The evolution of justice, from Socrates to today

People have debated what justice is exactly for the last 3,000 years. How have our ideas changed in that time?

Everybody seems to like justice. Nearly every culture that has left us a written record of its thinking and way of life has elevated justice to the status of a cardinal virtue. The question of what justice is, however, has troubled leading minds for the last 3,000 years. Over time, the shift in what we consider justice to be is rather fascinating.


Here, we will compare ancient, medieval, and modern ideas of justice and see how far we have come.

Classical Justice

Socrates being put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Is this just? Or is the system that did this flawed? (Public domain)

In Ancient Greece justice was viewed rather differently than it is today. As explained in Plato's Republic, viewing justice as harmony can lead to some very interesting ideas not only for how the individual should behave but also for how the state should be organized. Well, at least when Plato is doing the organizing.

For the individual, this means balancing the three parts of the soul: reason, spirit, and desire. The just individual does their duty in the right place and is fair in all dealings. Exactly how they will act is variable based on time and place, but a person with enough practical wisdom will know what to do.

For the city, this meant a rigid caste system ruled by philosopher kings with an iron fist and Orwellian control of daily life. This totalitarian system would assure every person was in their proper place and that the system would continue harmoniously. The interests of the individual had little claim to anything in this system as the interests of society were all that mattered.

Aristotle didn’t go so far as to argue for the totalitarian city-state of Republic but did agree that different groups of people should be treated differently under the law. In Politics, he even argues that some persons are “natural slaves” and it is best for everyone if those people are enslaved rather than free.   

Medieval Justice


St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote prolifically on justice. (Getty Images)

The leading European mind of the Middle Ages was St. Thomas Aquinas. The patron saint of teachers, his thought covered nearly all areas of philosophic endeavor. His ideas of justice remain influential in the Catholic Church, and a more modern school of ethical and political theory based on his ideas, known as Thomism, continues to attract interest.

Aquinas argued for a system of justice based on proportional reciprocity. That is, each just person gives what is due to others in the measure that they are due. This won't be equal for everybody and what you owe them is going to be based not only on civil law but also on moral law. We should view ourselves as part of a community, he suggests, and our actions should also consider how to benefit everyone.

He also offers a shrewd way to view the virtue of justice. While even today it is not uncommon to hear the argument that an atheist cannot be trusted to be just as they don’t believe in divine reward and punishment, Aquinas shows us this is rather silly.

He understood that there were many things which could be understood by reason alone and did not require Christian faith to know. As the golden rule is one such thing, a non-Christian could be trusted to comprehend justice and act on it. This helped to legitimize pre-Christian and Islamic thought in a theocratic Europe that was suspicious of their heathen influence.

St. Aquinas also argued that there was such a thing as a “just price” for goods and services. He argues that while it is just to make a bit of profit, a seller that raises their prices in response to a spike in demand is acting unjustly. His theory of distributive justice isn’t as fleshed out as modern conceptions, however.

Modern Justice


A man considers the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a thoroughly modern document. (Getty Images)

Perhaps the most striking difference between modern justice and that of previous eras is our conception of egalitarianism. Nearly all societies today at least give lip service to the idea that all people are considered equal before the law.

This egalitarianism has its roots in the enlightenment thought of many philosophers, not the least of whom was Immanuel Kant and his stance that we should treat all people as ends in themselves and not as tools for our desires. While this equality was limited to men at first, the scope of who qualifies for equal rights has continued to expand ever since—if slowly and in fits and starts.

Today we also have a surplus of theories of distributive justice, something which was lacking before Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations. This development is comparatively recent in intellectual history and proposals of distributive justice before Smith are not nearly so fleshed out. 

While Smith based his system on the market, others looked to moral justifications for their theories. Marx, Mill, Rawls, and Nozick all offer us differing ideas of how goods should be distributed in a society based on the inherent rights and moral claims of the individual in ways that thinkers in ages past never considered. While their ideas are beyond the scope of this article, the links will take you to explanations.

What justice is, how we reach it, and what it means to both us and the state are questions which have plagued the world for the last few thousand years. As we have seen, the answers that societies have settled on have changed dramatically in that time. While ideas of what justice is continue to evolve, it can edify us to see what changes have already occurred.

Most of us today would view the concepts of ancient Greece and the Middle Ages as barbaric; how will our ideas be viewed in the far future? To reflect on the ideas long since put aside can give context to ours, and aid us going forward. 

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What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

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As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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