with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral dimensions of engagement, respectively. In addition, there are significant correlations between the three engagement dimensions. TEL engagement score is calculated by summing the responses from each item with the minimum score of 19 and a maximum score of 95. The reported internal consistency reliability of the scale was 0.86 with acceptable reliability of each of the three engagement dimensions. Although the scale has proved evidence of validity in Anatomy learning resources, the outcome of its application in other HPE subjects is unclear.

Self-reports measuring four engagement dimensions

Online Student Engagement Scale (OSE)

This scale attempts to measure the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of students in online learning. The initial version of the scale has been adapted from the Student Course Engagement Questionnaire (SCEQ) for use in online communication engineering courses [ 37 ]. The questionnaire was then imported for use in nursing education [ 37 , 38 , 39 ]. It comprised 19 items divided into four factors: 1) skills engagement (cognitive), 2) emotional engagement, 3) participation engagement (behavioral), and 4) performance engagement [ 38 , 40 ]. The items are scored on a 5-point Likert scale using the following response categories: very characteristic of me (5), characteristic of me (4), moderately characteristic of me (3), not really characteristic of me (2) or not at all characteristic of me (1). The total engagement score represents the sum for the four engagement dimensions with ninety-five considered as the maximum score. The scale demonstrates high internal consistency reliability with a Cronbach alpha ranging from 0.91 [ 37 , 38 ] to 0.95 [ 39 ]. In addition, factor analysis yielded a four-factor structure including skills, emotional, participation, and performance [ 37 ]. The main disadvantage of this questionnaire is mixing between the dimensions and outcomes of engagement (performance engagement).

College students’ learning engagement scale in cyberspace

This scale has been used for measuring learning engagement in online courses for Chinese nursing students [ 41 ]. Authors conceptualized online engagement into four dimensions: behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and interactive engagement. The scale consists of 19 items rated on a 5-points Likert scale ranging from 1 (completely inconsistent) to 5 (completely consistent), with a total score of 19 to 95. A higher total score indicated higher online learning engagement. Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) showed that the structure of this scale was stable and the Cronbach's Alpha coefficient was 0.972.

Self-reports measuring student engagement as partners

Educational student engagement scale

This questionnaire measures the engagement of medical students as active partners in the provision of education [ 48 ]. The questionnaire consists of six items designed to be in line with the ASPIRE criteria for institutional excellence in student engagement [ 4 , 53 ]. The items cover mainly the agentic engagement dimension and include student role in curriculum evaluation, peer teaching, self- and peer assessment, and the role of their feedback on curriculum development. Students are asked to indicate their level of agreement on each item based on a five-point Likert scale where 1= strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree. The average score of the six items represents the mean level of student engagement. The internal consistency reliability of the questionnaire is 0.88. The questionnaire has also demonstrated evidence of predictive validity by the positive relationships between student engagement scores and student learning outcomes. However, the scope of the questionnaire is limited to measuring engagement in provision of education and does not measure the other aspects of student engagement as partners such as engagement in governance, scholarly research, and community activities.

Measures of institutional level of student engagement

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)

The NSSE originated in the early 20 th century as a tool for measuring student engagement at the institutional level to improve the undergraduate experiences of students, document effective institutional practices, and benchmark between higher education institutions [ 8 ]. This self-report survey measures student engagement on an annual basis and is designed based on the behavioral perspective of student engagement. The instrument consists of approximately 80 items with 10 indicators representing five themes of student engagement in addition to 6 high impact practices. The themes include academic challenge (4 indicators), learning with peers (2 indicators), experiences with faculty (2 indicators), and campus environment (2 indicators). The academic challenge theme covers higher-order learning, reflective & integrative learning, learning strategies, and quantitative reasoning. Learning with peers includes collaborative learning and discussions with diverse others. Experience with faculty includes student-faculty interaction and effective teaching practices. Campus environment includes quality of interactions and supportive environment. High impact practices include service-learning, learning community, research with faculty, internship or field experience, study abroad, and culminating senior experience. In the HPE research context, NSSE has been used for measuring engagement of nursing students [ 42 , 43 ]. The main limitation of the NSSE is mixing between indicators, drivers, and outcomes of engagement. One of the surveys developed by items borrowed from NSSE is the Survey of Student Engagement (SSE) instrument. The SSE instrument has been validated [ 44 ] and used for measuring engagement of medical students [ 45 , 46 , 47 ]. The instrument consists of 14 items grouped under three categories: 1) collaborative learning (4 items), 2) cognitive development (five items), and 3) personal skills (4 items). Items are scored on a 4-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = Never to 4 = very often, and the total engagement score is the sum of the scores in the three dimensions.

