Social justice

Social justice
A woman protester at Occupy Wall Street surrounded by signs that demand social justice, September 2011

Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.[1][2][3] The term and modern concept of "social justice" was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in 1840 based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and given further exposure in 1848 by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.[1][2][4][5][6] The idea was elaborated by the moral theologian John A. Ryan, who initiated the concept of a living wage. Father Coughlin also used the term in his publications in the 1930s and the 1940s. It is a part of Catholic social teaching, Social Gospel from Episcopalians, and is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party upheld by green parties worldwide. Social justice as a secular concept, distinct from religious teachings, emerged mainly in the late twentieth century, influenced primarily by philosopher John Rawls. Some tenets of social justice have been adopted by those on the left of the political spectrum.

Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution. These policies aim to achieve what developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity than may currently exist in some societies, and to manufacture equality of outcome in cases where incidental inequalities appear in a procedurally just system. The Constitution of the International Labour Organization affirms that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice."[7] Furthermore, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action treats social justice as a purpose of the human rights education.[8]


Theories of social justice

Social justice from religious traditions


In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states that social justice has a central place in Judaism. One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility reflected in the concepts of simcha ("gladness" or "joy"), tzedakah ("the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts"), chesed ("deeds of kindness"), and tikkun olam ("repairing the world").



Catholic social teaching consists of those aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine which relate to matters dealing with the collective aspect of humanity. A distinctive feature of the Catholic social doctrine is their concern for the poorest members of society. Two of the seven key areas[9] of "Catholic social teaching" are pertinent to social justice:

  • Life and dignity of the human person: The foundational principle of all "Catholic Social Teaching" is the sanctity of all human life and the inherent dignity of every human person. Human life must be valued above all material possessions.
  • Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable: Catholics believe Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgement God will ask what each person did to help the poor and needy: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."[10] The Catholic Church believes that through words, prayers and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. The moral test of any society is "how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. People are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor."[11]

Even before it was propounded in the Catholic social doctrine, social justice appeared regularly in the history of the Catholic Church:

  • The term "social justice" was adopted by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s, based on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. He wrote extensively in his journal Civiltà Cattolica, engaging both capitalist and socialist theories from a 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. In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church's response to the social instability and labor conflict that had arisen in the wake of industrialization and had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope advocated that the role of the State was to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony.
  • The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order, literally "in the fortieth year") of 1931 by Pope Pius XI, encourages a living wage, subsidiarity, and advocates that social justice is a personal virtue as well as an attribute of the social order, saying that society can be just only if individuals and institutions are just.
  • Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love") of 2006 claims that justice is the defining concern of the state and the central concern of politics, and not of the church, which has charity as its central social concern. It said that the laity has the specific responsibility of pursuing social justice in civil society and that 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.

From its founding, Methodism was a Christian social justice movement.

Under John Wesley's direction, Methodists became leaders in many social justice issues of the day, including the prison reform and abolitionism movements. Wesley himself was among the first to preach for slaves rights attracting significant opposition.[12][13][14]

Today, social justice plays a major role in the United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says, "it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care."[15] The United Methodist Church also teaches Population control as part of its doctrine.[16]


Ancient Hindu society was based on varna system which later hardened itself into jaati system which was based on jajmani relationships. The present day caste system is a modified form of jajmani system. The disparity and wide inequalities in social behaviour to some of the castes led to various reform movements in hinduism.

There is a wide acceptance that Hindu social structure is ridden with castes and communities, and that this has led to barriers and segregation and condemnation of obnoxious vice of social inequality and untouchability.


The Quran contains numerous references to elements of social justice. For example, one of Islam's Five Pillars is Zakāt, or alms-giving. Charity and assistance to the poor - concepts central to social justice - are and have historically been important parts of the Islamic faith.

In Muslim history, Islamic governance has often been associated with social justice. Establishment of social justice was one of the motivating factors of the Abbasid revolt against the Ummayads.[17] The Shi'ite believe that the return of the Mahdi (Messiah) will herald in "the messianic age of justice" and the Messiah will end plunder, torture, oppression and discrimination.[18]

For the Muslim Brotherhood the implementation of social justice would require the rejection of consumerism and communism. The Brotherhood strongly affirmed the right to private property as well as differences in personal wealth due to factors such as hard work. However, the Brotherhood held Muslims had an obligation to assist those Muslims in need. It held that zakat (alms-giving) was not voluntary charity, but rather the poor had the right to assistance from the more fortunate.[19]

