Social justice

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Social Justice is a concept that has fascinated philosophers ever since Plato rebuked the young Sophist, Thrasymachus, for asserting that justice was whatever the strongest decided it would be. In The Republic, Plato formalised the argument that an ideal state would rest on four virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.

The addition of the word social is to clearly distinguish Social Justice from the concept of justice as applied in the law — state-administered systems which label behaviour as unacceptable and enforce a formal mechanism of control may produce results that do not match the philosophical definitions of social justice — and from more informal concepts of justice embedded in systems of public policy and morality, and which differ from culture to culture and therefore lack universality. Social justice is also used to refer to the overall fairness of a society in its divisions and distributions of rewards and burdens and, as such, the phrase has been adopted by political parties with a redistributive agenda.


The conceptual problem

Social Justice derives its authority from the codes of morality prevailing in each culture. In an ideal world, human behaviour could be improved by convincing everyone to adopt the principles of moral philosophy. But the human propensity to evaluate shades of grey becomes the catalyst for a problem that can be stated simply: If a moral code may sometimes require a person to do something that would not be for his or her own benefit, why should that person decide to be "moral" and so act in a correspondingly "just" way?

The evolving answer

Humans are vulnerable as individuals. By gathering together into bands and communities, they seek to gain strength and to address their vulnerabilities which, in turn, creates the potential to develop into more complex and evolving civilisations. If simple survival is to be transformed into long-term security, something more than co-ordinating the contribution of everyone's skills will be required. A social organisation will be needed to resolve disputes and offer physical security against attack. The achievement of community aims will depend upon the co-ordination of many functional specialisations (such as farmers for food, soldiers for protection and rulers for resource management) and a willingness of community members to sacrifice some personal freedom for the greater good.

So, would defining or administering justice become one of these specialisations and, as such, be the exclusive responsibility of any one class of citizens? People will not accept the surrender of any of their freedoms unless they perceive real benefits flowing from their decisions. The key factor is likely to be the emergence of a consensus that the society is working in a fair way, i.e., both that individuals are allowed as much freedom as possible given the role they have within the society and that the rewards compensate adequately for any loss of freedom. Hence, true social justice is attained only through the harmonious co-operative effort of the citizens who, in their own self-interest, accept the current norms of morality as the price of membership in the community.

The next major impetus for the development of the concept came from Christianity. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says, "Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him." As a theologian, Aquinas believed that justice is a form of natural duty owed by one person to another and not enforced by any human-made law. This reflects the Christian view that, before God, all people are equal and must treat each other with respect. Hence, the framework of the argument shifts to require obedience to natural principles of morality to satisfy a duty owed to God, and the outcome of social justice is driven by the tenets of morality embedded in the religion.

A different set of moral tenets, however, produces a different outcome, as in the karmic (Buddhist) principle of justice. In Buddhism, there is no such thing as unexplained, causeless suffering. Every state of existence, good or bad, is caused by ethically good or evil deeds, and karmic justice ultimately rewards good behaviour by allowing escape from suffering into Nirvana. But each individual is judged independently of any other, and actions, good or bad, just or unjust, will have their inescapable consequence. Consequently, there is no incentive for individuals to engage in collective action to intervene in "unjust" situations. If others are suffering, those responsible for inflicting such injustice will incur bad karma and will be penalised. Further, if anyone misinterprets a situation and, by objective criteria, intervenes to force change on an innocent person, it is the one intervening who will incur bad karma no matter how well-intentioned he or she might be.

John Locke (1632-1704), an early theological utilitarian, argued that people have innate natural goodness and beauty, and so, in the long run, if individuals rationally pursue their private happiness and pleasure, the interests of the society or the general welfare will be looked after fairly. Locke characterised most of Christianity as utilitarian since believers see utility in rewards in the afterlife for their actions on Earth. The Utilitarian School was later associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who judged the morality of an act solely on the basis of its results. In that era of the Enlightenment, naturalism and any reliance on divine inspiration was rejected. The philosophers believed that through reason and rationality, human nature and society could be perfected. Hence, justice was achieved in any situation where the greatest happiness was achieved by the greatest number of people. Bentham advocated socially-imposed external sanctions of punishment and blame to make the consequences of improper action more obviously painful. Social Justice was achieved through deterrence which is based on the rational calculation of “equal punishment for equal crime". Mill took the view that human beings are also motivated by such internal sanctions as self-esteem, guilt, and conscience. Because we all have social feelings on behalf of others, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that actions are morally right if they are motivated by duty without regard to any personal goal, desire, motive, or self-interest. Kant's moral theory is, therefore, deontological and based on the concept of abject selflessness. In his view, the only relevant feature of moral law is its universalisability, and any rational being understands the categorical imperative to be: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." For example, the imperative in the proposition that all borrowers should deal honestly with the lenders is that, in the absence of universal acceptance, no-one would be willing to lend. This may be stated as the formula of autonomy, whereby the decision to apply a maxim is actually regarded as having made it a universal law. Here the concern with human dignity is combined with the principle of universalisability to produce a concept of the moral law as self-legislated by each for all.

