Why Should Justice Be Seen to Be Done?

Denise Meyerson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


A well-known maxim instructs that justice should be seen to be done. When “seen” is understood in the sense of “observed”, the maxim is easily defended: open court proceedings protect against arbitrary and partial decisions. However, when “seen” is understood in the sense of “seem,” the maxim is more puzzling, since it is not obvious why courts should concern themselves with people’s perceptions that justice has been done. This article addresses this issue, with a particular focus on the social and other benefits that result when judges observe procedures that are widely regarded as fair, especially in criminal trials. The article draws on empirical studies in social psychology that show that when legal authorities treat people in ways that accord with “lay” procedural expectations, they are more likely to view the authorities as legitimate, to cooperate with them, and to obey the law out of an internalized sense of obligation. The article explores the moral significance of these empirical findings, arguing that it would be superficial to see them as a recipe for social stability. The deeper truth conveyed by the empirical research is that relating to people in ways that are widely perceived to be fair is a way for authorities to engage people’s moral sentiments and to enliven their virtuous capacity to put aside considerations of self-interest so as to do what is right. This dynamic provides a sound moral foundation for courts to concern themselves with perceptions of justice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-86
Number of pages23
JournalCriminal Justice Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2015


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