Classroom Survey of Student Engagement (CLASSE)

CLASSE is an adapted version of NSSE to measure engagement of students at the classroom level [ 54 ]. The purpose is to provide feedback to institutions on how to enhance instructional practices for better engagement of students. The CLASSE questionnaire consists of 39 items [ 55 ] with a shorter version of 19 items [ 56 ]. Each is assessed on a 4-point Likert scale (0 = never, 1= one time, 2= three to five times, and 3= more than five times) and then multiplied by 33.3 to produce a score ranging from 0 (lowest) to 100 (highest). The questionnaire consists of three dimensions: 1) active and collaborative learning, 2) student –faculty interaction, and 3) level of academic challenge. The questionnaire demonstrated good internal consistency reliability in HPE settings with a Cronbach’s alpha = 0.89 for the 39-item version [ 55 ].

Direct observation

Direct observation can measure the engagement of individual students or the whole classroom during a learning activity. The observable indicators for student engagement are mainly focused on the behavioral dimension such as attention, asking questions, and participating in classroom activities. Observation measures can provide real-time changes in student engagement and describe rich information about the contextual factors affecting engagement. However, they are time-consuming, require training of observers, and limited to measuring the behavioral dimension of engagement. In addition, direct observation mostly includes a small number of students, which limits the generalizability of these measures. In the HPE literature, there are two reported direct observation methods, which are STROBE and In-class engagement measure (IEM).

The name of the STROBE instrument refers to the strobe light that intermittently captures events at regular intervals. The instrument consists of 5-minute observational cycles repeated during the classroom activities. During each cycle, the trained observer records the behavior of the teacher and four students, and the process is repeated. Categories of student behaviors on the STROBE include: 1) Learner-to-learner engagement, such as speaking, listening, or both, 2) Learner-to-instructor engagement, such as speaking, listening, or both, and 3) Self-engagement: Learner reading, writing, or otherwise not visibly interacting with other learners or instructor. The observers also write free comments at the end of each 5-minute observation cycle. The reliability of the instrument measured by inter-observer agreement of observers who simultaneously scored the engagement of students was good to excellent [ 57 ]. In addition, validity-evidence was confirmed by the findings that student-student and student-instructor engagement were greater in PBL compared with traditional lectures [ 57 , 58 ], and that engagement scores using STROBE correlated with student self-report of engagement [ 57 ].

In-class engagement measure (IEM)

The instrument is a revised form of STROBE to determine the level of engagement of students and teachers in the classroom settings on direct observation. Each observation cycle includes recording the behaviors of an instructor and four randomly selected students as snapshots for 5-min cycles [ 59 , 60 ]. Each 5-min cycle consists of four 20-sec observations of individual learners. The observer scores student behavior on a scale 1 to 5 where 1 to 2 is non-participating personal without any communication and 3 to 5 is gradually increasing levels of participation and communication with the instructor and peers. The instrument demonstrated content-related validity evidence by review from education experts and criterion-related evidence of validity by the significantly higher engagement scores in active learning compared with traditional classes. In addition, the reliability of the instrument was proved by excellent inter-observer agreement in scores.

Real-time measures

Student engagement is a dynamic construct that responds to changes in the educational context. Therefore, several real-time measures have been developed to measure moment-to-moment changes in student engagement as it unfolds especially at the level of an educational activity. Examples of real-time measures applied for measuring student engagement in HPE are log files, physiological measures, and eye tracking. Log files are computer-generated data files that record system-related information including the internet usage patterns and activities. Log files can capture several indicators of behavioral engagement of students in technology-enhanced learning environments [ 61 , 62 , 63 , 64 , 65 , 66 , 67 , 68 , 69 ]. For example, a computer-generated engagement metric used multiple indicators to measure engagement of medical students with virtual patients such as time on page, MCQ answer accuracy, use of a clinical reasoning tool, and scores of students' written summary statements based on the VP encounter [ 69 ]. In addition, log files and physiological measures can automatically capture indicators of cognitive and emotional engagement (Table 2 ).

For example, heart rate changes are used for measuring cognitive engagement of medical students in different types of class activities [ 70 ]. Eye-tracking is another indicator of engagement with the assumption that fixating the eyes on text or images for longer period indicate that students are cognitively engaged with the subject [ 71 ]. For example, eye-tracking has been used for measuring engagement of medical students with moulage simulations [ 72 ]. Real-time measures have the advantage of collecting large amounts of information in a short period. The collected data from real-time measures are usually precise because they are not subject to human errors or bias. However, analyzing this large volume of data could be challenging. In addition, these measures could be expensive and difficult to use in real educational environments [ 73 ].

Interviews and focus groups

Interviews and focus groups have the advantage of collecting in-depth information about student engagement. The collected information is usually deep and rich as students have the chance to explain how their engagement unfolds in a learning environment. By discussing with HPE students, they can explain the contextual factors that trigger or inhibit their engagement [ 74 , 75 , 76 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 80 ]. Students can also explain the types and characteristics of their engagement [ 81 ] and how they get engaged in learning activities [ 79 ]. Despite these advantages, collecting and analyzing qualitative data from interviews and focus groups are time-consuming and require training of interviewers [ 13 ]. In addition, the small sample of students and interviewer biases could limit the generalizability of conclusions about student engagement.

