Making Sense of the Sense of Justice

29 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2005

See all articles by Markus D. Dubber

Markus D. Dubber

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law


This essay tries to shed light on a central, yet curiously understudied, concept in modern legal and political discourse: the sense of justice. It has been said that "law in the last analysis must reflect the general community sense of justice." But what is it? What do people mean when they refer to the sense justice?

To assemble a serviceable account of the sense of justice requires leaving the comfortable confines of American jurisprudence, which has contributed precious little to this subject, and instead taking an interdisciplinary approach. Moral psychology, for one, has explored notions of moral sentiment and empathy for centuries. Political theory, too, deserves our attention, mainly because Rawls assigned the sense of justice a pivotal, though generally underappreciated, role in his theory of justice. Even linguistics will get a closer look because of the intriguing parallels between a sense of justice and a sense of language, and of moral and linguistic competence.

In the end, the sense of justice emerges as a general normative competence consisting of a bundle of cognitive and volitional capacities. Understood in this way, the sense of justice is nothing less than a precondition of just cooperation and stability in a modern world void of substantive commonalities.

Keywords: sense of justice, empathy, sense of language, punishment theory

JEL Classification: K10, K14

Suggested Citation

Dubber, Markus D., Making Sense of the Sense of Justice. Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 53, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Markus D. Dubber (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

78 and 84 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5


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