Conflict and Justice

© 2001 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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November 2001

“It’s not fair!” The eight year old was indignant.“Why does Miriam get to stay up late and I don’t?”

“Because Miriam is older than you are.When you are her age you will stay up later too.”

“But Mom, I thought we were all treated equally.”The whine was incipient.

“Sorry, Joey. End of discussion. Time for bed.”Mom’s tone of voice would not tolerate further dissent, while Miriam glowed smugly behind her.

We learn about principles of justice and injustice very early in life. When we are on the short end of the stick, we feel the keen injustice of life, but when we are receiving our due, justice seems natural and appropriate. As adults, we are very sensitive to our own sense of justice and injustice. Even the slightest perception of unfairness may trigger conflict. Understanding justice is therefore important in understanding conflict.

The basic problem of life is that everyone cannot have everything they want at the same time. Similarly, people cannot act as they please or live in families, groups, or communities that always follow the policies they prefer. Finally, people cannot always have their preferred status or social position. Thus, people must be willing to accept outcomes, policies and status that are not personally most desirable for themselves or their group.

Justice has evolved as a concept to regulate cooperative efforts between people within a group and between groups of people. Justice specifies solutions to conflicts that arise among people trying to coordinate their values and behaviors. Principles of justice therefore govern the coordination of social interaction. The fundamental question is whether the rules of social coordination specified by justice effectively manage conflict resolution.

Justice has three faces:equality, equity, and need. Equality of justice suggests that problems of social coordination are solved by treating everyone the same.Thus, if a pie is to be split, it should be split in identical shares for each person.Conflict arises when a person feels slighted at not receiving an equal share. Typically, this person will perceive himself or herself as equal to the others.The injustice of receiving a smaller share creates both a relationship conflict and an identity conflict. The relationship conflict arises over whether the slighted person is in fact in an equal relationship. The identity conflict arises over the slighted person’s loss of face or self-esteem.

Equity suggests that the problems of social coordination are solved by treating everyone according to his or her contribution. Those who contribute more receive a larger share of the pie, while those contribute less receive proportionately less. Conflict arises over questions of contribution, relative merit, and proportionality of distribution of the pie.The injustice of inequitable distribution creates substantive conflict (called content goals), relationship conflict, and identity conflict. The substantive conflict is a fight over the amount of pie actually distributed. One person will try to wrest a larger share away from another person. The relationship conflict concerns the relative worth of contribution between the parties. Finally, the identity conflict concerns face and self-esteem as it relates to respect for the individual.

Need suggests that the problems of social coordination are solved by treating people according to their respective needs.Those who need more, receive more.Those who need less, receive less.Conflict arises over questions of how need is defined and how much is necessary to satisfy need. Again, the injustice of distribution by need raises substantive, relationship, and identity conflicts.

The complexity of conflict increases when people in disputes have different perceptions of injustice.In a recent partnership dispute, one partner felt that she was entitled to a significant share of the revenues because she was instrumental in generating them. Another partner contested her assertion, claiming that because everyone was equal, the revenues should be divided equally. Both partners felt victimized, disrespected, and held a deep and abiding sense of injustice about discussions of partnership distributions. Only after the partners understood the three faces of justice were they able to de-escalate their conflict and work towards a solution that all could live with.

Back to Joey. As a member of the family, Joey felt that he should be treated the same as Miriam.From his perspective, no significant status differences existed between Miriam and he. Mom, however, believed that Joey needed more sleep and less time staying up late.From her perspective, the decision to go to bed was based on need, not equality. Miriam, of course, felt that staying up later was her just due as the oldest child.She, after all, had earned the right by seniority.Therefore, the decision to send Joey to bed was not only correct, it was the only just decision.

This common family justice problem repeats itself daily throughout society. Watch for these justice dynamics in the workplace, at school, in politics, and even in faith communities. Wherever people gather to share resources, justice issues will arise. Understanding the underlying dynamics of justice will help you understand the inevitable conflicts between people of good intentions.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2001, Douglas E. Noll