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Dominik Stojkovic (28.12.2019, contribution elaborated within the Seminar "A Journey through Philosophy and Information" facilitated by J.M.Díaz at the Hochschule München)
Abstract: This article argues for subsuming the concept of justice and, in particular, the issue of open data within the broader issue of information justice. Its immediate aim is to identify the need for a general theory of information justice rather than describing the concepts of such a theory.

The Concept of Justice 
In the first book of the Justinian Institutes justice is defined as "the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due" (Moyle, 2011). This may be the most reasonable interpretation of the central idea of justice, but it is quite theoretical, which is why various definitions of justice need to be considered.

For example, Aristotle differentiated between "justice that is the whole of virtue" and "justice that is a part of virtue“ (Aristotle, 2000, p. 55 seq.). He also noted that justice had always been linked to an individual when it was associated with complete virtue. If justice is to be associated with morality, it must be morality in the sense of "what we owe to each other." However, it is not clear whether justice should be interpreted in such a broad sense. Justice is often contrasted with charity on one hand, and mercy on the other, at the level of individual ethics. At the level of public policy, the grounds for justice differ from those of other kinds, such as economic efficiency or environmental value, and often compete with them. Aristotle further maintains that "[i]t is clear, [..], that there is more than one kind of justice" (Aristotle, 2000, p. 55). However, in order to fully understand justice as a whole, we need to deal with this variety of concepts.

Looking back on Justinian’s abstract central idea of justice, one can identify four important core aspects:
  1. Justice has to do with how individuals are treated ("to every man his due"). Justice issues emerge in situations where individuals can make arguments that are theoretically contradictory. So we turn to justice to settle those disputes by deciding what each person is entitled to have.
  2. Everyone has the right to be treated just. Justice is a matter of allegations that can be brought against a legal entity, whether an individual or an institution. This is a difference to other virtues: we demand justice, but we ask for charity or forgiveness. This also means that fairness is a matter of duty for the legal entity. It is a distinctive feature of justice that the duties that it creates are enforceable.
  3. Justice requires that two cases should be treated in the same way when they are relevantly the same ("the set and constant purpose").
  4. The definition ultimately tells us that justice needs an entity whose will affects the conditions of its objects. The entity may be an individual person, a group, or an institution (Miller, 2017).
These fundamental aspects form part of every concept of justice. However, as has already been argued, there are many different theories, such as Conservative, Liberal, Corrective, Distributive, Procedural, Substantive Justice, and so on. Such definitions vary not only in the interpretation of justice itself, but also in its range, or in other words, when and among whom the principles of justice come into force. As this article provides a comprehensive overview of the concept of justice, I shall focus on the principle most widely cited. The theory of Justice as Fairness of John Rawls, which "conveys the idea that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair" (Rawls, 2005, pos. 402). 

Rawls’ idea of Justice as Fairness with regard to the social contract is not that people have actually entered into a contract to create justice, or that they should decide to do so, but that we can better understand justice by asking the question: what principles should people choose to adopt in order to govern their institutions, activities and personal behavior if they had to agree on them beforehand? The contract is hypothetical; but the search for consensus is meant to ensure that the values chosen do not result in consequences that people would not be able to accept (Rawls, 2005, pos. 461). Thus, while the utilitarian may be prepared to support slavery -if the slave's suffering was overlooked by the heightened pleasures of the slave-owners- the contractarian claims that no one could accept the principle of allowing slavery, as long as they were not expected to be slaves themselves when the principle was enforced (Rawls, 2005, pos. 427). Rawls portrays the contracting parties as trying to further their own interests by determining which values should be preferred, but subject to two information limitations. First of all, they are not allowed to know their own "conceptions of the good" so that the rules must be set down in terms of primary goods. Second, they are subjected to a "veil of ignorance" that deprives them of any awareness of personal characteristics, such as their gender, their place in society, or their talents and abilities. This ensures that people do not have a basis on which to bargain for the benefit, and they must find themselves to be generic individuals who may be male or female, talented or untalented, and so on (Rawls, 2005, pos. 394). As a result, Rawls concludes, everyone will choose to operate on the basis of unbiased values that work specifically for the benefit of no one, as "the persons in the initial situation would choose two […] principles: the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities  […] are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society" (Rawls,2005, pos. 436).

