Social justice

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Social justice refers to conceptions of justice applied to an entire society. It is based on the idea of a just society, which gives individuals and groups fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society.

Social justice is both a philosophical problem and an important issue in politics. It can be argued that everyone wishes to live in a just society, but different political ideologies have different conceptions of what a 'just society' actually is. The term "social justice" itself tends to be used by those ideologies who believe that present day society is highly unjust - and these are usually left-wing ideologies, advocating a more extensive use of democracy and income redistribution, a more egalitarian society and either a mixed economy or a non-market-based economic model. The right-wing has its own conception of social justice, but generally believes that it is best achieved through embracing meritocracy, the operation of a free market, and the promotion of philanthropy and charity. Both right and left tend to agree on the importance of rule of law, human rights, and some form of a welfare safety net (though the left supports this to a greater extent than the right).

The "right" and "left" are names given to the two most prevalent political orientations in modern Western society, but many other political outlooks have existed in the past or exist today in different societies, and they usually carry their own specific ideas about social justice.

Social justice is also a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality. So a very broad definition of social justice is that "social justice reflects the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society" <ref> Just Comment - Volume 3 Number 1, 2000 </ref>. It can be further defined as working towards the realization of a world where all members of a society, regardless of background, have basic human rights and an equal opportunity to access the benefits of their society.


[edit] The conceptual problem

Social Justice derives its authority from the codes of morality prevailing in each culture. In an ideal world, human behavior 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?

[edit] 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 civilizations. 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 organization 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 specializations (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 specializations 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 penalized. 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 influential liberal thinker, 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.

The Utilitarian School, associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), 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 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.

Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (1793–1862), a Jesuit Thomist who advocated a return to the metaphysics of the Scholastics, addressed the social problems associated with the Industrial Revolution, including the mass migration to cities, the dissolution of social institutions, the revolutionary movements, and the changes negatively affecting the formerly self-employed artisans and peasant farmers who became dependent wage-earners in factories. To help restore justice in society, he rejected the competition and class conflict of laissez-faire liberal capitalism and socialism, and instead worked from a framework based on the unity of society. In the Saggio teoretico di diritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto, translated as the "Theoretical Treatise on Natural Right Based on Fact"", he created the dritto ipotattico, a set of principles for evaluating in objective terms, the proper relationship between authority, and liberty, order, and freedom, on the social level, which underpins his definition of social justice in the arrangement and perfection of civil society, political society, and international society through which a just, universal order can emerge to resolve conflict and to advance the satisfaction of all humanity.

[edit] The modern concept

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American Progressivism
New Deal liberalism
Educational progressivism
Conservation ethic
Efficiency Movement
Economic progressivism
Worker rights
Mixed economy
Positive liberty
Social justice
Social progressivism
Welfare of Society
The Square Deal
The New Nationalism
The New Freedom
The New Deal
The New Frontier
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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.

Part of the Politics series on Green politics

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Green movement

Worldwide green parties: Global Greens · Africa · Americas · Asia-Pacific · Europe


Four Pillars
Global Greens Charter: ecological wisdom
social justice
participatory democracy
respect diversity


List of Green issues

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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."

[edit] 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.

[edit] Beliefs

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 causes like the theories purported in eugenics. Eugenicists commonly agree that social programs assist the least fit to reproduce, often labeled as dysgenics, and hence should be vehemently opposed, dismantled, or at the very least contained.

[edit] Development of Catholic social teaching

The term "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.

Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) of 2006 teaches that social justice is the central concern of politics, and not of the church, which has charity as its central social concern. The laity has the specific responsibility of pursuing social justice in civil society. The church's active role in social justice should be to inform the debate, using reason and natural law, and also by providing moral and spiritual formation for those involved in politics.

The official Catholic doctrine on social justice can be found in the book Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004 and updated in 2006, by the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax.

See Catholic Social Teachings for more information.

[edit] Criticism

There are many different conceptions of social justice, and their supporters often engage in debates regarding the true form of a just society. However, there are also a number of critics of social justice - that is, people who believe that there is no such thing as a just society.

Criticism of the idea that there is an objective standard of social justice has come from several circles. First, there are moral relativists (such as the Sophists), who do not believe that there is any kind of objective standard for justice in general. Second, there are cynics who believe that any ideal of social justice is ultimately a mere justification for the status quo (for example Machiavelli). Finally, postmodernism has also developed its own critique of the concept of social justice.

Many other people accept some of the basic results of social justice, such as the idea that all human beings have a basic level of value. These critics disagree with the elaborate conclusions that may or may not follow from this - such as the statement by H.G. Wells above that all people are "equally entitled to the respect of their fellow-men."

Finally, social justice may be unfeasible economically. Many water-poor countries have recognized a "basic right to have drinking water" and then provided that access accordingly. This often resulted in water sources being over used and then decimated.<ref> See UNHD 2006 Report on Water Scarcity and Justice, available at</ref>

[edit] Other uses

Social Justice was also the name of a periodical published by Father Coughlin in the 1930s and early 1940s[citation needed]. 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes


[edit] Sources

  • Quigley, Carroll. (1961). The Evolution Of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis. Second edition 1979. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. ISBN 0-913966-56-8
  • Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-88010-2
  • Rawls, John. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press (The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, 4). ISBN 0-231-05248-0

[edit] External links

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Social justice

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