e) Multiple methods

The comprehensive nature of the engagement construct made it almost impossible to measure all its components using a single instrument. To address this problem, several studies have used mixed quantitative and qualitative methods to triangulate the evidence about student engagement [ 72 , 82 , 83 , 84 , 85 , 86 , 87 ]. Studies have also used multiple quantitative measures to capture more dimensions of this complex construct [ 88 ]. Another purpose of using multiple methods is to identify the contextual factors that drive/inhibit student engagement as well as the outcomes of engagement. For example, a study used self-report surveys, real-time measures, and interviews for measuring engagement of medical students in Anatomy and Histology by using digital games [ 82 ]. In this study, measures were not only focused on indicators related to the engagement construct, but also on antecedents and outcomes of engagement [ 82 ]. Another study used direct observation, work sample analysis, teacher rating, and student self-report to investigate the role of virtual patient simulations (VPS) in fostering student engagement [ 83 ]. The methods used were a mix between measuring flow (a state of engagement) and antecedents of engagement such as motivation, interest, and relevance [ 83 ]. Another study used both log files and focus group discussion to examine how visual learning analytics tools such as learning dashboards can support medical students’ cognitive engagement in the classroom [ 85 ]. The log files were used for measuring cognitive engagement while the focus group discussion explored the perceptions of students about their cognitive engagement [ 85 ]. Furthermore, a study used Immersion Score Rating Instrument (ISRI), engagement self-report, eye-tracking, and stimulated recall interviews to explore how the moulage authenticity impacts on student engagement [ 72 ]. Although multiple methods can capture different aspects of engagement, the real challenge is how to reconcile the inconsistency in the findings from different methods and combine these findings to achieve a more comprehensive image of student engagement.

Conclusions and future directions

The measurement of student engagement in HPE has been a challenge despite the progressive interest of studying the construct for more than two decades. We conclude this review by highlighting important points to consider before developing and selecting instruments for measuring student engagement in HPE as shown in Table 3 .

First , conceptualizing and defining student engagement is an important step in its operationalization and developing the appropriate methods of measurement. Furthermore, aligning the methods of measuring engagement with the underlying theoretical perspectives would streamline the comparison of findings across student engagement studies. Most of the available methods focus on measuring the psychological perspective of student engagement, while the behavioral perspective is limited to measuring student engagement at the institutional level. However, methods of measuring engagement from the socio-cultural theoretical perspective in the HPE literature are still in infancy. This is particularly relevant to the sphere of student engagement as partners in HPE education where theories such as Community of Practice (CoP) and Positioning theory are applicable [ 1 ].

Second , an important consideration during the design or selection of an instrument for measuring student engagement is identifying the dimensions of engagement that can be measured. Several instruments are available in the HPE literature for measuring behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement of students. However, the instruments designed to measure the agentic and socio-cultural dimensions of student engagement in HPE are limited and should be the target for future research.

Third , a plethora of publications in HPE address the measurement of student engagement in the sphere of own learning while measuring engagement of students as partners has been limited. Furthermore, most of the existing instruments in HPE literature about measuring student engagement as partners are not focusing on the engagement construct. Instead, the instruments used in these studies are measuring the drivers [ 78 , 80 , 89 ] and outcomes [ 84 , 90 ] of student engagement. While the existing literature has provided valuable insights into the topic of student engagement as partners, further research is required to explore its practical applications and potential impact in HPE settings.

Fourth , student engagement has been conceptualized as a multi-level construct with variable time scales. Therefore, the granularity of measured engagement (learning activity, course, school, university) should be clearly identified at the outset of the study [ 7 ]. This issue has important implications on the appropriate method for each engagement level. For example, student engagement in a short learning activity can better be measured by direct observation or real-time measures. On the other hand, student engagement at the macro-level of the program can be measured by self-report surveys or interviews.

Finally , it is important to note that disengagement is not at the opposite end of the engagement spectrum. Engagement and disengagement are conceptually considered as distinct constructs with different outcomes. Accordingly, engagement and disengagement dimensions are distinct and require different structures of the instruments used for their measurement. Specifically, there is a lack of research on the measurement of student disengagement in HPE, highlighting the need for more studies to explore the different aspects related to this construct.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


Classroom engagement survey

Classroom Survey of Student Engagement

Community of Practice

Health professions education

In-class engagement measure

National Survey of Student Engagement

Online Student Engagement Scale

Technology-enhanced Learning

User Experience Questionnaire

User Engagement Scale-20

University Student Engagement Inventory

Utrecht Work Engagement Scale

Kassab SE, Taylor D, Hamdy H. Student engagement in health professions education: AMEE Guide No. 152. Med Teach. 2022;1–17.

Frenzel AC, Goetz T, Lüdtke O, Pekrun R, Sutton RE. Emotional transmission in the classroom: exploring the relationship between teacher and student enjoyment. J Educ Psychol. 2009;101(3):705–16.

Article   Google Scholar  

WFME. Basic Medical Education, WFME Global Standards for Quality Improvement. 2020 Available from: .

Harden RM, Roberts TE. ASPIRE: international recognition of excellence in medical education. Lancet. 2015;385(9964):230.

