Relational Justice


Without either my teachers or me knowing it, I am fairly sure that my first encounter with any broad or deep understanding of justice in this life came in these familiar terms when I was a child:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  This proverbial wisdom is found in so many words in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions.  It was taught to me as “the golden rule.” By calling it such, I understood that it was supposed to count before anything else.

The golden rule certainly embodies what in modern literature can be called “relational justice.”  Relational justice as defined in published research is “the justice produced through cooperative behavior, agreement, negotiation, or dialogue among actors in a post-conflict situation.”  A review of the literature on relational justice demonstrated work using this concept of relational justice in thirty different fields of inquiry from the behavioral sciences to criminology, to law, to philosophy.

What strikes me about justice as a relational work between human beings is that it allows neither the idea of justice nor the one considering justice as isolated from the rest of life. When justice becomes relational, it inherently must become a conversation.  In my own experience, this conversation begins within myself.  Often enough, that’s where the conversation ends–inside of me, either because this internal conversation between parts of myself is moved to a new insight and a new set of actions, or because the conversation brings me to a point of personal conflict beyond which I do not know how to act–yet.  That can be the point when the conversation moves out of my own interiority and into the field of other people.

When I consider doing and living justice in the world either from the golden rule of my childhood or from a more sophisticated embodiment of  cooperative behavior, agreement, negotiation and dialogue because of some conflict, I am brought to this:  How would I want others to treat me in this situation?  What do I not know about the other persons in this situation?  What do the other persons want/need to survive and thrive in this situation? What role do I or my community or my culture play in this surviving an thriving?

In some form or another, relational justice brings me to certain moments when I must consider how extending myself to the other person requires something of me–so much of me that I am changed.  Can I go that far?  Do I want to be changed?  Does the other person’s ability to survive and thrive begin to threaten my own ability to survive and thrive?  Usually, I conclude, that it does not, but often enough in considering new (to me) areas of social justice it feels just like that:  extending myself here,  for the other, is going to change me–too much.  On some level, relational justice shows me that I am not a separate self.  Neither is the other person.  We are connected, and the injustice at stake threatens that interconnection.

Bob Patrick

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