Information Justice

With the abundance of data in modern information systems, there has been a growing demand for data to be accessible to the public: an open data movement. The movement proposes that open data would promote democratic politics and individual liberty, allowing individuals to openly use the wealth of data produced by governments and businesses to have more control over their lives and to enhance their material and social conditions. Nevertheless, such an approach is controversial, rooted both in a naive view of technology and a shallow view of politics: open data has the potential to intensify as much as to mitigate injustice. As such, the issue of information justice is posed by open data (Johnson, 2014, p. 263).

The open data movement is essentially a movement that represents the deeper libertarian ethic of the information technology sector, and in particular the open-source subculture. Open data in itself is neither just nor unjust, nor does it seek justice or injustice. This is not because open data is technically neutral, but because open data exists only in relation to a larger information system that gives it meaning. In addition, openness is not the only principle to be followed, as data privacy, for example, is equally important in the information system (Johnson, 2014, p. 270).

The design of the data structure makes it quite possible for injustices to be integrated into the data itself. Whether by design or as an unexpected result. Where such principles and privileges are unjust, the injustice is a function of the data itself; no amount of transparency can correct such injustices, just as no amount of statistical analysis can erase the inaccuracies in the original data. In the field of data ethics, "Garbage in, garbage out" is a central concept (Johnson, 2014, p. 265). 

The myriad ways in which social privileges can be embedded in data sets are another reason why open data can not be expected to promote universal justice. It can marginalize groups that are not part of the data just as easily: people whose lack of privilege excludes them from the types of data-producing interactions and makes their points of view invisible to those who collect the data. The opening of data sets made up of such data actually spreads the injustices that came to the data as it was collected. Whatever steps are taken to promote a fair use of data that is unjust at its root, the outcome will also be almost inevitably unjust. Data is a case of "Injustice in, injustice out" (Johnson, 2014, p. 267).

Essentially, what is needed is a way of understanding data directly in the context of the information system and in the context of justice: an information justice model. Such a model will make it possible for social scientists and professionals to systematically define the different ways in which data can raise issues of justice, the relationship between them and the criteria by which data can be made more just. Such a theory could follow three parallel lines of inquiry: the inquiry of moral principles, the socio-technical activities, and the systems from which we could evaluate and regulate data practices conducive to data justice (Johnson, 2014, p. 270).

Although open data is, in itself, at least inadequate to endorse information justice and may well lead away from it, open data is likely to be a prerequisite for such a social challenge. It will be extremely difficult to identify and correct information injustices, particularly those related to the origin of the data and its disciplinary functions, unless those seeking to challenge information injustices are able to analyze the data systems and the disciplinary mechanisms that use it. This is one of the challenges associated with the social science audit algorithm; in the absence of direct access to the algorithm code and the underlying data, more complicated and less robust procedures are needed to understand what the data system is doing (Johnson, 2014, p. 271). One of the most important roles for the movement of information justice would therefore be to build the capacity needed for participation in information systems, including skills and technology (Johnson, 2014, p. 272).

Returning to Rawl's principle of justice as fairness, it might be the best way to ask: what principles should people choose to adopt in order to govern their information systems, data activities and personal behavior if they had to agree on them beforehand?


We saw that justice -with and without regards to information- takes a number of different forms, based on the specific sense in which it is implemented. While we found common features across the variety of uses -most easily captured in Justinian's formulation- these were procedural rather than concrete. Under these conditions, it is natural to look for a common structure within which the different contextually relevant concepts of justice can all be modified. We did this by looking at John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. Another way to broaden our assumptions about justice is by paying more attention to the background of the various definitions. One can find out that in Aristotle’s idea of justice, for example, individual freedom is missing. This may, in some ways, be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of each individual, but, more significantly, it represents the variations in the form of social life / time in which each individual was integrated – in particular the cultural, legal and political structure (Miller, 2017).

Aristotle (2000). Nicomachean Ethics. Retrieved from

Johnson, J.A. (2014). Ethics Inf Technol 16: 263.

Miller, D. (2017, June 26). Justice. Retrieved December 24, 2019, from

Moyle, J. B. (Trans.). (2011, May 21). JUSTINIAN, INSTITUTES. Retrieved December 24, 2019, from

Rawls, J. (2005). A Theory of Justice: Original Edition [Kindle Version].

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