John Rawls

Political philosopher John Rawls draws on the utilitarian insights of Bentham and Mill, the social contract ideas of John Locke, and the categorical imperative ideas of Kant. His first statement of principle was made in A Theory of Justice 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.".[20] A deontological proposition that echoes Kant in framing the moral good of justice in absolutist terms. His views are definitively restated in Political Liberalism where society is seen "as a fair system of co-operation over time, from one generation to the next.".[21]

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, but not necessarily to an objective notion of justice based on coherent ideological grounding. 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 one has 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, and, to that extent, X holds these powers as a trustee for the citizen.
  • X agrees that 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 who represents a small group (e.g., the organiser of a social event setting a dress code) as equally as it does to national governments, which are ultimate trustees, holding representative powers for the benefit of all citizens within their territorial boundaries. Governments that fail to provide for welfare of their citizens according to the principles of justice 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."[22] 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 way that fixes a greater degree of equality of outcome.

The basic liberties according to Rawls

  • 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.


Many authors criticize the idea that there exists an objective standard of social justice. Moral relativists deny that there is any kind of objective standard for justice in general. Non-cognitivists, moral skeptics, moral nihilists, and most logical positivists deny the epistemic possibility of objective notions of justice. Cynics (such as Niccolò Machiavelli) believe that any ideal of social justice is ultimately a mere justification for the status quo. Supporters of social darwinism believe that social justice assists the least fit to reproduce, sometimes labeled as dysgenics, and hence should be opposed.[23]

Many other people accept some of the basic principles of social justice, such as the idea that all human beings have a basic level of value, but disagree with the elaborate conclusions that may or may not follow from this. One example is the statement by H. G. Wells that all people are "equally entitled to the respect of their fellow-men."[cite this quote]

On the other hand, some scholars reject the very idea of social justice as meaningless, religious, self-contradictory, and ideological, believing that to realize any degree of social justice is unfeasible, and that the attempt to do so must destroy all liberty. The most complete rejection of the concept of social justice comes from Friedrich Hayek of the Austrian School of economics:

There can be no test by which we can discover what is 'socially unjust' because there is no subject by which such an injustice can be committed, and there are no rules of individual conduct the observance of which in the market order would secure to the individuals and groups the position which as such (as distinguished from the procedure by which it is determined) would appear just to us. [Social justice] does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term `a moral stone'.[24]

Ben O'Neill of the University of New South Wales argues that, for proponents of "social justice":[25]

the notion of "rights" is a mere term of entitlement, indicative of a claim for any possible desirable good, no matter how important or trivial, abstract or tangible, recent or ancient. It is merely an assertion of desire, and a declaration of intention to use the language of rights to acquire said desire.

In fact, since the program of social justice inevitably involves claims for government provision of goods, paid for through the efforts of others, the term actually refers to an intention to use force to acquire one's desires. Not to earn desirable goods by rational thought and action, production and voluntary exchange, but to go in there and forcibly take goods from those who can supply them!

Janusz Korwin-Mikke argues simply: "Either 'social justice' has the same meaning as 'justice' - or not. If so – why use the additional word 'social?' We lose time, we destroy trees to obtain paper necessary to print this word. If not, if 'social justice' means something different from 'justice' - then 'something different from justice' is by definition 'injustice'"

Sociologist Carl L. Bankston has argued that a secular, leftist view of social justice entails viewing the redistribution of goods and resources as based on the rights of disadvantaged categories of people, rather than on compassion or national interest. Bankston maintains that this secular version of social justice became widely accepted due to the rise of demand-side economics and to the moral influence of the civil rights movement.[26]

Cosmic values

Hunter Lewis' work promoting natural healthcare and sustainable economies advocates for conservation as a key premise in social justice. His manifesto on sustainability ties the continued thriving of human life to real conditions, the environment supporting that life, and associates injustice with the detrimental effects of unintended consequences of human actions. Quoting classical Greek thinkers like Epicurus on the good of pursuing happiness, Hunter also cites ornithologist, naturalist, and philosopher Alexander Skutch in his book Moral Foundations:

The common feature which unites the activities most consistently forbidden by the moral codes of civilized peoples is that by their very nature they cannot be both habitual and enduring, because they tend to destroy the conditions which make them possible.[27]

Pope Benedict XVI cites Teilhard de Chardin in a vision of the cosmos as a 'living host' [28] embracing an understanding of ecology that includes mankinds's relationship to fellow men, that pollution effects not just the natural world but interpersonal relations also. Cosmic harmony, justice and peace are closely interrelated:

If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.[29]

Social justice movements

Social justice is also a concept that is used to describe the movement towards a socially just world, i.e. the Global Justice Movement. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality, and can be defined as "the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society".[30]

A number of movements are working to achieve social justice in society.[31][32] These movements are working towards the realization of a world where all members of a society, regardless of background or procedural justice, have basic human rights and equal access to the benefits of their society.

