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Reaching the Asymptote: The Relationship Between Justice and Law

Written by Walter Lu (PH ’24)


“Of all the things of a man’s soul which he has within him, justice is the greatest good and injustice the greatest evil.” This idea, which Plato establishes in The Republic, still resonates in modern society. Whenever an apparently unjust verdict provokes the public, the following question arises: what exactly is the relationship between justice and law? This essay will claim that law can approach justice but that it can never actually reach it. The moral and ethical blind spots unique to each period and culture detain the law from achieving perfect justice.

In order to make this argument, this paper will first utilize different philosophical theories in order to define law and justice. Then, the paper will analyze famous cases in legal history in order to show how the law can be continually refined to make it more just. In the end, the paper will show that a gap always exists between law (which is practical and contingent) and justice (which is ideal and detached).

Before the relationship between law and justice can be clearly established, the terms themselves must be defined. In particular, justice, as it applies on the individual level, must be clarified. Throughout his work, Aristotle proposes several conceptions of justice. In one of his early works, Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that justice consists of “fairness involving equitable distributions and the correction of what is inequitable.” Over time, this conception of justice modulates in his work. Aristotle later accepted that individual justice must correlate with the “relation to another person.” By this definition, justice is identified by the moral sense of “what we owe to each other.”

Like Aristotle, Catholic philosophy conceives justice—along with prudence, fortitude, and temperance—as one of the four cardinal virtues. We only see the appearance of these virtues while interacting with people. What we do to others is a prominent factor in deciding if an action is just or not. Modern verdicts in criminal law largely rely on verifying the amount of affliction that the defendant has applied to the plaintiff. Modern philosophers generally agree that “justice concerns judgements of other people.” Our routine actions justify this statement: how we purchase, converse, or argue are largely related to the relation we have with others.

Aristotelian Approach

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Applying the concept of justice exclusively to the scope of the individual does not address its public aspect. The complex configuration of justice in public policy must also be discussed. Socrates’ analogy between the soul and the city in The Republic seems like a simple theory. He argued that, if residents of a city are just, then the city ought to be just. Martha Nussbaum, modern American philosopher and current professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, has re-introduced the Aristotelian approach to justice in her book Quality of Life. Aristotle believed that whether people do the right action in a given situation is key to determining whether the action is just or not. Even though Nussbaum defends this theory, arguing that it is a theory of non-relative ethics, her work fails to avoid the fallacy of cultural relativism, which assumes that cultural background itself cannot be wrong. Similar assumptions could bring results that obviously contradict our moral intuition.

In the case of cultural relativism, the abolition of slavery would be considered wrong, since it fights against a culture that accepts it. Disregarding this loophole in reasoning, Nussbaum’s defense of Aristotle’s theory of the “Sphere of life” applies equally to the modern legal system, where local laws adapt to local customs but still retain fundamental, universal recognition of virtue. Legislation and law enforcement generally follow this idea to achieve justice on the general scale.

We see that the understanding of justice can vary. It depends on situations, location, time, and more. However, this relativity has often been questioned, since multiple areas of philosophy believe that justice should be absolute. To further investigate the absoluteness of justice, we have to understand the major conceptions of its absolute nature.

Kantian Morality

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Kantian moral philosophy provides one of the strongest supports for absolute justice. According to Kant, the categorical imperative is a universal rule that is applicable to every human being, regardless of gender, cultural background, religion, or other contingent categories. Kant believes that a moral law restricts everything.

The first formulation of universalizability says that people should “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” With this formulation, Kant asserts that, if our actions follow a common rule, with no exceptions, our actions will be just.

The second formulation, the formula of humanity, requires that one should “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a mere means.” By distinguishing between ends and means, Kant clarifies that a just action is one that treats the other as a subject and not an instrument. Both formulations exist without reference to personal differences. They are based not on identity but on logic and reason. This notion of justice resolves individual problems by de-personalizing them, making it easier to enforce the law. The conciseness of Kant’s formulation is why it has prevailed for centuries.

Justice as an Objective Existence

Throughout human history, people have disputed whether justice was relative or absolute. I firmly believe that justice exists objectively. I will address this assertion from two different angles: logic and empirical observation.

Firstly, it is true that we constantly feel that some judgements are unjust. If we recognize injustice, its counterpart must exist. It would be pointless to feel that injustice had taken place if justice did not exist. Therefore, justice must exist. Those who think that since “there is no absolute correctness or absolute falseness” have committed a logical fallacy. The statement “there is no absolute correctness or absolute falseness” is itself an absolute statement, leading us into a self-contradictory situation.

