meaning - What's the difference between 'just' and 'fair'?

  • CesarGon

    What's the difference between 'just' and 'fair'? OED gives slightly different definitions, but they are not distinct enough as to be clear (to me). Is the difference simply idiomatic, or is there a semantic difference that I am not aware of?

  • Answers
  • FumbleFingers

    Because there's a lot of overlap between the two words, in many contexts they're interchangeable. But in some specific idiomatic forms (i.e. - "It's a fair cop", "We fight a just war") only one is used.

    To the extent that there's a semantic difference, I would say that a fair settlement, for example, is one where the parties directly involved feel a satisfactory compromise has been reached. But to me at least, a just settlement is one that meets external criteria of correctitude (opinions of outsiders, formal moral/legal codes, etc.).

  • RegDwigнt

    As a teenager, I attended an "Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts" seminar, where — among other things — I read a pamphlet entitled "Fairness: the Unexpected Enemy of Justice". The upshot was that justice comes from God, but fairness is a human construct. I thought that was a bunch of hooey then, and I still do — but the concept has some merit.

    A useful distinction is that justice is objective, while fairness is subjective. A judge's sentence may be just, because it is based on a law that is the same for all, and yet not seem fair because it fails to take circumstances into account.

    Even this is a bit slippery, because standards of justice vary widely throughout and between societies — e.g. cutting off a thief's hand would be considered justice in Saudi Arabia but a heinous crime in the United States — but I think it generally holds true.

  • JLG

    I agree with Jim's comment; however, The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, had this interesting note under the entry for fair:

    Synonyms fair, just, equitable, impartial, unprejudiced, unbiased, objective, dispassionate These adjectives mean free from favoritism, self-interest, or preference in judgment. Fair is the most general: a fair referee; a fair deal. Just stresses conformity with what is legally or ethically right or proper: "a just and lasting peace" (Abraham Lincoln)...

  • David Schwartz

    "Just" refers to an action justified under the circumstances. "Fair" refers to an action that treats people as they deserve to be treated. Many times, actions that are just are not fair. In hard cases, an action may be justified because there aren't superior options, even if it's results are unfair to at least some people.

    If a madman holding a single hostage is going to blow up a school full of children, shooting him through the hostage may be just, but it isn't fair to the hostage.

    In addition, outcomes that aren't the results of human action are neither just nor unjust. For example, a hurricane is neither just nor unjust. Yet a hurricane can be very unfair. One lazy person wins the lottery, another more deserving person does not. There's nothing unjust about that, but it's not fair.

  • Gnawme

    I agree with the distinction drawn by author Holly Lisle in this essay, where (to summarize) she states:

    Justice holds that all men are equal in the eyes of the law.

    Fairness states not that all men are equal under the eyes of the law. . . but that all men are equal.

    And all men aren't.

    Justice is the desire of the honest individual, who takes action with integrity and accepts the consequences as his earned due.

    Fairness is the desire of the unthinking herd, that envies what it has not earned and demands a piece of it just because it’s breathing.

    Read the entire piece to get the full flavor of the distinction between justice and fairness that Lisle is making.

    I should point out that the Pledge of Allegiance of the U.S.A. desires "liberty and justice for all," not "liberty and fairness for all."

  • Kristina Lopez

    "fair" is just a normal judgement balancing both sides, considering all the pros and cons

    "just" is done without any bias to any one

    "fair" is being equal to both

    "just" (adj) means giving correct judgement

    Ex: the king was "fair" to both the minister and the subject. Jahangir was a "just" ruler

  • Related Question

    word choice - What's the difference between "suasive" and "persuasive"?
  • Uticensis

    What's the difference in usage between suasive and persuasive? I just read the former used, here on this StackExchange, where the latter would have worked perfectly, IMO. Is there a subtle distinction between the two words? Can anyone give me an example where using suasive would be compellingly better than using persuasive? And finally, as I'd never seen the word suasive before today, does that mean suasive is archaic, or just used in a particular context?

  • Related Answers
  • Alenanno
    1. Suasive is an adjective that, in Linguistics (Grammar), "denotes a class of English verbs, for example, insist, whose meaning includes the notion of persuading and that take a subordinate clause whose verb may either be in the subjunctive or take a modal."

    2. Persuasive is an adjective as well, that means being "good at persuading someone to do or believe something through reasoning or the use of temptation: an informative and persuasive speech." OR "She was very persuasive!"

    The difference, then, is that while the former denotes a grammatical class for verbs, the second is adopted the way you already know, with people, situations, etc.

    EDIT NOTE: In the OED it says that a speech can be "suasive" but considering the OALD and my dictionary didn't have it, I supposed it was an old use or it fell into disuse. So I checked the Ngram on google and it confirmed what Billare said and what I was thinking.