Kassab SE, El-Sayed W, Hamdy H. Student engagement in undergraduate medical education: a scoping review. Med Educ. 2022;56(7):703–15.

Kahu ER. Framing student engagement in higher education. Stud High Educ. 2013;38(5):758–73.

Wong ZY, Liem GAD. Student Engagement: Current State of the Construct, Conceptual Refinement, and Future Research Directions. Educ Psychol Rev. 2021;34(1):107-38.

Kuh GD. The national survey of student engagement: Conceptual and empirical foundations. New Dir Inst Res. 2009;2009(141):5–20.

Google Scholar  

GQ F. Sociocultural and civic engagement.: Saratoga Springs, NY: Suny Empire State College; 2022 [Available from: .

Klemenčič M. From student engagement to student agency: conceptual considerations of European policies on student-centered learning in higher education. High Educ Pol. 2017;30(1):69–85.

Reeve J, Tseng C-M. Agency as a fourth aspect of students’ engagement during learning activities. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2011;36(4):257–67.

Groccia JE. What is student engagement? New Dir Teach Learn. 2018;2018(154):11–20.

Fredricks JA, McColskey W. The measurement of student engagement: A comparative analysis of various methods and student self-report Instruments. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie, editors. Handbook of research on student engagement. Springer Science + Business Media; 2012. p.763–782

Rotgans JI, Schmidt HG, Rajalingam P, Hao JWY, Canning CA, Ferenczi MA, et al. How cognitive engagement fluctuates during a team-based learning session and how it predicts academic achievement. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2018;23(2):339–51.

Rotgans JI, Schmidt HG. Cognitive engagement in the problem-based learning classroom. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2011;16(4):465–79.

Hadie SNH, Tan VPS, Omar N, Nik MohdAlwi NA, Lim HL, Ku Marsilla KI. COVID-19 Disruptions in health professional education: use of cognitive load theory on students’ comprehension, cognitive load, engagement, and motivation. Front Med (Lausanne). 2021;8:739238.

Wong V, Smith AJ, Hawkins NJ, Kumar RK, Young N, Kyaw M, et al. Adaptive tutorials versus web-based resources in radiology: a mixed methods comparison of efficacy and student engagement. Acad Radiol. 2015;22(10):1299–307.

Chan V, Larson ND, Moody DA, Moyer DG, Shah NL. Impact of 360 degrees vs 2D videos on engagement in anatomy education. Cureus. 2021;13(4): e14260.

Meng L, Jin Y. A confirmatory factor analysis of the Utrecht work engagement scale for students in a Chinese sample. Nurse Educ Today. 2017;49:129–34.

Luo Y, Geng C, Pei X, Chen X, Zou Z. The evaluation of the distance learning combining webinars and virtual simulations for senior nursing students during the COVID-19 period. Clin Simul Nurs. 2021;57:31–40.

Agarwal G, Mosquera M, Ring M, Victorson D. Work engagement in medical students: an exploratory analysis of the relationship between engagement, burnout, perceived stress, lifestyle factors, and medical student attitudes. Med Teach. 2020;42(3):299–305.

Wouters A, Croiset G, Schripsema NR, Cohen-Schotanus J, Spaai GWG, Hulsman RL, et al. A multi-site study on medical school selection, performance, motivation and engagement. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2017;22(2):447–62.

Casuso-Holgado MJ, Cuesta-Vargas AIM-M, N. The association between academic engagement and achievement in health sciences students. BMC Med Educ. 2013;13(33).

Liu H, Yansane AI, Zhang Y, Fu H, Hong N, Kalenderian E. Burnout and study engagement among medical students at Sun Yat-sen University, China: a cross-sectional study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018;97(15): e0326.

Kakoschke N, Hassed C, Chambers R, Lee K. The importance of formal versus informal mindfulness practice for enhancing psychological wellbeing and study engagement in a medical student cohort with a 5-week mindfulness-based lifestyle program. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(10): e0258999.

Skodova Z, Lajciakova P, Banovcinova L. Burnout syndrome among health care students: the role of type d personality. West J Nurs Res. 2017;39(3):416–29.

Koob C, Schropfer K, Coenen M, Kus S, Schmidt N. Factors influencing study engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic: A cross-sectional study among health and social professions students. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(7): e0255191.

Puranitee P, Kaewpila W, Heeneman S, van Mook W, Busari JO. Promoting a sense of belonging, engagement, and collegiality to reduce burnout: a mixed methods study among undergraduate medical students in a non-Western, Asian context. BMC Med Educ. 2022;22(1):327.

Wu H, Li S, Zheng J, Guo J. Medical students’ motivation and academic performance: the mediating roles of self-efficacy and learning engagement. Med Educ Online. 2020;25(1):1742964.

Presoto CD, Wajngarten D, Dos Santos Domingos PA, Botta AC, Campos J, Pazos JM, et al. University engagement of dental students related to educational environment: a transnational study. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(11): e0259524.