The modern concept

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the concept of Social Justice has largely been associated with the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) who draws on the utilitarian insights of Bentham and Mill, the social contract ideas of Locke, and the categorical imperative ideas of Kant. His first statement of principle was made in A Theory of Justice (1971) where he proposed that, "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others." (at p3). A deontological proposition that echoes Kant in framing the moral good of justice in absolutist terms. His views are definitively restated in Political Liberalism (1993), where society is seen, "as a fair system of co-operation over time, from one generation to the next." (at p14).

All societies have a basic structure of social, economic, and political institutions, both formal and informal. In testing how well these elements fit and work together, Rawls based a key test of legitimacy on the theories of social contract. To determine whether any particular system of collectively enforced social arrangements is legitimate, he argued that one must look for agreement by the people who are subject to it. Obviously, not every citizen can be asked to participate in a poll to determine his or her consent to every proposal in which some degree of coercion is involved, so we have to assume that all citizens are reasonable. Rawls constructed an argument for a two-stage process to determine a citizen's hypothetical agreement:

  • the citizen agrees to be represented by X for certain purposes; to that extent, X holds these powers as a trustee for the citizen;
  • X agrees that a use of enforcement in a particular social context is legitimate; the citizen, therefore, is bound by this decision because it is the function of the trustee to represent the citizen in this way.

This applies to one person representing a small group (e.g. to the organiser of a social event setting a dress code) as equally as it does to national governments which are the ultimate trustees, holding representative powers for the benefit of all citizens within their territorial boundaries, and if those governments fail to provide for the welfare of their citizens according to the principles of justice, they are not legitimate. To emphasise the general principle that justice should rise from the people and not be dictated by the law-making powers of governments, Rawls asserted that, "There is . . . a general presumption against imposing legal and other restrictions on conduct without sufficient reason. But this presumption creates no special priority for any particular liberty." (at pp291-292) This is support for an unranked set of liberties that reasonable citizens in all states should respect and uphold — to some extent, the list proposed by Rawls matches the normative human rights that have international recognition and direct enforcement in some nation states where the citizens need encouragement to act in a more objectively just way.

Social Justice as conceived by Rawls is an apolitical philosophical concept (insofar as any philosophical analysis of politics can be free from bias), but many of the ideas, sometimes renamed civil justice, have been adopted by those who lie on the left or center-left of the political spectrum (e.g. Socialists, Social Democrats, etc.), even though there should be general acceptance by all who base their political philosophy on moral values (e.g. in the U.S., Republican voters in the Presidential Election 2004 are said to have exercised preference on moral values). Similarly, Social Justice is fundamental to Catholic social teaching, and is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party upheld by the worldwide green parties. As stated by several local branches, this is the principle that all persons are entitled to "basic human needs", regardless of "superficial differences such as economic disparity, class, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, or health". This includes the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, the establishment of sound environmental policy, and equality of opportunity for healthy personal and social development.

The basic liberties

Rawls listed:

  • freedom of thought;
  • liberty of conscience as it affects social relationships on the grounds of religion, philosophy, and morality;
  • political liberties (e.g. representative democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly;
  • freedom of association;
  • freedoms necessary for the liberty and integrity of the person (viz: freedom from slavery, freedom of movement and a reasonable degree of freedom to choose one's occupation); and
  • rights and liberties covered by the rule of law.


The concept of Social justice has been politicised and it is sometimes stated proactively as being the promotion of equality through comprehensive government action. In practice, such interventions have not often produced equitable results, resulting in favouritism towards classes of people, restrictions of personal liberty and excessive regulatory burdens. Many critics regard the guarantee of equal outcomes, which is implicit in many social justice movements, as antithetical to the notion of equal opportunity because it frequently requires special, favoured treatment to arbitrary classes of people. Actual justice, they argue, does not penalize success nor reward failure, but holds all persons to the same standards regardless of their race, ethnic origin, financial condition, religion or beliefs.