Secondly, empirical observation tells us that an objective justice must exist. We experience injustice; therefore, the intention and desire for justice must exist in our minds. As psychological studies demonstrate that thoughts and beliefs correspond to reality and that feelings are true to life, we know that all human feelings, intuitions, and emotions must have an objective relation to reality. The same is true with justice. We feel hungry, so food exists objectively to fill our stomach; we feel thirsty, so water must exist to quench our thirst. Why do we feel an urge to seek justice? Because there must be an objectively existing justice.

Asserting that justice exists objectively, we may start the discussion of law.


To investigate the relationship between justice and law, the legal reform must be discussed. Throughout the history of jurisprudence, cases are commonly overturned. This is how improvements in law are made. In the nearly 300-year-long advance of the civil rights movements, the legal system has been improved several times.

One watershed moment in this history was the complete abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Quock Walker v. Jennison, a case from April 1781, is one of the first cases to quote the written constitution as a direct law. Nathaniel Jennison and his company were found guilty of assault and battery on Walker. Following the trial, Walker was given freedom and 50 pounds. The trial judge, Chief Justice William Cushing, said that “perpetual servitude can no longer be tolerated in our government, and… liberty can only be forfeited by some criminal conduct or relinquished by personal consent or contract.” Walker was, therefore “a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave” of Jennison. Even though Massachusetts abolished slavery in the late 1700s, Walker’s contribution was still far from enough.

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Laws on the books didn’t improve the scenario much, especially in schools where the majority of students and teachers were white. Roberts v. The City of Boston (1845) illustrates another advancement in legislation. Benjamin F. Roberts argued that the school unlawfully excluded his daughter, Sarah C. Roberts, from receiving proper education. The Massachusetts supreme court decided that “local elected officials had the authority to control local schools and that separate schools did not violate black students’ rights.” This verdict of “separate but equal” was often referenced in later cases involving segregation, including Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, racial segregation was officially considered illegal.

Educational justice was, and still is, a significant public concern, especially in the current era where the income gap has increased and educational resources are unevenly distributed. The 1971 Serrano v. Priest case concerns this issue. John Serrano, who had several kids receiving education in a Los Angeles public school, believed that teaching resources were unevenly distributed between high- and low-income areas. In the 1970s, the majority of school budgets were derived from property taxes, which explained the discrepancy between public schools in areas of different income levels. Steve Sugarman, one of the lawyers for Serrano and a current professor of law at UC Berkley, argued that the case invoked the 14th Amendment, which stated that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Wealth discrimination is one form of privilege. Approximately 20 years later, an additional 20 states had considered funding public education through state-based taxes unconstitutional. That leap of equality changed public schools forever.

Justice and Law: Putting Everything Together

After briefly understanding the concept and clashes about justice and witnessing how the legal system has reformed itself through different cases, we may finally attempt to relate justice and law.

The surprising result is that we do not find the word “justice” in the legal encyclopedia of English. The word isn’t simply undefined; it does not appear at all. However, this does not mean that western judges avoid using the word “justice”; in fact, they use it frequently. Judges use phrases such as “just and equitable” or “just and reasonable” to express their notions. We may see the relationship between law and justice from this phenomenon.

Law, in the strict sense, is a normative phenomenon. It must depend on a social norm that is mandatory to supervise the behavior of people. This social norm is justice, which local legislation tries to protect and reach. Keep in mind that, on the road to pursuing justice, morality must not be ignored. H.L.A. Hart, English legal positivist who was once a professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University, claims in The Concept of Law that law should continuously be subject to moral scrutiny but not solely a closed logical system. He believed that we should try our best to apply universal laws to achieve justice, “though that most odious laws may be justly applied, we have, in the bare notion of applying a general rule of law, the germ at least of justice.”A mathematical analogy would help to further understand the relationship between law and justice.

Justice is the asymptote that the curve of law can never reach. Although we continuously refine and improve the law to reduce the distance between law and justice, these two concepts may never intersect. Law is a method for reaching justice, and justice is the ultimate objective. The method may improve, and may rebuild, while the objective remains the same.

Assuming that my notion on the relationship between law and justice is correct, even though this dispute over the topic may never stop, and we may never have the answer to the question, the evolution and reformation of law would also be forever running. Philosophers and legislators will continue this debate until we find the key that leads us to justice. “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered,” says Aristotle. May law lead us closer to a just society, and wish we achieve the ultimate justice one day.

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