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

In our studies, we examined the role played by justice perceptions, such as the scope of justice and belief in a just world, in influencing legitimized discrimination against immigrants. We chose these two justice perceptions as justifying factors of discrimination because the scope of justice can be a justifying argument to derogate others and because belief in a just world is a fundamental belief that people receive the treatment that they deserve and deserve the treatment that they receive (Lerner, 1980).

To analyze the role played by justice perceptions, we used classical measures of prejudice against immigrants and belief in a just world (e.g., Dalbert, Montada & Schmitt, 1987; Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995) and we developed new measures to evaluate discrimination against immigrants (i.e. support for discriminatory policies) and exclusion from the scope of justice. We found that participants legitimized their prejudice and discrimination by saying that “our principles of justice are not applicable to immigrants' concerns”, that is, by excluding immigrants from the ingroup’s scope of justice. Thus, participants used a narrow scope of justice as a justifying argument to discriminate and this phenomenon was stronger among participants who believed that “the outgroup got what they deserved”.

In addition, we experimentally analyzed whether a (perceived) narrow scope of justice would influence discrimination against immigrants. We used the same justice- perception setting, priming participants with the thought that “the world is just” in order to examine whether or not discrimination would be influenced in the same way. As we predicted, participants showed higher support for discriminatory policies against immigrants when the ingroup’s scope of justice was perceived as narrow, especially in a social context where the idea that everybody gets what they deserve and deserve what they get was salient (the idea of a just world).

General Conclusion

Having analyzed the concept and the related research, we can summarize the above by saying that the scope of justice acts as a psychological parameter to help us answer the question “who”: Who does not count? Who is deserving? Who is irrelevant? Who is important? However, the decision to include or exclude has consequences: as noted above, the scope of justice can be beyond the “moral”, with good and bad consequences for those outside its boundaries. As a justifying argument, this justice concern unfortunately has the potential to legitimize the derogation of outsiders and to promote exclusion (e.g. prejudice and discrimination).

Finally, the scope of justice is currently recognized as an important tool in uncovering the justice processes that lie behind important real-world issues. Ultimately, empirical studies have shown that the saying “justice is for everyone” is no longer an appropriate phrase to describe people's behavior. It seems that people act much more in accordance with the idea that “justice is for those who are not excluded from our boundaries of fairness”.


Bandura, A. (1990). Selective activation and disengagement of moral control. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 27-46.

article author(s)