Justice seems not to be for all: Exploring the scope of justice

The Scope of Justice

The idea of the scope of justice has emerged in social psychology in the last 30 years (e.g., Opotow, 1990). It is sometimes also referred to as people’s perception of what their moral community is, that is, a psychological boundary for fairness. The scope of justice describes the perceived relevance of others that allows us to know whether to judge them by the same fairness rules that are applicable to us and to our group members (Beaton & Tougas, 2001; Crosby & Lubin, 1990). More specifically, these rules can be norms, moral rules and concerns about rights and justice that drive our behavior. In sum, these components act as a guide for us to identify who lies inside or outside of our own scope of justice (Hafer & Olson, 2003; Opotow & Weiss, 2000).

In fact, Deutsch (1990) gives an example of how we think in terms of justice concerns. He explains that this concept provides a basis for understanding how Eichmann, a good family man, turned into a mass murderer of Jews in the Nazi era. Despite being considered an otherwise “moral man”, he did what he did. With this example Deutsch wanted to emphasize that the process of social judgment and decision-making about what is just or not and who is included or excluded from our scope of justice helps people to overcome moral concerns and engage in barbaric actions such as Eichmann’s.

An important point to consider is that the scope of justice is not constant. It is subject to change on the basis of historical and social forces, and this change can lead either to an expansion or a reduction of the scope of justice, depending on the situation in which justice concerns are applicable. For example, Opotow’s (1993) experiment analyzed the extent to which a target was seen as beneficial or harmful to the perceiver and how this perception influenced the way that the perceiver thought that animals should be treated (i.e., whether or not they should be protected). Participants in this study read one of two versions of a textbook article about a species of beetle. The text said that the beetle was either beneficial (natural insecticide and pollinator – benefits of $1 billion/year) or harmful (kills crops, eats stored grain – costs of $1 billion/year). The results showed that the scope of justice was extended (made more inclusive) when the beetle was perceived to be useful to humans, that is, when participants were exposed to the beneficial information. But the beetle was excluded from the participants’ scope of justice when it was considered harmful to humans, which led to a decrease in participants' willingness to protect it.

The scope of justice is often known as a concept that helps us to understand how people endorse both extremely harmful behavior, such as genocide, deprivation of resources and dignity (e.g., Deutsch, 2006; Olson, Cheung, Conway & Hafer, 2010; Opotow, 1995, 2005), and also protective behavior, such as considering mankind and animals to exist within the same boundaries of justice (e.g., Bilewicz, Imhoff & Drogosz, 2011). In fact, theorists and researchers usually work with one of the two functions of the scope of justice in order to understand its context and consequences.

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