Abreu Alves S, Sinval J, Lucas Neto L, Maroco J, Goncalves Ferreira A, Oliveira P. Burnout and dropout intention in medical students: the protective role of academic engagement. BMC Med Educ. 2022;22(1):83.

Zucoloto ML, de Oliveira V, Maroco J, Bonini Campos JAD. School engagement and burnout in a sample of Brazilian students. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2016;8(5):659–66.

Mennenga HA. Student engagement and examination performance in a team-based learning course. J Nurs Educ. 2013;52(8):475–9.

Cheng CY, Liou SR, Tsai HM, Chang CH. The effects of Team-Based Learning on learning behaviors in the maternal-child nursing course. Nurse Educ Today. 2014;34(1):25–30.

Ulfa Y, Igarashi Y, Takahata K, Shishido E, Horiuchi S. A comparison of team-based learning and lecture-based learning on clinical reasoning and classroom engagement: a cluster randomized controlled trial. BMC Med Educ. 2021;21(1):444.

Pickering JD, Swinnerton BJ. Exploring the dimensions of medical student engagement with technology-enhanced learning resources and assessing the impact on assessment outcomes. Anat Sci Educ. 2019;12(2):117–28.

Dixson MD. Measuring student engagement in the online course: The Online Student Engagement Scale (OSE). Online Learn. 2015;19(4):1–15.

Natarajan J, Joseph MA. Impact of emergency remote teaching on nursing students’ engagement, social presence, and satisfaction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurs Forum. 2022;57(1):42–8.

Hensley A, Hampton D, Wilson JL, Culp-Roche A, Wiggins AT. A multicenter study of student engagement and satisfaction in online programs. J Nurs Educ. 2021;60(5):259–64.

Chan SL, Lin CC, Chau PH, Takemura N, Fung JTC. Evaluating online learning engagement of nursing students. Nurse Educ Today. 2021;104: 104985.

Zhang S, Ma R, Wang Z, Li G, Fa T. Academic self-concept mediates the effect of online learning engagement on deep learning in online courses for Chinese nursing students: a cross-sectional study. Nurse Educ Today. 2022;117: 105481.

Clynes M, Sheridan A, Frazer K. Student engagement in higher education: A cross-sectional study of nursing students’ particpation in college-based education in the republic of Ireland. Nurse Educ Today. 2020;93: 104529.

Clynes M, Sheridan A, Frazer K. Ref: NET_2019_1563: Working while studying: The impact of term-time employment on undergraduate nursing students’ engagement in the Republic of Ireland: A cross-sectional study. Nurse Educ Today. 2020;92: 104513.

Ahlfeldt S, Mehta S, Sellnow T. Measurement and analysis of student engagement in university classes where varying levels of PBL methods of instruction are in use. Higher Educ Res Dev. 2005;24(1):5–20.

Hopper MK. Assessment and comparison of student engagement in a variety of physiology courses. Adv Physiol Educ. 2016;40(1):70–8.

Hopper MK, Brake DA. Student engagement and higher order skill proficiency: a comparison of traditional didactic and renewed integrated active learning curricula. Adv Physiol Educ. 2018;42(4):685–92.

Hopper MK, Kaiser AN. Engagement and higher order skill proficiency of students completing a medical physiology course in three diverse learning environments. Adv Physiol Educ. 2018;42(3):429–38.

Xu X, Bos NA, Wu H. The relationship between medical student engagement in the provision of the school’s education programme and learning outcomes. Med Teach. 2022;44(8):900–6.

Tcha-Tokey K, Christmann O, Loup-Escande E, Richir S. Proposition and validation of a questionnaire to measure the user experience in immersive virtual environments. Int J Virtual Real. 2016;16:33–48.

O’Brien HL, Toms EG. The development and evaluation of a survey to measure user engagement. J Am Soc Inform Sci Technol. 2010;61(1):50–69.

Salmela-Aro K, Upadaya K. The schoolwork engagement inventory: energy, dedication, and absorption (EDA). Eur J Psychol Assess. 2012;28(1):60–7.

Maroco J, Maroco AL, Campos JADB, Fredricks JA. University student’s engagement development of the University Student Engagement Inventory (USEI). Psicologia Reflexão e Crítica. 2016;29(1):158.

ASPIRE. ASPIRE student engagement guidelines for submitters and criteria2020. Available from: .

Ouimet J, Smallwood R. Assessment measures: CLASSE–the class-level survey of student engagement. Assess Upd. 2005;17(6):13.

Rossi RA, Krouse AM, Klein J. Undergraduate student stress, classroom engagement, and self-directed learning postcurricular revision. J Nurs Educ. 2021;60(10):566–9.

Szeto A, Haines J, Buchholz AC. Impact of an optional experiential learning opportunity on student engagement and performance in undergraduate nutrition courses. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2016;77(2):84–8.

O’Malley KJ, Moran BJ, Haidet P, Seidel CL, Schneider V, Morgan RO, et al. Validation of an observation instrument for measuring student engagement in health professions settings. Eval Health Prof. 2003;26(1):86–103.

