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Social justice is the application of the concept of justice on a social scale.

One of the first prominent religious thinkers to use the term "social justice" was the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s[citation needed], but the term appeared before the 1800s[1], including in the Federalist Papers and Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire‎. The idea was elaborated by the moral theologian John A. Ryan, who initiated the concept of a living wage. Father Coughlin used the term in his publications in the 1930s and 40s, and the concept was further expanded upon by John Rawls' writing in the 1990s. It is a part of Catholic social teaching and is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party upheld by the worldwide green parties. Some tenets of social justice have been adopted by those on the left of the political spectrum.

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 and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution, policies aimed toward achieving that which developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity and equality of outcome than may currently exist in some societies or are available to some classes in a given society.


Theories of social justice



The political philosopher John Rawls 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, 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; 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 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. [3]

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."

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'.[2]

On March 11, 2010, American commentator Glenn Beck denounced the very concept of social justice, saying "Both the communists, who are on the left -- they say -- you know, these are communists. And the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribed to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. One had the hammer and sickle; the other was a swastika. But on each banner read the words, here in America, of this -- 'social justice.'" He called it "a perversion of the Gospel" and urged his viewers to leave any congregation that used the term on their website or in their sermons.[3] Beck's television program quoted American Nazi Fritz Kuhn of the 1930s who had called for a " socially just white gentile ruled United States" and the name of the publication of Father Charles Coughlin, who was accused of anti-semitism and Nazi sympathies.[4]Evangelical activist Jim Wallis responded with an open letter in which he invited Beck to a dialogue about the appropriate role of social justice in the church.[5] The progressive watchdog group Media Matters pointed out the promotion of social justice by the catechism of the Catholic Church, Conservative and Reform Judaism, and Mormonism (Beck's own faith); as well as the National Association of Evangelicals, which calls evangelicals to "work toward social justice."[6]

Social justice from religious traditions


From their 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.[7][8],[9]

Today social justice plays a major role in the United Methodist Church.

Jewish social teaching

In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims 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

Catholic social teaching comprises those aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine which relate to matters dealing with the collective aspect of humanity. A distinctive feature of Catholic social teaching is its concern for the poorest members of society. Two of the seven key areas[10] 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: 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."[11] The Catholic Church teaches 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."[12]

Even before it was propounded in the Catholic social teachings, 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 teachings of 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 taught that the role of the State is 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 teaches that social justice is a personal virtue as well as an attribute of the social order: society can be just only if individuals and institutions are just.
  • Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love") of 2006 teaches 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. 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.

Social justice movements

Social justice is also a concept that is used to describe the movement towards a socially just world, ie. 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".[13].

There are a number of movements that are working to achieve social justice in society.[14][15] 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".[16] 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."[17]

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.

Periodicals and publications

Social Justice was also the name of a periodical published by Father Coughlin in the 1930s and early 1940s.[18] 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.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Google Book Search
  2. ^ "Law, legislation, and liberty, Volume 2, The Mirage of Social Justice", F.A. Hayek, Routledge, 1973
  3. ^ [Siegel, Hanna. "Christians Rip Glenn Beck Over 'Social Justice' Slam; Right-Wing Host Conflates Christian 'Social Justice' With Nazism, Communism" [ABC News]] March 12, 2010]
  4. ^ Glenn Beck Fox News March 11, 2010 The One Thing
  5. ^ Jim Wallis, An Open Letter to Glenn Beck: Social Justice and the Gospel, The Huffington Post, March 11, 2010.
  6. ^ Beck Attacks Social Justice March 12, 2010.
  7. ^ S. R. Valentine, John Bennet & the Origins of Methodism and the Evangelical revival in England, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 1997.
  8. ^ Carey, Brycchan. “John Wesley (1703-1791).” The British Abolitionists. Brycchan Carey, July 11, 2008. October 5, 2009. [1]
  9. ^ Wesley John, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life. Charles Yrigoyen, 1996. October 5, 2009. [2]
  10. ^ Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching
  11. ^ Matthew 25:40.
  12. ^ Option for the Poor, Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching, Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
  13. ^ Just Comment - Volume 3 Number 1, 2000
  14. ^ Main Page - Social Justice Wiki
  15. ^ Social Justice and Social Justice Movements
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Crackdown on Coughlin
  19. ^ ""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" 

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 [4]", New York, USA: Oxford University Press
  • 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


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