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Addressing Injustice: Why and How Do People Seek Justice?

Originally published at Psychology Today

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of 10 major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions—there are indeed many more. However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

7. Addressing Injustice: Why and How do People Seek Justice (and What’s So Great About Equity)?

Mort Deutsch liked to claim that he first became interested in issues of justice when he was a 5-year-old boy who was excluded from a softball game by a group of older children (he sought justice at the time by stealing the ball and throwing it into the woods!), and later as an adolescent when he organized a group of busboys to strike at a Jewish resort he worked at in the Catskills. Growing up, Deutsch skipped many grades in school. He entered college at 15, and so, was often the youngest in his cohort. This coupled with being Jewish during the pre-WWII era in the Bronx led to his experiencing many incidents of exclusion, bias, and discrimination firsthand. These experiences infused in him a great need to understand and address injustice.

In the early 1970s, after having conducted a highly consequential study on desegregation in interracial housing, Deutsch began an intensive study of the literature on social justice research. He found himself particularly dissatisfied with the narrow approach to theories of justice in social psychology, as evidenced by the reigning theory of the time, equity theory. Deutsch was struck by both the emphasis on principles of equity at the neglect of other justice principles, as well as the general western, economic, and utilitarian assumptions that pervaded the dominant thinking on justice at the time.

His subsequent theorizing and research, described in his 1985 book Distributive Justice, set out to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the various distributive justice principles, including winner-takes-all, equity, equality and need. He also studied various other types of justice, including procedural, a sense of injustice, retributive, reparative, moral exclusion, and cultural imperialism. In later years, Deutsch elaborated on the dynamics between injustice and conflict as mutually reinforcing processes and helped identify the conditions and processes that could mitigate such dynamics. They included promoting mutual security, mutual respect, humanization of the other, fair rules for managing conflict, curbing extremism, and gradual development of mutual trust and cooperation.

Deutsch’s work in this area was a clarion call for critical reflection about our assumptions in such potentially politicized areas of research like justice and transformed our understanding and approach to social justice across settings.

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today. The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting, and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion, and commitment today live on in all of us.


Deutsch, M. (1985). Distributive justice: A social-psychological perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Deutsch, M., & Collins, M. E. (1951). Interracial housing: A psychological evaluation of a social experiment. University of Minnesota Press.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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