Kelly PA, Haidet P, Schneider V, Searle N, Seidel CL, Richards BF. A comparison of in-class learner engagement across lecture, problem-based learning, and team learning using the STROBE classroom observation tool. Teach Learn Med. 2005;17(2):112–8.

Alimoglu MK, Sarac DB, Alparslan D, Karakas AA, Altintas L. An observation tool for instructor and student behaviors to measure in-class learner engagement: a validation study. Med Educ Online. 2014;19:24037.

Alimoglu MK, Yardim S, Uysal H. The effectiveness of TBL with real patients in neurology education in terms of knowledge retention, in-class engagement, and learner reactions. Adv Physiol Educ. 2017;41(1):38–43.

Saperstein A, Ledford CJW, Servey J, Cafferty LA, McClintick SH, Bernstein EM. Microblog use and student engagement in the large-classroom setting. Fam Med. 2015;473:204–9.

Mackintosh-Franklin C. An evaluation into the impact of undergraduate nursing students classroom attendance and engagement with online tasks on overall academic achievement. Nurse Educ Today. 2018;61:89–93.

Kauffman CA, Derazin M, Asmar A, Kibble JD. Patterns of medical student engagement in a second-year pathophysiology course: relationship to USMLE Step 1 performance. Adv Physiol Educ. 2019;43(4):512–8.

Ribeiro LMC, Mamede S, de Brito EM, Moura AS, de Faria RMD, Schmidt HG. Effects of deliberate reflection on students’ engagement in learning and learning outcomes. Med Educ. 2019;53(4):390–7.

Caton JB, Chung S, Adeniji N, Hom J, Brar K, Gallant A, et al. Student engagement in the online classroom: comparing preclinical medical student question-asking behaviors in a videoconference versus in-person learning environment. FASEB Bioadv. 2021;3(2):110–7.

Quesnelle KM, Montemayor JR. A multi-institutional study demonstrating undergraduate medical student engagement with question-type facebook posts. Med Sci Educ. 2020;30(1):111–5.

Juan S. Promoting engagement of nursing students in online learning: use of the student-generated question in a nursing leadership course. Nurse Educ Today. 2021;97: 104710.

Grant LL, Opperman MJ, Schiller B, Chastain J, Richardson JD, Eckel C, et al. Medical student engagement in a virtual learning environment positively correlates with course performance and satisfaction in psychiatry. Med Sci Educ. 2021;1133:1–8.

Berman NB, Artino AR Jr. Development and initial validation of an online engagement metric using virtual patients. BMC Med Educ. 2018;18(1):213.

Darnell DK, Krieg PA. Student engagement, assessed using heart rate, shows no reset following active learning sessions in lectures. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(12): e0225709.

Miller BW. Using reading times and eye-movements to measure cognitive engagement. Educ Psychol. 2015;50(1):31–42.

Stokes-Parish JB, Duvivier R, Jolly B. How does moulage contribute to medical students’ perceived engagement in simulation? A mixed-methods pilot study. Adv Simul (Lond). 2020;5:23.

Fredricks JA, Hofkens TL, Wang MT. Addressing the challenge of measuring student engagement. In: The Cambridge Handbook of Motivation and Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2019. p. 689–712.

Bicket M, Misra S, Wright SM. Medical student engagement and leadership within a new learning community. BMC Med Educ. 2010;10:20.

Reid HJ, Thomson C, McGlade KJ. Content and discontent: a qualitative exploration of obstacles to elearning engagement in medical students. BMC Med Educ. 2016;16:188.

Hartnup B, Dong L, Eisingerich AB. How an environment of stress and social risk shapes student engagement with social media as potential digital learning platforms: qualitative study. JMIR Med Educ. 2018;4(2): e10069.

Seligman L, Abdullahi A, Teherani A, Hauer KE. From Grading to assessment for learning: a qualitative study of student perceptions surrounding elimination of core clerkship grades and enhanced formative feedback. Teach Learn Med. 2021;33(3):314–25.

Fang KM, Lau GC, Park JY, Tchen P. Exploring factors that influence student engagement in community-engaged learning activities within a pharmacy context. Am J Pharm Educ. 2022;86(4):296–303.

Grijpma JW, Mak-van der Vossen M, Kusurkar RA, Meeter M, de la Croix A. Medical student engagement in small-group active learning: A stimulated recall study. Med Educ. 2022;56(4):432–43.

McNaught K, Rhoding C. Exploring the factors influencing medical student engagement with rural clinical placement opportunities. Austr Int J Rur Educ. 2022;32:70–84.

Wang Y, Ji Y. How do they learn: types and characteristics of medical and healthcare student engagement in a simulation-based learning environment. BMC Med Educ. 2021;21(1):420.

Janssen A, Shaw T, Goodyear P, Kerfoot BP, Bryce D. A little healthy competition: using mixed methods to pilot a team-based digital game for boosting medical student engagement with anatomy and histology content. BMC Med Educ. 2015;15:173.