Still others, more grassroots in orientation, regard social justice "activities" as a moral/ethical balance to less-than-effective government sponsored "legal justice". Many simply believe that a "Social Justice Action" must be initiated by the human individual on his or her own accord to be pure in its "Social Justice" intent. A case in point is a recent (2005) internet blog, End School Violence NOW...before it's too late, Cached Links of Site, which was created by a Creole single mother/parent of an Arkansas middle school student, her only daughter. In it she addresses what she perceives are violations of basic accepted social/moral beliefs, and documents her decision to implement her own perspective of "Social Justice" as it pertained to how the school district dealt with school violence and bullying that was, as she put it, "terrorizing" her child by means of physical injury and murderous threats.


Some people concerned with social justice may hold some or all of the following beliefs:

  • Historical inequities insofar as they affect current injustices should be corrected until the actual inequities no longer exist or have been perceptively "negated".
  • The redistribution of wealth, power and status for the individual, community and societal good.
  • It is government's (or those who hold significant power) responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for all its citizens.
  • A Direct Social Justice Action must be initiated by the individual to be "pure" or remain "virtuous" within its perceived "Social Justice" context, even though other individuals may consciously choose to participate in response (intellectually, emotionally or otherwise) to the initiator's Direct Social Justice Action.
  • Vigorous and uncompromising critics of any form or application of "Social Justice" whatsoever, usually have deeper motives for their convictions. For instance, furthering controversial causes like the theories purported in eugenics. Eugenicists commonly agree that anything "social" or otherwise that could ultimately prove to assist individuals that are perceived by them to be "dysgenic", should be vehemently opposed, dismantled or at the very least contained.

Development of Catholic social teaching

The phrase "social justice" was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s, based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. He wrote extensively in his journal Civiltà Cattolica, engaging both capitalist and socialist theories from a Catholic natural law viewpoint. His basic premise was that the rival economic theories, based on subjective Cartesian thinking, undermined the unity of society present in Thomistic metaphysics; neither the liberal capitalists nor the communists concerned themselves with public moral philosophy. Pope Leo XIII, who studied under Taparelli, published in 1891 the encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes), rejecting both socialism and capitalism, while defending labor unions and private property. He stated that society should be based on cooperation and not class conflict and competition. The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On the Restoration of Social Order) of 1931 by Pope Pius XI, encourages a living wage, subsidiarity, and teaches that social justice is a personal virtue: society can be just only if individuals are just.


People who are critics of this notion may hold some or all of the following beliefs:

  • Social justice may serve as a cover for emotional appeals that exploit sympathies to bestow undue privilege on particular demographics or funnel public funds into particular enterprises (i.e. special interests.)
  • State action to reduce poverty or poverty-related harms is thought to foster dependence on government, thereby undermining work ethic and individual initiative.
  • Anything beyond minimal taxation tends to degrade the quality of life in a society insofar as it is an assault on liberty.
  • Rather than regard taxation as an obligation incurred for participation in society (i.e. accumulating currency, utilizing insured banks, participating in regulated capital markets, etc.) some regard taxation as a punitive act that is innately unfair when used to fund social services and/or redistribute wealth.
  • Over the long term, a society could grow soft and weak for having supported citizens less likely to reproduce in a more cutthroat economic environment.
  • Providing a viable long term alternative to employment even for able-bodied adults is imagined to diminish productivity by increasing chronic unemployment.
  • Social justice is said to be a cover for social engineering, which is considered an inappropriate course of action for the state.

Other uses

Social Justice was also the name of a periodical published by Father Coughlin in the 1930s and early 1940s. Coughlin's organization was known as the National Union for Social Justice and he frequently used the term social justice in his radio broadcasts. In 1935 Coughlin made a series of broadcasts in which he outlined what he termed "the Christian principles of social justice" as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. Coughlin's views, which centered around monetary reform, have had no notable influence on those using the phrase "social justice" today, many of whom consider Coughlin's views to have been anti-Semitic.

See also


Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism, The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, 4. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Quigley, Carroll. The Evolution Of Civilizations: an introduction to historical, Macmillin Company, New York, First edition published 1961; Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, second edition published 1979

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