The Green Party

Social Justice (sometimes "Social Equality and Global Equality and Economic Justice") is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party and is sometimes referred to as "Social and Global Equality" or "Economic Justice". The Canadian party defines the principle as the "equitable distribution of resources to ensure that all have full opportunities for personal and social development".[33] As one of the 10 key values of the party in the United States, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of all people "to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment."[34]

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology[35] is a movement in Christian theology which conveys the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It has been described by proponents as "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor",[36] and by detractors as Christianity perverted by Marxism and Communism.[37]

Although liberation theology has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement, it began as a movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s - 1960s. It arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. It achieved prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. The term was coined by the Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement's most famous books, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Other noted exponents are Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.[38][39][40]

Social justice in healthcare

Social justice has more recently made its way into the field of bioethics. Discussion involves topics such as affordable access to health care, especially for low income households and family. The discussion also raises questions such as whether society should bear healthcare costs for low income families, and whether the global marketplace is a good thing to deal with healthcare. Ruth Faden and Madison Powers of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics focus their analysis of social justice on which inequalities matter the most. They develop a social justice theory that answers some of these questions in concrete settings.

Social justice and human rights education

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action affirm that "Human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice, as set forth in international and regional human rights instruments, in order to achieve common understanding and awareness with a view to strengthening universal commitment to human rights.[41]

Periodicals and publications

Social Justice by Father Coughlin

Published originally in Italian in 1848, the founder of the Society of Charity Rosmini's seminal work Costituzione secondo la giustizia sociale "The Constitution under Social Justice"[42] was translated into English in 2006 by Alberto Mingardi. This work of political philosophy links representative justice to territorial property rights held in trust by a monarch, and asserts a social justice of no taxation without representation. Historically income tax was not levied on an individuals' industry or labor but rather on profits realized by title holders of real estate. Such an injustice—withholding wages from a worker—would have been inconceivable to 18th century liberal democrats.

Social Justice was also the name of a periodical published by Father Coughlin in the 1930s and early 1940s.[43] 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. Some Catholic contemporaries, such as the Catholic Radical Alliance, felt that he misused the term, and was too supportive of capitalism.[44] The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson acknowledges that terminology used in the Church's social teachings needs glossing for US audiences [45] where the adjective social may have a negative connotation of collective arrogation of responsibility for individual well-being.

