Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2002


Oslo Summer School 10th Year Anniversery Lecture

The Comparative Study of Justice

Professor Jon Elster,
Department of Political Science,
Columbia University, USA

Date: Thursday 8. August 2002
Place: Georg Sverdrups Building, Blindern Campus (University Library), Auditorium 1.
Time: 15.00.


Empirical studies of justice can adopt the comparative method for a number of purposes. In this talk the focus is on cross-country and cross-arena comparisons of decision-making processes in which the conceptions of justice held by social agents enter into the explanation of observed behavior. The case studies are "local justice" (the in-kind allocation by institutions of scarce goods and necessary burdens), "transitional justice" (purges, trials, reparation and restitution in the transition to democracy) and the constitution-making process.

Across countries, we may compare the lenience or severity towards the leaders and agents of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Across arenas, we may ask why the use of lotteries seems more acceptable in selecting soldiers for military service than in allocating kidneys for transplantation. In a broader perspective, such comparisons also throw light on the question of how we can have access to the real motivations of social agents, assuming that their professed motivations may often reflect strategic considerations.


Jon Elster (b. 1940) is a philosopher. He studied in Oslo and Paris. He var a crucial organizer of the Pax publishing company in Oslo in the 1960s and 1970s, putting out several influential edited volumes and translations. At that time, he published extensively in Norwegian on questions of philosophy, history, social science, and economics. Since the mid 1970s he has published numerous articles and twelve books on the same matters in English. He became professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and later moved to become a professor of social science at Columbia University, New York.

Jon Elster has been a pioneer of rational choice theory, promoting this approach as the best general theory for all the social sciences. But he has also been concerned with the limits to rational choice theory, and in his latest writings he has been preoccupied with the specificities of explanations by mechanisms (as opposed to explanation by laws), and with the study of feelings. Through his career he has also participated in empirical studies, and his 10th anniversary lecture at the Oslo Summer School of Comparative Social Science studies (August 2002) draws conclusions from his comparative studies of justice, which has encompassed distributive justice, transitional justice (such as peace commissions in South Africa, Argentina, etc.) and the writing of constitutions (e.g. in post-communist Eastern Europe).