McCoy L, Pettit RK, Lewis JH, Allgood JA, Bay C, Schwartz FN. Evaluating medical student engagement during virtual patient simulations: a sequential, mixed methods study. BMC Med Educ. 2016;16:20.

Milles LS, Hitzblech T, Drees S, Wurl W, Arends P, Peters H. Student engagement in medical education: a mixed-method study on medical students as module co-directors in curriculum development. Med Teach. 2019;41(10):1143–50.

de Leng B, Pawelka F. The use of learning dashboards to support complex in-class pedagogical scenarios in medical training: how do they influence students’ cognitive engagement? Res Pract Technol Enhanced Learn. 2020;15(1):1.

Hughes M, Salamonson Y, Metcalfe L. Student engagement using multiple-attempt “weekly participation task” quizzes with undergraduate nursing students. Nurse Educ Pract. 2020;46: 102803.

Shoepe TC, McManus JF, August SE, Mattos NL, Vollucci TC, Sparks PR. Instructor prompts and student engagement in synchronous online nutrition classes. Am J Distance Educ. 2020;34(3):194–210.

Giddens J, Hrabe D, Carlson-Sabelli L, Fogg L, North S. The impact of a virtual community on student engagement and academic performance among baccalaureate nursing students. J Prof Nurs. 2012;28(5):284–90.

Lee S, Valtis YK, Jun T, Wang D, Zhang B, Chung EH, et al. Measuring and improving student engagement in clinical training. Educ Prim Care. 2018;29(1):22–6.

Averkiou P, Nirmala P, Paiewonsky B, Sara T. Community-Engaged Learning: addressing gaps in medical education through a service-learning curriculum. J Serv-Learn Higher Educ. 2021;13:44–57.

Download references


No funding.

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

College of Medicine, Gulf Medical University, Ajman, United Arab Emirates

Salah Eldin Kassab, Mohamed Al-Eraky, Walid El-Sayed, Hossam Hamdy & Henk Schmidt

Faculty of Medicine, Suez Canal University, Ismailia, Egypt

Salah Eldin Kassab

College of Dentistry, Suez Canal University, Ismailia, Egypt

Walid El-Sayed

Institute for Medical Education Research, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Henk Schmidt

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar


SEK initiated the idea of the review article. WE and SK conducted the literature search and collected the relevant articles. SEK and HH developed the draft version of the article. MA helped in editing the different versions of the manuscript. HS played a significant role in the revised version of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the revision, editing, and finalizing the manuscript. The author(s) read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Salah Eldin Kassab .

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate, consent for publication, competing interests.

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note.

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit . The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( ) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article.

Kassab, S.E., Al-Eraky, M., El-Sayed, W. et al. Measurement of student engagement in health professions education: a review of literature. BMC Med Educ 23 , 354 (2023).

Download citation

Received : 04 January 2023

Accepted : 10 May 2023

Published : 20 May 2023


Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Student engagement
  • Students as partners
  • Measurement
  • Health sciences
  • Physiotherapy

BMC Medical Education

ISSN: 1472-6920

definition of justice literature


  1. Socratess Definition Of Justice

    definition of justice literature

  2. Socratess Definition Of Justice

    definition of justice literature

  3. What Is Justice? Definition And Usage Of This Term

    definition of justice literature

  4. PPT

    definition of justice literature

  5. What is Justice

    definition of justice literature

  6. PPT

    definition of justice literature


  1. Examples and Definition of Poetic Justice

    In literature, poetic justice is an ideal form of justice, in which the good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished, by an ironic twist of fate. It is a strong literary view that all forms of literature must convey moral lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to conform to moral principles.

  2. Justice in Research: History, Principle and Application (A Literature

    Abstract. This literature review explores historical backgrounds of justice with reference to philosophical concepts and theoretical frameworks of justice (esp. Distributive Justice) from ...

  3. Justice

    1. Justice: Mapping the Concept 1.1 Justice and Individual Claims 1.2 Justice, Charity and Enforceable Obligation 1.3 Justice and Impartiality 1.4 Justice and Agency 2. Justice: Four Distinctions 2.1 Conservative versus Ideal Justice 2.2 Corrective versus Distributive Justice 2.3 Procedural versus Substantive Justice

  4. The Meaning of Justice

    As this is put in Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will." Aristotle instructs us that the prevalence of...

  5. Poetic justice

    Poetic justice, in literature, an outcome in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded, usually in a manner peculiarly or ironically appropriate. The term was coined by the English literary critic Thomas Rymer in the 17th century, when it was believed that a work of literature should uphold moral

  6. Poetic Justice Examples and Definition

    The definition of poetic justice was created by the English drama critic Thomas Rymer in 1678 in his book The Tragedies of the Last Age Considere'd.He urged authors to set moral examples and show how good overcomes evil. Indeed, Rymer was a critic at a time when it was thought that the role of literature was to provide moral education to the reading populace.

  7. Opinion

    In discussing justice as a personal virtue, Aristotle said that being just, " is a mean between committing injustice and suffering it, since the one is having more than one's share, while the ...

