On Tuesday, April 2, 2024, faculty from the D'Amore-McKim School of Business and the Northeastern School of Law joined forces to tackle a complex but important topic: what are the best ways to approach social justice?

Dunton Family Dean David De Cremer and Dean James Hackney were joined by six interdisciplinary faculty members who focus on justice in their research. Together, they welcomed esteemed keynote speaker Tom Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and the Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory. He also has a courtesy appointment at the Yale School of Management, and according to De Cremer, “He's among the best people to talk about the interplay between law and business from a behavioral point of view.”

Hackney says the event was hatched during his first conversation with De Cremer, then a new dean at Northeastern. “Early on in conversations with David, we discussed the important role that behavioral approaches to law and business could serve in thinking about social justice issues,” he says. “That conversation led to this collaboration and the invitation to Tom, which I hope will be the beginning of much more to come.”

De Cremer has known Tyler for 26 years and first started working with him at New York University. “We work together a lot, mainly on procedural justice and trust projects… (He has) made a big impact on me as a scholar. He made me aware of how management and law can come together.”

The impact of procedural justice

“Real compliance doesn't depend on dictatorship or punishing people but more so on how we treat them, how we respect people, and how they see the process,” says De Cremer. “This is what we refer to quite often, both in social justice and in the law literature, as procedural justice issues. Is the process fair? Do you feel respected and included? So many of our issues, when it comes down to compliance, (relate to) why people obey the law.”

Tyler first wrote Why People Obey the Law in 1990, and De Cremer says it paved the way for a behavioral approach to social justice. “In there, you will see that both in business and the way we implement, talk about, and frame our laws, it's extremely important that we have respectful messages and that people feel that inclusion. It's something we need to address more. (We need to) look at outcomes.”

Tyler presented an argument for why and how justice-based authority works, which he says is against most people's beliefs. “The justice-based model is supported by evidence, but it goes against popular intuition and economic theory,” he says.

He also believes law, governance, and business are often studied separately, but they share common concerns. “One particular recognition through all these fields is that we need authority structures to achieve our goals,” he says. “In law, we talk a lot about regulation and managing rule-following; in governance, we talk about building viable societies; in business or management, we talk about creating structures that promote profitability. My argument (is) that all these different concerns can be seen as very similar in the sense that we can have one model that can help us to understand what motivates these behaviors and that model is a common model of justice.”

Tyler believes people are powerfully affected by their sense of justice – what they gain and lose in social situations. It can shape behavior because they have ideas about what a just procedure is that is distinct from winning, losing, or even getting what they deserve.

There are four things that are foundational to creating a sense of fairness, according to Tyler. 1) Giving people a voice; 2) Creating a sense of neutrality; 3) Making people feel respected; and 4) Providing a sense of trust. This works, in the end, because not everyone can get what they want, but they can all experience a fair procedure, which creates a sense of inclusion and fairness.

Justice research by Northeastern faculty

All six panel members discussed their individual research related to procedural justice and how it can make things work better, with some caveats. Lua Kamál Yuille summarized the panel's collective presentations as being important to her own work while she thinks about “how institutions make people; how law makes people, and how we position and understand ourselves based on the way we pursue… access, power, and authority over material resources. As we're using and creating institutions, we are creating ourselves and society.”

Marla (Baskerville) reminds us that inside institutions, not everybody is living the same life, and as we implement (justice), we really need to recognize how even within one institution, people are playing different roles, and that has different meanings… so different models of justice need to be considered.

Zhenyu (Liao) took us even deeper to think about how people are able to engage around justice and identify; even how we're talking about it; even how we're presenting concepts of the institutions being just.

Dan (Danielsen) reminds us that, as fair and wonderful as institutions might be, if we're not intimately involved in broader notions of justice (specifically distributional justice) and thinking about society's positions and how we use these powerful organizations, then we haven't gotten very far to the core concepts of justice even if we feel good about them.

Gaston (de los Reyes) says, ‘But hold up! I just don't want to feel good about (organizations); I just don't want distributional justice – I want business to just do good. I want to think about how we can leverage core legal systems to make them do good while they feel good and they're being responsive to all people's positions.

(Evan) Darryl (Walton) says, “Hold up! We sit in our proverbial Ivory Tower and can (accomplish) none of these lofty goals if we don't listen to the individuals inside organizations and don't recognize and give agency to the idea that people name their justice; their justice might not be my justice.”

Dunton Family Dean David De Cremer (left) and Macklin Fleming Emeritus Professor of Law and Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory Tom Tyler.