I'm studying Rawls and the notion of justice being a zero-sum game has been a recurring, underlying question.

His theory seems to suggest that justice works in this way, however I wonder if there are other conceptions that might describe justice differently. Cheers.

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    Can you explain exactly what you mean by justice being zero sum? Also, there's an important difference between rectificatory and distributive justice. It looks easier to say rectification is zero sum: if you stole a hundred dollars from me, the situation is unjust until I have my hundred dollars back. On the other hand, distributive justice isn't that way. If I invest $100 in a company and you invest $200, you should get twice as large a share of the profits, no?
    – user5172
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 13:30
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    Is 'zero-sum game' a term that Rawls uses? Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 23:18
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    "Rawls's most central, most luminously undeniable point is that a free society is not a zero-sum game. It is a mutually advantageous cooperative venture." David Schmidtz, The Elements of Justice, p. 196.
    – user3164
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 17:25

2 Answers 2


A "zero-sum" game is one where everything that the winner or winners gain is exactly the same as what the loser or losers lose. Obviously a zero-sum game can be very unjust. If I steal $100 from your pocket, I win $100 and you lose $100, so it's a zero-sum game. If I steal $100 from your pocket by slitting open your pocket, I win $100 and you lose $100 plus your damaged trousers, so we don't have a zero-sum game but an overall loss.

So the claim is that justice will always benefit one person in exactly the same way as it damages another person. This seems unlikely. In the first place, it claims that getting justice will come for free which is unlikely to be true in most cases. On the other hand, it claims that justice can never be beneficial for both sides. If a thief stealing $100 is plagued by bad conscience that makes him lose his sleep, and he is forced to return the money, he might actually benefit if his bad conscience goes away and he can sleep in the night again - many people would gladly pay $100 for being able to sleep through the night, so that would be a case where both sides actually could benefit.


It seems like Justice aims to be a zero-sum game, and theoretically that seems a good thing in terms of a crime vs. compensation (eg gnasher729's trouser anaology : $100 stolen, victim is down $100 plus a hole in the trousers .. presumably the thief, if caught, is ordered to pay the money back and compensate for the de-trousing).

If insurance can be considered a kind of justice, then it certainly also aims to be zero-sum in that all that the incident has cost the victim should be claimable - except the insurance premium, that is....

Furthermore, not all sentences issued (whatever the scenario) are about punishment. Sometimes they're about removing people from society or kirbing behaviour for public protection, where the decree from the judge might even seem harsh - eg if someone is judged insane they can be detained even though they might not have done anything too awful (yet).

But .. what about if justice is a punishment ? Murder vs. 30 years in jail, 10 years for "good behaviour" ? Is the victim any less dead because the murderer behaved well in jail?

The question for those last two cases becomes whether you call them "justice".

And so I wonder if justice is too subjective to call it a "zero sum game" (depends who'se doing the summing!), even though that's probably what we intuitively aim at?

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