  8. PDF Criminology and Literature

    literary expression, every imaginative representation of crime and justice is a criminological theory waiting to be discovered and empirically tested. Although criminology and literature has only become a distinct academic field in the 21st century, precursors date back to the first half of the 20th century, with literary critics comparing

  9. Justice

    justice, In philosophy, the concept of a proper proportion between a person's deserts (what is merited) and the good and bad things that befall or are allotted to him or her. Aristotle's discussion of the virtue of justice has been the starting point for almost all Western accounts. For him, the key element of justice is treating like cases alike, an idea that has set later thinkers the ...

  10. Fiction and Justice

    evidence in the fact that current literary and cultural studies often authorize their claims for social justice by reference to fictional texts, although these are, by definition, mere inventions and "lies." Can fictional texts such as novels, plays, or films offer meaningful contribu tions to the question of what constitutes justice?

  11. Poetic justice Definition & Meaning

    poetic justice: [noun] an outcome in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded usually in a manner peculiarly or ironically appropriate.

  12. Ancient Concepts of Justice Explained

    Larry Slawson Updated: Sep 15, 2023 9:49 AM EDT The scales of justice Ancient Concept of Justice In ancient history, the concept of "justice" was examined and debated by numerous thinkers, including Plato, Homer, Hesiod, Solon, Heraclitus, Protagoras, and Socrates.

  13. What is Poetic Justice? Definition, Examples of Poetic Justice in

    Definition of poetic justice: Poetic justice deals with the idea that good deeds are rewarded while evil ones are punished. What Does Poetic Justice Mean? What is poetic justice? In a perfect world, people imagine that the virtuous should be rewarded while those who commit evil or wrongdoings should be punished.

  14. Justice Definition & Meaning

    justice noun jus· tice ˈjə-stəs plural justices Synonyms of justice 1 a : the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments meting out justice social justice b : judge


    poetic justice definition: 1. an occasion when something bad happens to a person who seems to deserve it, usually because of…. Learn more.

  16. Justice Analysis

    To be enjoyed or broken. Summary of Justice Popularity of "Justice": Justice is written by Rita Joe, a respected poet and songwriter. It is a remarkable poetic piece. The poem mocks the way justice is accomplished in the world. She brilliantly highlights the multiple faces of justice and the way it is served to people.

  17. Justice

    Justice, in its broadest sense, is the concept that individuals are to be treated in a manner that is equitable and fair.. A society in which justice has been achieved would be one in which individuals receive what they "deserve". The interpretation of what "deserve" means draws on a variety of fields and philosophies, like ethics, rationality, law, religion, equity and fairness.

  18. Examples and Definition of Poetic Justice

    Poetic Justice Definition In literature, poetic justice is an ideal shape of justice, in which the best characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished, via an ironic twist of fate. It is a robust literary view that all kinds of literature need to convey ethical lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to comply to moral ...

  19. What Does Poetic Justice Mean?

    According to Literary Devices, the term poetic justice is used in literature to refer to an ideal form of justice in which good characters are rewarded and bad characters are punished by an ironic twist of fate.

  20. Poetic Justice definition and example literary device

    Poetic Justice Definition. In literature, poetic justice is an ideal form of justice, in which the good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished, by an ironic twist of fate. It is a strong literary view that all forms of literature must convey moral lessons. Therefore, writers employ poetic justice to conform to moral principles.

  21. How Do You Define "Justice"?

    I share this story with you because, over the last few years, the term "Justice" has become far to ill-defined and confused with other virtues and ideas. Words mean things, and if we play fast and loose with their meanings, we inhibit our ability to communicate, diagnose problems, and identify the best solutions.

  22. justice noun

    to tell a lie or to do something in order to prevent the police, etc. from finding out the truth about a crime See justice in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary Check pronunciation: justice Definition of justice noun in Oxford Advanced American Dictionary.

  23. What Is Poetic Justice? Examples & Definition

    Definition Of Poetic Justice. Poetic justice is often used to describe a situation that is the result of karma, maybe more than just an expression. It's also been studied by psychologists and brain scientists for decades. ... Poetic justice is a literary term that refers to the principle of "what goes around comes around." ...

  24. Understanding the true meaning of justice

    God's justice is a world in line with God's ways. Righteousness closely relates to justice throughout scripture. Once justice sets things right with the world, righteousness is the ongoing right living which maintains the order of justice according to God. Righteousness is attributed to a moral, spiritual, and ethical alignment with the ...

  25. Measurement of student engagement in health professions education: a

    Student engagement is a complex multidimensional construct that has attained great interest in health professions education (HPE). Definition and conceptualization of student engagement is an important step that should drive the development of the instruments for its measurement. We have recently proposed a comprehensive framework for student engagement in HPE with a definition of engagement ...

  26. LeVar Burton used to encourage kids to read books. Now he's telling

    As the National Book Awards came to a close on Wednesday, finalists for the prestigious literary prizes took the stage in New York to speak about the Israel-Hamas war. Others spoke out against ...