See also


  1. ^ a b Education and Social Justice By J. Zajda, S. Majhanovich, V. Rust, 2006, ISBN 1402047215
  2. ^ a b Nursing ethics: across the curriculum and into practice By Janie B. Butts, Karen Rich, Jones and Bartlett Publishers 2005, ISBN 9780763747350
  3. ^
  4. ^ Battleground criminal justice by Gregg Barak, Greenwood publishing group 2007, ISBN 9780313340406
  5. ^ Engineering and Social Justice By Donna Riley, Morgan and Claypool Publishers 2008, ISBN 9781598296266
  6. ^ Spirituality, social justice, and language learning By David I. Smith, Terry A. Osborn, Information Age Publishing 2007, ISBN 1593115997
  7. ^ The Preamble of ILO Constitution
  8. ^ Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Part II, D.
  9. ^ Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching
  10. ^ Matthew 25:40.
  11. ^ Option for the Poor, Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching, Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
  12. ^ S. R. Valentine, John Bennet & the Origins of Methodism and the Evangelical revival in England, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 1997.
  13. ^ Carey, Brycchan. “John Wesley (1703-1791).” The British Abolitionists. Brycchan Carey, July 11, 2008. October 5, 2009.
  14. ^ Wesley John, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life. Charles Yrigoyen, 1996. October 5, 2009.
  15. ^ The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2008 ¶162 V,
  16. ^ The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2008 ¶ 162 K,
  17. ^ John L. Esposito (1998). Islam and Politics. Syracuse University Press. p. 17. 
  18. ^ John L. Esposito (1998). Islam and Politics. Syracuse University Press. p. 205. 
  19. ^ John L. Esposito (1998). Islam and Politics. Syracuse University Press. p. 147-8. 
  20. ^ John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (2005 reissue), Chapter 1, "Justice as Fairness" - 1. The Role of Justice, pp. 3-4
  21. ^ John Rawls, Political Liberalism 15 (Columbia University Press 2003)
  22. ^ John Rawls, Political Liberalism 291-92 (Columbia University Press 2003)
  23. ^ [1][dead link]
  24. ^ "Law, legislation, and liberty, Volume 3, The Mirage of Social Justice", F.A. Hayek, Routledge, 1973
  25. ^ O'Neill, Ben (2011-03-16) The Injustice of Social Justice, Mises Institute
  26. ^ Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Theory and a Perspective By Carl L. Bankston III, Independent Review vol. 15 no. 2, pp. 165-178, 2010
  27. ^ Hunter Lewis (October 14, 2009). "Sustainability, The Complete Concept, Environment, Healthcare, and Economy". ChangeThis. 
  28. ^ John Allen Jr. (Jul. 28, 2009). "Ecology - The first stirring of an 'evolutionary leap' in late Jesuit's official standing?". National Catholic Reporter. 
  29. ^ Sandro Magister (January 11, 2010). "Benedict XVI to the Diplomats: Three Levers for Lifting Up the World". www.chiesa, Rome. 
  30. ^ Just Comment - Volume 3 Number 1, 2000
  31. ^ Main Page - Social Justice Wiki
  32. ^ Social Justice and Social Justice Movements
  33. ^ "About Us | Green Party of Canada". 2006-08-24. Retrieved 2010-08-27. 
  34. ^ "Green Party of the United States". Retrieved 2010-08-27. 
  35. ^ In the mass media, 'Liberation Theology' can sometimes be used loosely, to refer to a wide variety of activist Christian thought. This article uses the term in the narrow sense outlined here.
  36. ^ Berryman, Phillip, Liberation Theology: essential facts about the revolutionary movement in Latin America and beyond(1987)
  37. ^ "[David] Horowitz first describes liberation theology as 'a form of Marxised Christianity,' which has validity despite the awkward phrasing, but then he calls it a form of 'Marxist-Leninist ideology,' which is simply not true for most liberation theology..." Robert Shaffer, "Acceptable Bounds of Academic Discourse," Organization of American Historians Newsletter 35, November, 2007. URL retrieved 12 July 2010.
  38. ^ Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (Harper Collins, 1994), chapter IV.
  39. ^ Liberation Theology General Information, on Believe, an online religious information source
  40. ^ Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, First (Spanish) edition published in Lima, Peru, 1971; first English edition published by Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York), 1973.
  41. ^ Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Part II, paragraph 80
  42. ^ Google Books
  43. ^ Crackdown on Coughlin
  44. ^ "Radical Alliance' Priests Strike With Pickets". Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): p. 42. 22 October 1937.,2830609. "We contend that the relationship between Catholicism and capitalism is one of fundamental opposition" 
  45. ^ "Church’s justice teachings need new 'vocabulary' for some US audiences". CNA/EWTN News. Jan 13, 2011. 

Further reading

  • Novak, Michael, Defining Social Justice, First Things
  • Atkinson, A.B. (1982). Social Justice and Public Policy. Contents & chapter previews.
  • Carver, Thomas Nixon (1915). Essays in Social Justice. Chapter links.
  • Quigley, Carroll. (1961). The Evolution Of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis. Second edition 1979. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. ISBN 0-913966-56-8
  • Faden, Ruth & Powers, Madison. "Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy", New York, USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195189261.
  • O'Neill, Ben. The Injustice of Social Justice, Mises Institute
  • 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
  • For an analysis of justice for non-ruling communities, see: Gad Barzilai, Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • For perspectives from Christian-informed contexts, see Philomena Cullen, Bernard Hoose & Gerard Mannion (eds.), Catholic Social Justice: Theological and Practical Explorations, (T. &. T Clark/Continuum, 2007) and J. Franklin (ed.), Life to the Full: Rights and Social Justice in Australia (Connor Court, 2007).
  • Powers, M. and Faden, R. "Inequalities in health, inequalities in health care: four generations of discussion about justice and cost-effectiveness analysis," Kennedy. Inst.Ethics J. 10 (2):109-127, 2000.
  • Madison Powers and Ruth Faden,“Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care: An Ethical Analysis of When and How They Matter,” in Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, 2002: 722-38
  • Faden, R. R., Dawson, L., Bateman-House, A. S., Agnew, D. M., Bok, H., Brock, D. W., Chakravarti, A, Gao, X-J., Greene, M., Hansen, J. A., King, P.A., O'Brien, S. J., Sachs, D. H., Schill, K. E., Siegel, A., Solter, D., Suter, S. M., Verfaillie, C.M., Walters, L.B., Gearhart, J.D., "Public stem cell banks: Considerations of justice in stem cell research and therapy." Hastings Center Report, 33(6), November–December 2003.
  • Social Medicine Portal
  • Public Health and Social Justice
  • Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Theory and a Perspective
  • Corning, Peter, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, (Chicago University Press, 2011)

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