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


Functions of the Scope of Justice

People’s perception of the scope of justice has at least one psychological and one social function. The psychological function of the scope of justice could be the protection of individual well-being. Specifically, the process of defining the scope of justice helps individuals to cope with conflicts and decisions about unjust behaviors without threatening their self-concept as fair people. Indeed, Opotow’s (1995) studies suggest that individuals internalize prevailing societal arrangements, reshape their perceptions of marginalized groups, and reconfigure their scope of justice (mostly by narrowing it). In this process, individuals try to “feel ok” about their judgments and decisions of justice toward others. The applicability of fairness in this case is an important way of restoring our perception that “the world is just” (see Lerner, 1980, for more on the just world theory), regardless of whether the outcome is good or bad for others.

The social function of the scope of justice is to legitimize the social system (the status quo and existing social arrangements). People do not ordinarily engage in reprehensible behavior until they have justified the morality of their actions to themselves. This motivation to exclude people from their scope of justice is only possible within a society where people individually engage in moral restructuring, that is, people seek to find moral justification to various inhumane acts (Bandura, 1990). The consequences attributed to the use of the scope of justice in real-life situations propose that if someone is already excluded from one’s scope of justice, the tendency is to justify this exclusion, maintaining it (Opotow, 1995, 1997). The exclusion from the scope of justice justifies that this person "had to receive" the (usually bad) outcome. In other words, we justify the harm that befalls those outside our scope of justice as inevitable or deserved, because they are “morally excluded”. For example, Lima-Nunes, Pereira and Correia (2013) showed that exclusion from the perceiver’s scope of justice acts as a justifying argument to provide support for discriminatory policies toward immigrants (e.g., “immigrants should pay more for social security than national citizens should”) just because participants perceived immigrants as being outside of their moral community.

Antecedents of the Scope of Justice

Researchers hypothesize that there are some antecedents for being excluded from the scope of justice (Olson, Cheung, Conway & Hafer, 2010; Opotow, 1995). First, people relate the exclusion to the perceived utility of the target: a low perceived utility could increase the likelihood that a target will be excluded from the perceiver’s scope of justice. For instance, Opotow's (1993) research showed that a beetle that was perceived as beneficial was more likely to be included in the scope of justice than a beetle that was perceived as harmful. A second proposed antecedent of exclusion is the perceived threat posed by the other, such as incompatibility in the search for resources. In her qualitative and experimental studies, Opotow (1993) demonstrated that increasing conflict severity predicted exclusion from the scope of justice. In the experimental study, the beetle was included in the perceivers’ scope of justice only in low-conflict situations, that is, when humans' need for the beetles' habitat was questionable.

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